Back When the West Was Really Wild — and Dangerous as All Get Out

By Joe Darby

The year was 1881, exactly 140 years ago. Our great or great-great grandparents, for many of us, were alive and more than likely struggling to forge a decent life for themselves. It was only 16 years after the devastation of the Civil War. Things were still tough in Louisiana.

But out 1,000 or more miles to the west, life was even rawer. The folks who had migrated out to America’s western frontier were tough and either brave or foolhardy — maybe both. Life was lived on the edge and those skilled with the gun had a strong advantage in getting by.

I’m touching on these facts because two of the most famous events of the Wild West occurred in 1881. They were the shooting of outlaw Billy the Kid by Sheriff Pat Garrett in Lincoln County, New Mexico and the famous gunfight near — not at — the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona.

The late 1870s and early ’80s were indeed the heyday of violence in the Old West, times that still live today through legend as well as in countless books, TV shows and movies. For example, Wild Bill Hickock had been killed just five years prior to 1881 and Jesse James was gunned down the following year, both men shot treacherously in the back.

Anyway, let’s take a look at the two signal events of 1881 out on the frontier. Billy the Kid, whose birth name was William Henry McCarty, first saw the light of day in New York City in 1859, possibly the son of an Irish immigrant prostitute in the notorious Five Points section of the city. The family moved to New Mexico and Billy’s mother died in 1874, when the lad was 15.

Billy, as was the case with many teenagers then and now, was in and out of trouble constantly. But his troubles escalated when he shot and killed a bully then joined a gang of rustlers known as The Boys. He then became involved in a range war between two factions trying to rule Lincoln County, N.M.

Billy, nicknamed “The Kid” by newspapers because of his smooth skin and youthful appearance, became notorious in the region and was arrested by Sheriff Pat Garrett in December, 1880. But the gunman soon escaped, shooting and killing two deputies in the process.

Three months later Garret tracked down the Kid in Fort Sumter, N.M. Billy was visiting a girlfriend at the ranch of a man named Pete Maxwell. Garret placed himself in a darkened bedroom and when Billy entered, Garret shot twice, hitting his prey once in the heart. And so ended the life of a 22-year-old man, one of the most famous western outlaws to ever mount a horse. Ironically, Garret himself was gunned down years later, in 1908. One might think that by then violence had more or less abated in the Old West, but remnants of the past lived on.

So, six months after Billy the Kid was shot down, the legendary gunfight in Tombstone took place. In spite of what most folks call it, the fight actually occurred near the OK Corral, not inside it. On one side was probably the most famous lawman of the Old West, Wyatt Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and Wyatt’s best friend, Doc Holliday. On the other were four members of a gang of cattle rustlers, Ike and Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury.

The cowboys had been bragging that they were going to take care of the Earps and on the morning of Oct.26, 1881, the lawmen went looking for the rustlers to disarm them, in keeping with a Tombstone ordinance. They found them on Fremont Street near the corral. Shooting broke out and when the smoke cleared, the McLaurys and Billy Clanton were dead and Virgil and Morgan were wounded. Ike Clanton, who had done most of the pre-fight bragging, cowardly fled the scene just before the bullets started flying.

But that wasn’t the end of the story, as many would think. Both Morgan and Virgil were later ambushed at different locations, with Morgan being killed and Virgil crippled in his arm. Then Wyatt and his compadres went on a famous Vengeance Ride, gunning down more members of the rustling gang. Things got so hot that Wyatt left Tombstone and ended up living to the ripe old age of 81, dying peacefully in bed in 1929.

So these are two famous incidents that made the Old West legendary and happened to occur exactly 140 years ago. There are so many other fascinating tales to tell of those times and places, stories of such people as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the Dalton Gang, John Wesley Hardin, Will Bill Hickok, Bat Masterson, Belle Starr, Calamity Jane and many others. There are many, many books that tell of the Old West. If you’re interested, they’re out there.