Watching endless movies from the American Wild West has left an indelible mark on our minds. Anyone who does not associate this time with duels to the death on the main road of the typical town of «Saloon» and «Bank» is that he has not enjoyed the feature films shot in places as traditional as our Tabernas desert. The cinema has sold us an American nineteenth century full of natives armed to the teeth and “Sheriffs” kicking the dusty streets eager to put a cartridge between the back and the bandit on duty.
But, as usually happens, reality is far from fiction. What a surprise! The truth is less epic, but just as striking. An example is that duels were a minority practice for a simple reason: good gunmen knew they were dangerous, so they avoided them, and bad guys didn’t want to risk dying to an enemy more versed in the good art of lead filler Unlike. Furthermore, the poor quality of the powder made it impossible for those who shot each other to target their enemy at first sight. Rather, it was fired at full speed from the hip in the hope that, statistically, some bullet would hit the opponent’s body.
And like this fallacy, many others. An example of this is that the Native Americans, at least during the first stages of the conquest, did not have firearms and fought with bow, arrow and ax. Nor is it true that other outlaws such as Billy the Kid were as lethal as they have sold us or that, among many other things, the “Sheriffs” had the same responsibilities that the Hollywood movies have narrated to the full.
The true conquest of the West
Times were uncertain in North America during the 19th century. They were years of war for the inhabitants of the newly created United States, since they lived in a continent still unexplored in its entirety and that was still dominated by the natives settled there since time immemorial. The border – the territory known and in which the Americans resided – was in 1845 at the height of Montana. Oklahoma and Louisiana, which still left a good pinch of the country to annex to the west. In principle, this territory was not given much importance, but the overcrowding of the cities and the lack of work caused this region to be seen with different eyes.
Little by little, hundreds of pilgrims departed for their conquest who, starving to death in their homes, had little to lose. In short, the capture of the far and unexplored American West had just begun.
“The so-called conquest of the west was a little or nothing programmed migratory movement (at least, at the beginning), in which a huge and inexhaustible continuous flow of emigrants coming from very different parts of Europe (and also from other parts of the world, like the far East or the near Mexico) was making its way through an immense territory. The North American East needed to expand to absorb its millions of immigrants and the departure to the West was the great solution, “explains Gregorio Doval, author of the” Brief History of the Wild West »(edited by« Nowtilus »).
However, in these unknown western regions settled the erroneously called Indians, who did not have much appreciation for the “pale faces” and who, to defend their territory, did not hesitate to use the bow, arrows and axes. Their goal: to resist the siege to which the American army and colonists were subjecting them. The latter (who, like the military, came up to the eyebrows of carbines, shotguns, sabers and revolvers) were those travelers who, in gigantic caravans made up of hundreds of carts, crossed the country with adrenaline as their main travel companion (Which was further aggravated due to the lack of data on the new territory).
«All kinds of more or less founded rumors ran about the West: that it was an endless desert without water and without resources; that its fauna was fearsome (it was even said that dinosaurs abounded); that there were hostile tribes … But the rumors did not stop the settlers. In the end, this great human migration, concentrated in a few short decades of the second half of the 19th century, acquired an epic character because the dangers were really many and real, including the unimaginable distance, the almost absolute ignorance of the territory and the lack of guides. , the unscrupulous who took advantage of them and also, of course, a very diverse conglomerate of indigenous tribes “, highlights the expert.
Despite the many historical errors that have become widespread in society thanks to American science fiction, Hollywood did not do everything wrong. In fact, most Westers perfectly portray what life was like in the small towns of the Wild West.
“The peoples of the Wild West (in fact, the vast majority, no more than isolated villages) were emerging little by little for very different reasons”
As settlers and the United States Army expanded miles and miles across the desert through gunfire and violence, they also moved further from home. For this reason, it was not long until, in the midst of the steppes previously dominated by Indians, these “pale faces” created populations in which to live, rest, take the odd shot (in the well-known “Saloon”), and spend a night of debauchery with a wench for a few dollars. These tiny towns in the west have been perfectly portrayed thanks to the Hollywood factory, which has made cowboys as famous as Clint Eastwood and John Wayne walk through its streets.
“The peoples of the Wild West (in fact, the vast majority, no more than isolated villages) were emerging little by little for very different reasons: to attend to this continuous flow of people on their way to the Wild West; exploit the resources that were found in those new territories (mines, wood, livestock and hunting); serve as outposts to the Army and serve as settlements for the thousands of workers involved in the dizzying construction of the railroads and in the massive transfer of millions of cattle to the most prosperous and hungry North American North America, “Doval adds to ABC.
However, there are as many lies surrounding the “Far West” …
1-Indians killed by settlers
The first of the great lies that has spread over the decades is the one that claims that Native Americans fell into the thousands by Europeans. According to Doval, although the campaigns of the North American army in the mid-19th century did cost an infinity of lives to the “Indians”, the reality is that, at least during the first phases of colonization, diseases were much more lethal than weapons.
“It must be clarified that the vast majority of indigenous people succumbed much earlier to plagues and hunger than to bullets. With an immune system absolutely unprepared to resist the diseases that the “white man” brought and spread, many tribes were decimated and even disappeared from history. And when the American authorities of the time decided to exterminate the bison, they knew very well that, in doing so, they deprived the indigenous of their main means of subsistence. In fact, a large part of the tribes that have gone down in history (and which were never very numerous) were only alliances and amalgams of the demographic remains of the previous ones, ”the expert told ABC.
2-Natives armed to the teeth
The same is true of the mythological image of the Native American armed to the teeth with rifles and pistols. A snapshot that, in Doval’s words, has been extended by the cinema.
At first, no. But you shouldn’t underestimate how valuable a bow and arrows are in a guerrilla war like that. It takes much less to “reload” a bow than a piston gun. So a horse archer was a powerful mobile and evasive weapon, difficult to counter. On the other hand, in the second phase, the final phase, of the Indian wars, the indigenous people already had repetition rifles, with which, in that sense, the disadvantages disappeared, “he points out.
3-The Mystified Sheriffs
As the west was colonized by workers who wanted to earn a living looking for gold, transporting livestock, or creating a small business in the new border cities, there also appeared undesirables who, becoming experts in handling weapons, dedicated their lives to docking stealing horses or taking the dollars that were transported by stagecoach from one city to another.
Thus, in addition to defending themselves from the attack of the Indians, the Americans also faced these new bandits, outlaws and rustlers, enemies who did not hesitate to draw if their greed considered it appropriate. Some of their names, in fact, are famous today thanks to the cinema.
To put these criminals on the sidewalk, all kinds of representatives of the justice system were chosen in the cities to compel them to comply with the law. Today, it is commonly believed that the most famous of them was the “sheriff”, however, the cinema has forgotten to give visibility to the rest of the people who, risking their lives, watched over the safety of the citizens.
The backbone of the “police” corps in the cities was the “marshal,” who could surround himself with a series of assistants to put the outlaws behind bars. The sheriff’s jurisdiction, contrary to what the movies show, was the county, a region much larger than the dozen houses seen in American movies.
At a general level (and at the bottom rung of this pyramid of justice plaques) were the “federal marshals,” who could operate throughout the territory and used to chase deserters from the army and bank robbers. Finally, and as Gregorio Doval explains in «A Brief History of the Wild West: Gunmen and Outlaws», in the most remote and least populated places the ones in charge of keeping the peace were the «rangers», policemen mounted on horses who fought both Indians as bandits and cattle thieves.
4-The scam of the duels to the death
In addition to that of the “sheriffs,” another myth that is widespread thanks to American movies is the one that states that armed duels used to take place in the middle of the streets of cities. A big lie, according to Gregorio Doval: «The famous duels between professional gunmen on the main street of the towns of the Wild West were a real rarity. A myth encouraged by Hollywood. Good gunmen, not surprisingly, were not very inclined to check if their rival was even better. The bad guys, as is even more logical, did not want to demonstrate their lack of skill. In reality, the sporadic shootings were carried out by ambushers and, if possible, shooting from behind ».
Of the same opinion is José Luis Cabañas (owner of the “San Huberto” armory in Madrid and expert in the handling and use of revolvers). According to him, the gunpowder of that time was of such low quality that it was absolutely impossible for a shootout to take place the way it appears in feature films.
“In the West, at a distance of a few meters it was not customary to hit the opponent. This occurred because they wanted to shoot fast and aimed from the waist. Thus they managed to fire at great speed, but they had no precision. Also, the gunpowder they used was so bad that it caused so much smoke that, in a shootout, they couldn’t see each other. In the end, they killed more with rifle barrels than with revolvers, because they were so imprecise. Their only purpose was to get them out and shoot at full speed, “says Cabañas.
5-The most lethal bandit
To speak of the distant plains of the American West, of its cities and its weapons, is to speak of the outlaws. And this term is, in turn, synonymous with Billy the Child (“The Kid” for Americans). According to the legend presented by the Hollywood feature films, this horse rider was a beardless man when he began to commit crimes and steal stagecoaches and trains. He has also gone down in history for his great speed with the revolver and for having killed dozens and dozens of his enemies before reaching the age of 18. However, what is true and what is fictional in the story of this thief?
“Another significant example of the exaggeration of the films is what has happened to a gunman as famous and as black a legend as Billy the Kid, who died violently at the age of 21. Billy is credited with “only” about 20 deaths. However, in reality – and that is known in a certain way – only killed about nine people. In addition, to none in treacherous murder, but when escaping from jail (and the rope) or during his confrontations with the thugs on the pay of the big cattle businessmen “, completes Doval in declarations to ABC.
In this sense, the bad conditions that those who traveled to the American West had to endure have also been exaggerated. This is because, as the Spanish expert correctly points out, life in the towns of the plain was no harder than that of those who lived in the old American cities.
“The historical fact that the North American East was much more dangerous and violent, with many more deaths by arms than the West (a territory, let’s not forget, then practically uninhabited), has also been ignored. Whoever remembers, for example, the movie “Gangs of New York” will know what I mean. In general terms, the West was a territory more of hunters, small farmers and shopkeepers, than of gunmen ”, ends Doval. .