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Gunslingers of the Old West: Some Were Good Guys and Some Were Bad to the Bone

Updated on May 29, 2018
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Dorothy is a Master Gardener, former newspaper reporter, and the author of several books. Michael is a landscape/nature photographer in NM.

Every Little Boy Wanted to Be a Cowboy

For several decades, almost every little boy wore a holster with a couple of six-shooters strapped to his hip. Those were good times, and those six-shooters were just toys that were used for fighting the bad guys and Indians that had invaded their backyards, where they played until it became too dark to see.

This article is all about the men who inspired those little boys to arm themselves and saddle up their imaginary horses so that they could magically transform themselves into their own heroes like Roy Rogers, the singing cowboy; or real-life legendary gunslinger and lawman Wyatt Earp.

Does anyone remember when you could find a holster and guns in just about any store in America?

Doc Holliday: Trained Dentist and Feared Gunslinger

Doc Holliday was a dentist in Atlanta and Dallas before he relocated to the "wild west", thinking the dry climate would be better for his health.  He had tuberculosis, the same disease that had killed his brother and mother earlier.
Doc Holliday was a dentist in Atlanta and Dallas before he relocated to the "wild west", thinking the dry climate would be better for his health. He had tuberculosis, the same disease that had killed his brother and mother earlier.

The Legendary Doc Holliday

Dr. John Henry “Doc” Holliday was born in 1851 and lived only a short 36 years, dying of tuberculosis in 1887. They were hard years that were filled for the most part with gambling, drinking liquor, and fearless gunslinging, all of which made the symptoms of his disease even worse.

Maybe Holliday chose the wrong profession of dentistry when he was young. Patients apparently realized when he began having coughing spells because of tuberculosis that it wasn't safe for them to continue to be patients of a man who could possibly cough into their mouths and spread the deadly, infectious disease.

Holliday graduated from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery in 1872 and worked hard at having a successful career as a dentist, but it wasn't meant to be and that career was short-lived, replaced initially with gambling, at which he was also proficient, a proficiency that caused him problems from time to time (many people are sore losers at poker).

Holliday wound up in Fort Griffin, Texas dealing faro (a card game) and met the man that was to ultimately become his closest friend and ally, one of the most famous lawmen of the wild west, Wyatt Earp, who was there looking for a man called Dirty Dave Rudabaugh.

While he never did anything to entitle him to a statue in the Hall of Fame, Doc Holliday was nevertheless a most picturesque character on the western border in those days when the pistol instead of law determined issues.”

— Bat Masterson, quoted in a 1907 article in Human Life magazine

Bat Masterson

It was no secret that Doc Holliday was despised by lawman Bat Masterson, who objected to Holliday's hot-headedness and obnoxious behavior.  Both men, however, were considered to be the best friends of Wyatt Earp.
It was no secret that Doc Holliday was despised by lawman Bat Masterson, who objected to Holliday's hot-headedness and obnoxious behavior. Both men, however, were considered to be the best friends of Wyatt Earp.

Bartholemew William Barclay "Bat" Masterson

The Legendary lawman Bat Masterson was born in Canada but grew up on a series of family farms in New York, Illinois, and Kansas, leaving home in 1873 when he was about 18 years old to start working as an army scout and buffalo hunter. But the following decade he would transition to being a lawman, saloon keeper, and a gambler.

Though he made money mainly as a saloonkeeper and gambler, he was also a sheriff for Dodge City and a deputy United States marshal. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him deputy U.S. marshal for the southern district of New York.

Masterson was only involved in one gun battle in his life, a shootout in Dodge City over a dispute that his brother, Jim, had had with a business partner and an employee. He spent about 40 years, however, building a reputation as a great lawman, and his exploits of the day have made him an icon in the American old west history books.

In his later life, Masterson was a journalist - a feature writer for Human Life Magazine, and eventually the sports editor of the New York Morning Telegraph. He died in 1921 in New York City.


Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything."

— Wyatt Earp

The Rufus Buck Gang

The leader of this gang, Rufus Buck, is in the center.  The son of a black father and a Creek indian mother, he dreamed that his gang’s spree would trigger an indian uprising that rid the area of the white people and return the land to the indians.
The leader of this gang, Rufus Buck, is in the center. The son of a black father and a Creek indian mother, he dreamed that his gang’s spree would trigger an indian uprising that rid the area of the white people and return the land to the indians.
John Wesley Hardin was wanted by the law almost his entire life.  He was known as one of the deadliest and most dangerous killers alive, having killed 27 men by the time he was 18 years old.
John Wesley Hardin was wanted by the law almost his entire life. He was known as one of the deadliest and most dangerous killers alive, having killed 27 men by the time he was 18 years old. | Source

John Wesley Hardin: Bad From the Beginning

Earlier in this article, we referred to the gunslingers as being either "good guys" or "bad to the bone". John Wesley Hardin was not a good guy but was instead one of the deadliest gunfighters of the old west.

Hardin started having troubles with lawmen at a very early age. Those troubles began when he was a young teen and stabbed another teen in a schoolyard squabble. Then, when Hardin was 15, he shot a black man during an argument. A minister's son, by the time he was 18 years old, he had killed 27 men, including three union soldiers attempting to arrest him for the killing of the black man. He is said to have killed another soldier later.

Seven people were killed by Hardin on the Chisholm Trail on his way to Abilene, Kansas. When he got to Abilene, he killed three more. It is said that Hardin backed down gunslinger and Abilene lawman James Butler ("Wild Bill") Hickok, who was himself quite handy with a pistol.

Hardin's killings continued until he was shot in the back of the head in El Paso, Texas, dying instantly. The killing shot was fired by Constable John Selman, another gunfighter who ultimately lost his own life in a gunfight.


Wyatt Earp: Friend to Many, Admired by Most

There were many famous men in the old west, but none more famous or more admired than the legendary lawman Wyatt Earp.
There were many famous men in the old west, but none more famous or more admired than the legendary lawman Wyatt Earp.

The Legendary Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp is one of the most famous and admired icons of the American West because he worked tirelessly for the law and helped to tame the frontier of the wild west.

His most famous gunfight was at the O.K. Corral after he feuded with a local rancher. Wyatt and his two brothers, Virgil and Morgan; and Doc Holliday were in the shootout against Tom and Frank McLaury, Billy and Ike Clanton, and Billy Claiborne. Virgil and Morgan were both wounded, Holliday was grazed by a bullet, and Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Clanton were killed. That 30-second gunfight was arguably the greatest in American history. Earp died in Los Angeles on January 13, 1929.

References

  1. https://harvardmagazine.com/2012/03/the-rampage-of-the-rufus-buck-gang Retrieved 02/20/2018
  2. https://truewestmagazine.com/doc-met-wyatt/ Retrieved 02/21/2018
  3. http://www.kansashistory.us/fordco/batmasterson.html
  4. Mayo, Matthew P. Cowboys, Mountain Men and Grizzlies, TwoDot, Guilford, CT; Helena, MT (An imprint of Globe Pequot Press)
  5. Clavin, Tom (2017). Dodge City, St. Martin's Press, New York

© 2018 Mike and Dorothy McKenney

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