18 Wild West Myths You Probably Thought Were True

The Wild West was a fascinating time in American history that has been widely studied and portrayed in theater shows, films, and television. These 18 myths surrounding the period are often inaccurate and oversimplified, but many people believe them.

Lawlessness of the Wild West

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The widespread belief that the Wild West was a place of constant lawlessness and chaos is understandable because most people base their view of the period on Hollywood films. In reality, local law enforcement and community norms maintained order, and some towns required travelers to deposit their firearms when in town. 

The Untamed Frontier

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The Wild West was not an entirely wild and untouched American frontier. Indigenous people like the Apache, the Arapaho, the Comanche, and the Sioux, as well as Spanish settlers, had long inhabited the region before American expansion.

Saloons on Every Corner 

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While they were very popular, the prevalence of saloons is exaggerated in Hollywood depictions of Western towns. The Tahoe Daily Tribune also notes that they were not only drinking establishments; they were also often “an eatery, hotel, bath, and comfort station, livery stable, gambling den, dance hall, bordello, barbershop, courtroom, political arena, dueling ground, and undertaker’s parlor.”

The Gold Rush: A Guaranteed Fortune 

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The Gold Rush didn’t guarantee wealth for all. The harsh realities of gold mining were that a small percentage of miners struck it rich. In reality, the development of railway infrastructure, farming, logging, and ranching had a more significant outcome. 

The Quick Draw Duel

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While Hollywood has made much of the quick draw duel, “it was very rare when gunfights occurred with the two gunfighters squarely facing each other from a distance in a dusty street,” says Legends of America. Shootouts with revolvers did occur, but usually, they were unplanned, spur-of-the-moment events and “were rarely that ‘civilized.’”

The Wild West Show as Historical Fact 

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The Wild West shows, traveling vaudeville performances in America and Europe from 1870–1920, often depicted romanticized and sensationalized depictions of cowboys, outlaws, and Native Americans. Shows like “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” shaped international perceptions of the American West that remain today. 

Women’s Role in the Wild West 

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The stereotype of women as either homemakers or figures of vice in the Wild West is inaccurate. Time Magazine notes that women at the time “found plenty of opportunities in the West that were not available in the East,” including equal pay for teachers and “more liberal divorce laws.” The region enfranchised women long before they could vote in the eastern states.

The Homestead Acts

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The Homestead Acts allowed applicants to acquire ownership of government land and homesteads and saw nearly 10 percent of the country given away free to 1.6 million people. However, it wasn’t an easy ride for many settlers, who faced difficult weather conditions and isolation. African Americans were encouraged to participate after the Southern Homestead Act of 1866, but they faced rampant discrimination and systematic barriers. 


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Railroads transformed the Wild West, but many people are unaware of aspects of their history. Chinese, Irish, and many other ethnic groups helped to build them, and Indigenous people were often displaced by the oncoming railroad, leading to conflicts and violent resistance. 

The Lone Cowboy Legend

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The idea of the lone cowboy is a staple in tales of life in the Wild West, but cowboys actually worked and lived in close-knit communities. U.S. History notes, “The lone cowboy is an American myth” and “cattle were always driven by a group of drovers.”

The Renegade Outlaw Hero 

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Stories of the Wild West often glorify outlaws like Billy the Kid and Jesse James as heroes. In reality, their criminal activities frequently affected innocent people, and they committed violent assaults and ruthless murders.

Western Towns: Built Overnight 

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Western towns didn’t spring up overnight during the Gold Rush. Planning and development were important to establish sustainable communities that didn’t all end up as ghost towns after the boom. San Francisco, for example, began as a tiny settlement with 25,000 full-time residents by 1850.

Cowboys and Native American Conflicts 

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The narrative of constant conflict between cowboys and Native Americans is oversimplified. According to The Cowboy Accountant, interactions between those heading westward after the Louisiana Purchase and Native Americans “were generally calm and friendly, but for a bit of trepidation.”

Deserted Ghost Towns

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The West wasn’t dotted with as many deserted ghost towns as some believe. Many former boomtowns have evolved into modern communities or tourist attractions, like Shasta, now the Shasta State Historic Park.

The Endless Plains of Buffalo 

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The plains bison, or buffalo, almost went extinct in the 1870s due to mass slaughter. Their population rebounded from 100 individuals split into six herds in 1871 and 25 individuals in Yellowstone National Park to hundreds of thousands today.

The All-White Wild West 

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The Wild West has often been depicted as predominantly white in Western television shows. In reality, there was a significant presence of African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans who contributed to the multicultural and diverse nature of frontier communities. 

Vigilantism as Justice 

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Vigilantes in the Wild West, as bearers of justice in a lawless land, have often been romanticized. Vigilante justice was often brutal and unlawful, acting outside the structures of frontier governments, but it did enjoy support from some law-abiding citizens. 

Native American Stereotypes

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Native Americans have been stereotyped by Wild West-themed films and television shows as either noble savages or ruthless warriors. The Native American tribes of the period had diverse cultures, societies, and political structures, and their relationships with settlers varied.

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