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Gunfighters of the Wild West

When I think of gunslingers, an image of a cool, sexy, bad boy Clint comes to mind. Indeed, these gunfighters, both men and women, offer intriguing stories of colorful antics. 

During the civil war many men grew used to violence. Having lost their lands and fortunes, they turned to the wrong side of the law when the war ended. The west was filled with men who killed without remorse and with little provocation.

James (Jim) Anderson, who rode with Quantrill’s Raiders during the war, is one example. At the end of the Civil War, he joined the James-Younger Gang. Fellow James-Younger Gang member, George Shepherd, killed Jim in revenge for Anderson and Jesse James robbing and killing his nephew. Shepherd slit Anderson’s throat on the lawn of the Texas state capital in Austin.

John Peters Ringo, aka Johnny Ringo, fought so many gun battles he was given the nickname, King of the Cowboys. And, John Wesley Hardin, a Texas gunslinger, was credited with killing more than 40 men.

Perhaps the most famous gunslinger of all was William Henry McCarty, aka William H. Bonney, alias Billy the Kid. When he was sixteen, a bully jumped on top of him. Billy was able to get hold of the revolver in his holster and fired it into the guy’s gut. That act branded Billy as an outlaw. He subsequently joined a gang of rustlers called The Boys, led by James Dolan.

Dolan had a feud with John Tunstall, an Englishman entrepreneur. This bloody feud became the Lincoln County War. When The Boys stole Tunstall’s livestock, Billy was arrested. Tunstall noticed he was just a boy who’d had a rough childhood, so he hired him. 

The feud between Dolan and Tunstall escalated and after John Tunstall was brutally murdered, Billy and Tunstall’s other ranch hands formed a vigilante group called The Regulators. When Dolan’s forces won the Lincoln County War, Billy got away, but was arrested for killing Sheriff Brady during the Lincoln County War. Billy escaped, killing his two guards. Sheriff Pat Garrett hunted him down and shot him dead in 1881, in New Mexico. You’ll find this is a common ending to a gunslinger’s life.

Many gunslingers joined gangs, such as the Red Jack Gang, and the most famous of all, the James Younger Gang. Jesse James, famous for holding up banks and trains, led the James Younger Gang with his brothers and the Younger brothers: Thomas Coleman, John, James, and Robert. 

Jack Almer aka Red Jack or Jack Averill led the Red Jack Gang. Jack’s gang held up a stagecoach carrying only one passenger, a woman who wore a hat with a dark veil. When the Wells Fargo guard said they weren’t carrying any gold, the passenger called him a liar. 

It wasn’t a woman at all. It was Jack disguised in women’s clothing. The guard went for his gun, but Red Jack was faster and gunned him down. The gang took off with nearly $3,000 in gold and cash. Soon afterward, a posse tracked them down and killed Red Jack.   

Gunfighters were a breed of their own—often both outlaw and lawman during their lifetime. Charles Allison, a deputy sheriff, led a band of outlaws who robbed stagecoaches from Colorado to New Mexico.

Then there was David L. Anderson, most commonly known as Billy Wilson. He was a member of Billy the Kid’s Gang of rustlers, but later he was appointed sheriff of Terrell County, New Mexico.

Gunslingers weren’t just men, it was an equal opportunity profession. Sarah Jane Newman, later known as Sally Skull, was a gun-slinging, horse-trading woman, who dressed like a man. Twice a year Sally came back from Mexico with horses she most likely stole. It was also rumored that she murdered two of her five husbands. 

Belle Starr, born Myra Maybelle Shirley, received a classical education and learned piano at Missouri’s Carthage Female Academy. That didn’t keep her from her favorite childhood pastime of shooting guns with her brother, Bud. She was also friends with the James and Younger boys in Missouri. After the horse thief she married was killed, Belle wed Samuel Starr and joined the Starr Clan, a Cherokee Indian family notorious for whiskey, cattle, and horse thieving in Indian Country (now Oklahoma). Belle was quite a sight, riding sidesaddle in a plumed hat and a black velvet riding habit with a cartridge belt hung across her hips. She earned a reputation as a crack shot. In fact, Belle was the mastermind of the gang. 

Pearl Hart was born in Lindsay, Canada in 1871. Though she attended an exclusive school she was more interested in adventure than education. Pearl eloped with a gambler, but left him by the time she was 22, riding to Arizona. There she fell in love with Joe Boot, but he couldn’t make enough money mining, so the pair turned to robbery.

In 1899, Pearl came up with the plan to hold up a stagecoach. She cut her hair and dressed like a man, and as Boot held a gun on the driver, Pearl stole over $400 from the passengers. The two rode off with the money but the posse caught up to them in the desert. Pearl’s famous for telling the judge, “I shall not consent to be tried under a law in which my sex had no voice in making.” She was convicted anyway, but was pardoned after only serving 18 months in jail.  For a short time, Pearl performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

The teenage girls, Little Britches (Jennie Stevenson) and Cattle Annie (Anna Emmaline McDoulet) were sure-fire markswomen. The pair, who dressed in men’s clothing, were among the most infamous outlaws in Oklahoma, selling whisky to the Osage and Pawnee and stealing horses. In mid-August 1895, Little Britches was captured, but escaped by stealing a deputy marshal’s horse. U.S. Marshal Bill Tilghman and his deputy Steve Burke tracked Annie and Little Britches down. Burke caught 13-year-old Cattle Annie as she was climbing from a window, but Tilghman had a harder time capturing Little Britches. Tilghman finally took her into custody after he shot her horse and it collapsed to the ground. 

The era of the Wild West lasted for 30 years. But more than a century after their deaths, the tales of gunfighters live on.


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