PHOTOGRAPHING THE REAL WEST
Not The Way It Looked on Gunsmoke

By Bill Dobbins
www.billdobbinsphotography.com

The classic period of American history we view as the “old west” didn’t actually last very long – some 20 to 25 years after the end of the Civil War.  We also tend to mythologize the period a few decades prior to the war, a time that included early western exploration, mountain men, and of course the war with Mexico.  We still remember Davy Crocket, Jim Bowie and we Remember The Alamo.

Photography was introduced in 1839, greatly matured as a technology by the time of the Civil War and so was available to record images of the west and westerners during the classic period that Americans have such regard for.  So although there have been many depictions of the old west in movies and TV, we can reference the photos shot at the time to see what this time and place really looked like.

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JOHN SELMAN — A figure of stealth and violence, John Selman famously killed gunfighters John Wesley Hardin and Bass Outlaw. Before Outlaw died in that 1894 gunfight, he did send a bullet to Selman’s leg that led him to use a cane for the rest of his life.

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Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday. Real life gunmen and killers in a western world where most were not.

This period of history plays a disproportionate role in who Americans believe they are and what the country is all about.  But a great deal of what we think this time in history was all about and who the people were who lived at the time is not based so much on reality as it is a matter of myth.  These myths started way back in the day with “dime novels” depicted – and hugely exaggerating – the exploits of gun fighters, sheriffs and marshals, Indian fighters and others.  Check out the character of the writer in the Clint Eastwood movie Unforgiven and you’ll get the idea.

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No fast draw for early western movie star William S. Hart. He entered a saloon guns drawn and ready as no doubt was really done in the old west.  Why give your opponent the advantage by walking in with pistols holstered?

This tendency to exaggerate and mythologize what went on in the west was continued by the movies.  The Great Train Robbery in 1903 was the first feature focusing on the old west and by later standards showed that period relatively accurately.  A few years later, William S. Hart made western movies with a certain amount of authenticity.  For example, there is a scene in one of his films where he enters a saloon in search of a bad guy.  He steps through the door with two guns drawn and pointed, ready to fine.  No holstered pistols ready to rely on a quick draw.

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A scene from The Great Train Robbery, 1903. Much of the public had been alive during the classic old west period and knew what things were supposed to look like.
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The real Billy The Kid – a dangerous and vicious killer who lived a short life before himself being gunned down. The reality doesn’t live up to the myth.

But shortly afterwards we saw Tom Mix rise to stardom, complete with fancy hats and costumes in a tradition that would later be followed by actors Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.  These depictions of the old west had about as much authenticity as a James Bond movie has regarding the life of a modern spy.

Television in the later 50s and 60s carried this even further.  Look at photos of the old west and compare what people wore compared to the costumes on Gunsmoke, Maverick or Bonanza.  They often did wear wide-brimmed hat in the old west.  The sun was hot and strong.  But they didn’t all look like Stetsons purchased in a contemporary western store or worn by a country music star.  They didn’t all wear the same kind of vest or fancy tooled leather holsters.  There were all sorts of holsters, many put their pistols in their belts – and lots of men back then didn’t carry pistols, which were not very accurate or in many cases not too dependable.  The more useful firearm for hunting or self defense was a rifle or a shotgun.

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Old west saloons were often not very glamorous. But men in that time and place did a lot of drinking so they needed a place to do this no matter what it was like.
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An old west town. Wooden houses and shacks, tents for overflow of population. Most not intended to be very permanent.
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Miners were an important part of the old west. Discoveries of gold, silver and other minerals was part of what drove people to come west to make their fortunes.

Then there is the matter of the kerchief around the next.  In many western movies this is a thin band of cloth worn for mostly decorative purposes.  In real life, cowboys used bandanas to cover their nose and mouth working with cattle who raised a great deal of dust.  They also wore chaps to protect their legs from cactus or other prickly plants when riding through the brush.  But when they weren’t working they took them off.  Along with their spurs.

Of course, there were more than cowboys in the old west.  There were also miners, farmers, buffalo hunters, gamblers, merchants, hunters, mule skinners, freight and stage drivers, saloon keepers, and businessmen of all sorts.  Particularly after the civil war, there were also a lot of African Americans in all of those professions.  You don’t see that many black cowboys in most traditional movies but they were there in significant numbers.

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The mythologizing of the old west started early, with novels and magazines exaggerating the exploits of western cowboys, outlaws and lawmen.

If you watch traditional western movies it also seems that towns out west were highly dangerous places, full murders and gun fights.  In actual fact, most were pretty peaceful and often did not allow for the carrying of firearms.  Wyatt Earp, who was a peace officer in two notorious towns, survived to die in bed in Los Angeles in 1929 and many other famous lawmen lived to old age.

Data from “Homicide Rates in the American West:

Was the “Old West” violent? Scholars have established that it was not as violent as most movies and novels would suggest. Murder was not a daily, weekly, or even monthly occurrence in most small towns or farming, ranching, or mining communities

bill-hickok
Wild Bill Hickok was indeed a dangerous gunman. But was not involved in fast draw duels. His approach was to take deliberate aim with somewhat inaccurate pistols of the day. He was known to be a true marksman, so he often hit the mark while his opponent did not.   And Hickock seemed to most to be be largely without fear, making him a steady and dangerous opponent in a gun fight.
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Deadwood, Dakota Territory in 1876 – the year Wild Bill Hickcock was killed, shot from behind while paling cards.
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The real Calamity Jane. Women generally did not wear trousers in the old west, unless they were trying to pass as men – which Martha Jane Canary often did.

Movies are entertainment, not meant as documentaries – although they have gotten increasingly accurate and authentic in their depiction of the west in recent years.  But it is understandable why they prefer the excitement of gun duels to somebody bursting in and shooting an enemy.  It is much more dramatic.  One of the best of these on film is the shoot out between Alan Ladd and Jack Palace in Shane.  In real life Shane would most likely have entered the saloon with gun drawn and just started shooting instead of getting into a fast draw duel.  However, the rest of the movie is surprisingly authentic in its depiction of frontier life for the time – and the cinematography is some of the best ever in a western movie.

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Alan Ladd in Shane.  The lonely gunfighter who gets involved in helping and protecting a family.
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Jack Palance as a stereotypical gun fighter for hire.  A great bad guy.

Wild Bill Hickok is a good example to look at when it comes to the myth of gun fighting.  Wild Bill was a real and notorious gunman whose history comes close to living up to his reputation.  But his approach to a gun “duel” was to take out his pistols and take deliberate aim before firing.  There was no “fast draw” involved.  Part off the reason is the extreme difficulty in hitting a target with a pistol after a fast draw unless what you are shooting at is standing very close in front of you.  Better to be at a greater distance and be a serious marksman like Hickcock.

But another part of the equation is the nature of handguns at the time.

In the early days of the old west, the type of pistols used were cap and ball revolvers.  You loaded powder and a metal ball into each of the cylinders and added a percussion cap to initiate ignition.  You used black powder, which was not as powerful as latter smokeless powder and quickly fouled the barrel and mechanism of the gun – and you had to reload the pistol every day to be sure it would fire as expected.  Later many of these pistols were converted  to use modern cartridges, but early on those still used black powder and were center-fire rather than rim-fire, which were less reliable and created other problems as well.

Nat Love Deadwood Dick
After the Civil War, the west was full of African Amcericans. They worked as cowboys, buffalo hunters, miners, mule skiers and just about everything else. Nat Love, aka Deadwood Dick, was one of the best known.
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Where there were men, there were women as well. Women worked in saloons encouraging men to buy drinks, in dance halls and sometimes as prostitutes. And sometimes as a combination of any of the above.

The pistol you see so often in western movies and TV shows is the Colt Single Action Army .45,  introduced in 1873 and known as the Peacemaker.  These became fairly common over time but it took a while and they were quite expensive.  Plus there were plenty of other popular pistols at the time, such as the Smith & Wesson Model 3, which had the advantage of being  a top-break revolver – the frame is hinged at the bottom front of the cylinder so releasing the lock and pushing the barrel down exposes the rear face of the cylinder. In most top-break revolvers, this act also operates an extractor that pushes the cartridges in the chambers back far enough that they will fall free. Wot spent cartridges removed easily fresh rounds can then inserted into the cylinder.  This makes it much faster to reload than something like the Colt, where you eject the spent cartridge and reload each cylinder one at a time.

Since handguns, especially many used in the old west, were not very accurate or effective, it made sense to rely on a rifle or a shotgun for hunting or self defense.

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Since handguns, especially many used in the old west, were not very accurate or effective, it made sense to rely on a rifle or a shotgun for hunting or self defense.
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In the Gary Cooper movie High Noon, why on earth would a sheriff carrying a single pistol, confront four killers face to face in the street? A better survival strategy would be to shoot them down from cover with a rifle or shotgun. Especially when he had Grace Kelly waiting at home for him.
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Grace Kelly and Gary cooper in High Noon.

Strangely enough, when you see handguns being fired with one hand in movies, rather than with two hands as is now the usual technique, that seems to be exactly what was usually done in the old west.  The common practice was indeed one-handed pistol shooting, which was probably following the same tradition used in formal pistol duels.  In any event, they would have gotten better results using both hands.

Burr Fatally Wounds Hamilton In Duel

Until recently, cowboys in the movies didn’t really look like they were dressed for working long hours with cattle or with horses.  Real cowboys had sturdy hats that protected them from the sun and the weather, not the sort worn today by country singers.  Their boots had high heels to help secure them in stirrups.  Cowboys used bandanas to protect their nose and mouth from dust raised by the cattle.  They often wore work gloves to protect their hands and heavy leather chaps to keep their legs from being scratched by brush and cactus.  Spurs were used to control their horses.  Their clothing was based on practical necessity, not fashion.

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A working cowboy’s hat not a modern movie stetson, work gloves, bandana to protect against dust and chaps. Notice the holster worn across on the left side. This makes the pistol available to either hand and easier to access when sitting on a horse – or in a chair in a saloon.
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Westerners not dressed like actors in Gunsmoke or other TV westerns of the period. Lever action rifles began with the rim-fire Henry, introduced in the 1860s and followed up by the Winchester center-fire, most famous being the model 1873 – celebrated in a movie starring James Stewart.
cattle drive
A cowboy is an animal herder who tends cattle on ranches in North America, traditionally on horseback, and often performs a multitude of other ranch-related tasks. The historic American cowboy of the late 19th century arose from the vaquero traditions of northern Mexico and became a figure of special significance and legend.[1] A subtype, called a wrangler, specifically tends the horses used to work cattle.
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Tom Select says in character in one of his movies, “I’m not interested in any job that can’t be done from the back of a horse.”
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A photographer’s assistant, mule and equipment – image by William Henry Jackson. Shooting on location in the old west was not an easy task.

So many myths about the old west are clearly not true.  There were few if any “high noon” gunfights, western towns were not highly dangerous places, working cowboys didn’t dress like Roy Rogers, townspeople often dress like “city folk” with bowlers and three-piece suits. But while he have many photos from that period, those images can themselves be deceiving.  Photography was till new at the time and getting your picture taken was a big deal.  So many of the sitters “dressed up” for these photo sessions, not wearing their normal clothing but conforming to the myths of the day regarding what they “ought to” look like.  So photos from the the can be sometimes be as misleading as what we have seen in the movies.

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Many American Indian tribes fought against the spread of “white” expansion right through the 1890s and many continued to try and maintain their culture identity even after military defeat – and still do to this day.
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There were still many Indians who maintained their traditional dress and culture in the old west. But many did not.

One thing we know to be true – only in exceptional circumstances did women  in the old west wear trousers.  This was rarely the case unless you were somebody like Calamity Jane trying to pass as a man.  All those movies in which you see western women running around wearing pants are not based on historical accuracy.

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There was little wood for farmers on the prairie to build houses. One alternative was this dugout and sod house in Nebraska in 1890.

Of course, movies have moved on and nowadays are much more accurate when it comes to showing how people in the old west dressed.  There are still too many gun fights, but movies like action.  But the costume design in movies and TV shows like Unforgiven, Lonesome Dove and Open Range are much more accurate when it comes to historical accuracy.  In fact, the gun fight at the end of Open Range seems to be very realistic when showing what it was like when two groups of men meet in a street and start shooting at each other.

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Tom Mix was a major western movie star in the 1920s. But his costumes were hardly authentic – although he himself had a history of being a cowboy and a Rough Rider. Unfortunately, his movies seem to have been lost, probably due to the degeneration of the film stock of the time.
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Roy Rogers made no attempt to present an authentic image of the old west in his movies.
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The costumes worn by James Arness and the other characters on Gunsmoke were hardly intended to be authentic. Just compare them to what was worn in movies like Lonesome Dove and this becomes apparent.  Matt Dylan also seems to have rarely changed clothes for 20 years or so.
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The costumes and depiction of the old west in Lonesome Dove was light years ahead of what we have seen in many traditional Hollywood movies.

The myth of the old west has been continued with music as well as movies.  Some of the most memorable examples:

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THEME FROM HIGH NOON – TEX RITTER

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EL PASO – MARTY ROBBINS

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MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN COWBOYS – WILLIE NELSON

Ed-Bruce

 

MAMAS DON’T LET YOUR BABIES GROW UP TO BE COWBOYS – ED BRUCE

MONROE

 

GHOST RIDERS IN THE SKY – VAUGHN MONROE

JUDY COLLINS

 

GHOST RIDERS IN THE SKY – JUDY COLLINS

roy-rogers-3THE COWBOY NIGHT HERD SONG -ROY ROGERS

AND MY ALL TIME FAVORITE:

 

PIONEERSCOOL WATER – SONS OF THE PIONEERS

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Bill Dobbins Sarah Lyons dressing room-SMALL-1

Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in  Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:

The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)

 

Modern Amazons (Tashen)

WEBSITES

BILL DOBBINS PHOTOGRAPHY

www.billdobbinsphotography.com

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EMAIL: billdobbinsphoto@gmail.com

wild-west-cowboy-shirts
What they wore in the real old west.
buffalo hunters 1877
Buffalo hunters in 1877. The incredible slaughter of millions of buffalo was encouraged by the US Government as a way of starving the plains Indians and forcing them to live on reservations.
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Old west sheriff and gunfighter Texas John Slaughter. Most cowboys and other old westerners were not gunman. They were at a serious disadvantage in conflict with somebody who was.

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