Bones Don’t Lie : Wild West Life: Sweet It Wasn’t

Times Staff Writer

“Fly, scatter through the country, go to the great West.. The West is the true destination!” --Horace Greeley

The settling of the West is our oldest and most enduring legend. It transformed cowboys from tradesmen to folk heroes, turned villains into national celebrities and so shaped our self-image that the frontier became the metaphor for American values.

Henry A. Kissinger, for instance, likened himself to a cowboy on a solitary ride while he was negotiating with the Chinese and the Vietnamese in the 1970s. “Americans admire the cowboy leading the caravan alone astride his horse,” he said. Gen. Maxwell Taylor, explaining the difficulties of the pacification program in Vietnam, informed Congress: “It is very hard to plant corn outside the stockade when the Indians are around.” And President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966 told senior officers in Cam Ranh Bay to “come home with that coonskin on the wall,” presumably referring to the hide of the Viet Cong.

Stuff of Patriotism

Although historians today are questioning many myths of the Old West, the legend remains so widely held sacrosanct that some readers accused Paul Hutton, a Mead Fellow at the Huntington Library, of being unpatriotic when he wrote recently in Texas Monthly that Davy Crockett had not died gallantly at the Alamo but had surrendered and was executed.


Actor James Stewart got the same kind of nasty letters nearly 40 years ago, for portraying a gunless, milk-drinking deputy sheriff in “Destry Rides Again.”

“The idea that I came to be marshal of a town and didn’t use a gun was, people said, insulting to the Western and to everyone who believed in the West,” recalled Stewart, a Princeton University graduate who had intended to be an architect before he came to Hollywood and starred in 18 Westerns. “The Western, after all, is really about the basic values of our country--freedom, the settling of new frontiers, the determination to push on.”

Pioneers’ Remains Studied

Now from the southeastern prairies of New Mexico comes a less romanticized view of the Old West that challenges our notion of tall cowboys and knightly deeds. It comes from an overgrown cemetery in a cattle town that disappeared in the late 1890s. If the secrets anthropologists unearthed here are any measure, frontier life was violent, grueling, impoverished and often pitiful.

Seven Rivers, just north of today’s Carlsbad, was on the Goodnight-Loving Trail, over which the great cattle drives followed the Pecos out of Texas on their way to the distant rangelands of Montana and Wyoming. It was a forlorn and empty place with several saloons and no church. In summer it baked in furnace-like temperatures, in winter it lay under deep covers of wind-driven snow. By 1885, the population had reached 300 and the White Oaks Golden Era newspaper reported: “Business is lively and our little settlement thrives apace.”

Last February, with work near completion on an irrigation dam that will flood the flatlands along County Route 32, a federal expedition headed by anthropologist Bobbie Ferguson exhumed the 52 skeletons from the Seven Rivers cemetery.

The scientists studied the remains with the help of forensic experts and examined court records and newspaper clippings. By the time the cemetery was relocated they had pieced together a remarkably clear picture of the brief life of Seven Rivers and the Southerners who had settled it.


“I was stunned,” Ferguson said. “I had always assumed all those tales about the Wild West were exaggerated, but what I think it comes down to is that these peoples’ lives were so hard, so full of physical labor, that there just wasn’t much time for tenderness or care or warmth.”

High Rate of Violence

Of the 15 men between the ages of 18 and 45 buried in Seven Rivers, 10 died violently.

There was Zach Light, a trouble-making cowhand from Texas, who was shot in the saloon owned by Sheriff Les Dow. His skull bears a bullet hole just above the left eye. K. S. Keith was killed by Indians from one of the tribes in the region, Apaches or Comanches, who cut off his right leg above the knee. William Johnson’s head was blown off by his father-in-law’s shotgun after he mentioned at the dinner table that he had fought for the Union in the Civil War. Another man, who died at about age 30, had lived more than a year with a knife blade embedded in one shoulder. The cause of his death was recorded as “buckshot in the chest area.”

There was John Northern, for whom the Golden Era had predicted “a serene and happy life, cloudless, save with rare and roseate shadows” when he took a teen-age bride, Julia, just before Christmas in 1885. Less than two years later he was dead, at age 27, shot in the saloon where he worked.

Diseases Took a Toll

Many of the men were barely 5 feet tall; the tallest was 5 feet 9. No one was buried with his boots on, boots having been too expensive to be wasted on a dead man. Of the 14 children under 2, most had died of scarlet fever, diphtheria, measles, croup or other disease that today would not be life-threatening. John Andress, who came with a wagon train from Pipe Creek, Tex., lost his wife, mother-in-law and two children in the same year to dysentery they got from bad drinking water.

“In the West,” the English novelist Anthony Trollope wrote in 1862, “I found men gloomy and silent--I might almost say sullen. A dozen of them will set for hours round a stove, speechless. They chew tobacco and ruminate. They are not offended if you speak to them, but they are not pleased. They answer with monosyllables. . . . They drink but are seldom drunk to the eye; they begin it early in the morning and take it in a solemn, sullen, ugly manner, standing always at a bar. . . . They drink often and to great excess. . . .

“I cannot part with the West without saying in its favor that there is a certain manliness about its men, which gives them a dignity of their own. . . . It seems to me that no race of men requires less outward assistance than these pioneers of civilization.”

Challenging the Myths

Surely this wasn’t the stuff of Randolph Scott or of Louis L’Amour, but if life on the prairies was so miserable, how did we come to convince ourselves it was a glamorous era? How did we come to make folk heroes of cowboys , which in the Eastern press of the 1800s was a pejorative term for itinerants and roustabouts? Was there really an absence of mirth, a scarcity of love?

One of the myths being challenged is that of violence, and--Seven Rivers notwithstanding--most believe violence in the Old West was not markedly more common than it was in Eastern cities. Most also agree that life in the cities of the West today is far more dangerous than in the Western towns of a century ago.

Roger D. McGrath, a UCLA professor, has studied violence in Western mining towns and concluded that one of the wildest, Bodie, had a robbery rate comparable to Boston’s in the late 1880s. From FBI statistics he also calculated that Miami’s burglary rate in 1980 was 25 times higher than Bodie’s a century earlier, that the theft rate in the United States as a whole is 17 times higher today than it was in Bodie. He did not find a record of a single instance of rape in the towns he studied, and juvenile offenses were seldom more serious than using obscene language.

The Violence Connection

“My argument is that the violence we know in America today is the consequence of the modern city, not the frontier experience,” McGrath said. “Yes, there was a high homicide rate in the Old West, but the killing was usually between willing combatants. Today’s crimes are different. They are carried out in a cowardly manner and criminals prey on the weak. I’ve discussed this with the (Los Angeles police) and they couldn’t give me a single case in which a gang member died in what we would call a shoot-out.”

On the Canadian frontier, where acts of violence were rare, the law preceded the settlers. On the U.S. frontier the mixture of alcohol and reckless young veterans of the Civil War proved to be combustible, and the courts and sheriffs came after the population.

The era of the lawless cow town ended with the advent of barbed wire, and by 1890 the federal government had declared the frontier “closed” and the West settled.

The thought of losing the frontier dismayed Americans then as now. If there is no Alaskan wilderness, no Montanan expanse, aren’t we all doomed to huddle in tall buildings of glass and concrete, restricted by conventions and sameness, with no horizon in sight?

American Identity Theory

Frederick Jackson Turner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, in 1892 responded to the announced closing of the frontier by delivering in Chicago a paper that started a reassessment of American history that is debated to this day. What made Americans--even those who stayed in the East--distinctive as a people, he said, was the frontier experience. It was the West, not our European heritage, that was primarily responsible for shaping our national character, developing our institutions and honing our democracy, he believed.

“What the Mediterranean Sea was to the Greeks, breaking the bond of custom, offering new experiences, calling out new institutions and activities . . .” he wrote, “the ever retreating frontier has been to the United States.” He called the frontier “a gate of escape from the bondage of the past” and said that as an expansionist nation “the American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise.”

Many historians today believe Turner overemphasized the importance of the Western experience in defining us as a people. The East, after all, bankrolled the settlement of the West. As Harold Lamar, a historian at Yale University points out, Eastern interests controlled the railroad monopoly, set the wheat and grain prices and owned many of the territorial banks and much of the open range land. Prices for Texas cotton were set, to a large degree, by brokerage houses in Boston.

A Colonial Relationship

“In a sense, the East held the mortgage,” Lamar said. “No one ever called the relationship colonial, but it was, and that colonial syndrome persists today.”

Yet what we celebrate with poetic license in the Old West are the very qualities that are inherently anti-colonial: We have made heroes of outlaws who shunned the Establishment’s dictates. We have sentimentalized the lone gunman who answered to no one and admired those with sudden wealth acquired by luck. (Wouldn’t today’s serious lottery players have been gold miners a century ago?) We have reclaimed the long-dead frontier virtues that often seem to escape us in the urbanized America of the 1980s.

“The moral tone of the cow camp indeed is rather high. . . ,” Theodore Roosevelt wrote in 1888. “Meanness, cowardice and dishonesty are not tolerated. There is a high regard for truthfulness and keeping one’s word, intense contempt for any kind of hypocrisy and a hearty dislike for a man who shirks his work.”

Contrary to common perceptions, the cow camps of which Roosevelt wrote and the westward expansion itself were hardly just an Anglo-Saxon experience. The territories were heavily populated with European immigrants, Jews, Latinos, Chinese and Japanese. Blacks were prominent as cowboys and rodeo riders, and the two cavalry regiments with the highest reenlistment rates, the 9th and 10th, were black units, according to Richard Slotkin, a Wesleyan University historian. It may have been a man’s world, but the first place in the country to grant women the right to vote was Wyoming, in 1869, and the first state to send a woman to Congress was Montana, in 1917.

Heroes That Went East

“Next thing you know they’ll be outlawing liquor,” a disgusted Bat Masterson complained as the women’s suffrage movement spread through the West. In 1902 he moved to New York City, where he became famous as a sports writer. His contemporary, Wyatt Earp, ended up selling real estate in Los Angeles. Billy the Kid’s killer, Pat Garrett, received as his reward from President Theodore Roosevelt appointment to the comfortable post of customs collector at El Paso.

Well before the poker-playing marshals went middle class, the history of the West had become myth. The creators of the legend were the authors of the dime novel, the Eastern newspapermen who ventured West and regaled their readers with embellished accounts that made heroes of regular people, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show which, way back in 1883, exploited the daring and violence of the frontier before large audiences in Europe and on the East Coast. Fact seldom got in the way of lively fiction as America began to popularize men of dubious achievements and celebrate the bloodshed in its past.

“I am sorry to have to lie so outrageously in this yarn,” William (Buffalo Bill) Cody wrote his New York publisher. “If you think the revolver and the Bowie knife are used too freely, you may cut out a fatal shot or stab wherever you deem it wise.”

Men Made in Stories

Earp, who served only briefly as a lawman, was elevated to superstar status after Stuart Lake’s best-seller, “Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal” was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post. Wild Bill Hickok became a nationally known figure through a story in Harper’s magazine about his gunfight with Dave Tutt in the city square of St. Joseph, Mo. The reason for the duel to the death: Tutt had won Hickok’s wristwatch in a poker game and had ignored Hickok’s warning that he would be killed if he ever wore the watch in public.

“There’s probably no Western hero you could name today who didn’t have some kind of sordid past, from a liberal point of view,” said Western historian Melissa Totten of Los Angeles.

Yet William (Billy the Kid) Bonney, who was born in a New York City tenement, is still honored every summer in Lincoln, N. M., with a pageant celebrating his last jailbreak in 1881, even though he killed two deputies in the process.

Legends Live On

Jesse James’ home in Jackson County, Mo., is a museum. Tombstone, Ariz., whose population has grown from 400 to 1,600 since World War II, twice a month stages for tourists a reenactment of the OK Corral gunfight--a fight that didn’t become ingrained in Western history until Walter Noble Burns’ book, “Tombstone,” came out in 1927. Seven movies followed the book.

“If it wasn’t for the gunfight, it’s possible that there wouldn’t even be a Tombstone today,” said Wallace Clayton, owner of the Crystal Palace saloon, where the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday used to drink.

In October, the $25-million Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum is to open in Los Angeles. To what extent that heritage was built on myth may always be argued, but few would debate the fact that “westering,” as A. B. Guthrie called it, offered as much misery and hardship as it did Last Sunsets and High Noon heroes.

“I can think of but very few men,” Dr. Jacob Stillman, founder of Sacramento’s first hospital, said in the mid-1800s, “whom I would advise to come to California.”