The West is Still Wild

By Josh Bishop

Rustle up a group and hit the trail on an Old West adventure

We’ve heard this story before. On the one hand, there’s a new sheriff in town; on the other, an outlaw gunman. And it usually goes something like this:

The gunman kicks open the door to the local saloon, six-shooters drawn and a bandana tied around his face, which doesn’t much matter since his ugly mug is sketched on the wanted posters tacked to the wall of every public building within a week’s ride. The poster lists crimes that brand him a horse thief, highwayman, cattle rustler, bandit, and murderer.

Good versus evil

He is, of course, wearing a black hat. Film tradition adds the visual that all such villains wear black hats. It’s how we know he’s bad — a black hat, a wicked sneer, three- or four-days’ worth of growth on his chin, and he’s most likely tonguing a wad of chew behind his yellowed teeth. This guy is no good.

Outside our intrepid hero comes sauntering down Main Street. Perhaps he’s a lifelong lawman, hardened by years of dragging brigands to the hangman’s gallows; perhaps he’s the reluctant new deputy, forced into his unlikely role by a twist of fate and a sense of justice; perhaps he’s a concerned citizen, chasing after his own self-interest or spurred on by misguided do-goodery — it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that he’s wearing a white hat.

Showdown at high noon. Black hat versus white hat. And whatever happens next — bullets will fly, beautiful women in bustles will scatter, storefront windows will explode in showers of glass — whatever happens, we already know that the white hat will win.

We’re all drawn to stories like this. Sure, you may not like cowboys or spaghetti westerns or horses, but the world would admittedly be a lot easier if all the bad guys wore one hat and the good guys wore another. The story of the Wild West is a story that draws a line between good and evil — and it’s a story that can be relived by groups that visit the sites where white and black hats clash time and again.

Black hat tours

With his bright blue eyes and childish face, Billy the Kid didn’t exactly fit the stereotypes of the West’s most notorious gunmen — but he did wear a black hat and, according to legend, he killed at least 20 men during his short life. The Kid became a legend after he died, thanks in part to his youth and his reputation as a personable fellow, in part to his talent as a gunslinger, and in part to a biography that was published a year after his death — written by the man who killed him, Sheriff Patrick Garrett.

Billy the Kid was killed near Fort Sumner, N.M., in July 1881, and a tombstone marks his grave a few miles outside of the city. The Old Fort Sumner Museum displays artifacts, photographs, and documents from as far back as 1865, but the big draw remains the Kid’s grave, which is actually kept caged behind steel bars. Apparently the tombstone — which bears the name of Billy the Kid and two of his friends beneath the word “pals” — has been stolen several times. It’s been recovered each time, too, but now the entire site is caged to prevent vandalism and theft.

More of Billy the Kid’s life and death can be found at the Billy the Kid Museum, which more than makes up for the lack of his tombstone with numerous items related to the historic past and the legend of Billy the Kid in particular. Group members can view locks of Billy’s hair, his rifle, chaps, spurs, and an original wanted poster. There are a total of more than 60,000 items in the museum’s collection.

In the village of Lincoln, N.M., not too far from Fort Sumner, is the courthouse and jail where Billy the Kid performed his last escape a few months before his death. He had been sentenced to hang, but instead managed to kill both of his guards, remove his leg irons, and ride out of town on a stolen horse. Lincoln, a one-street town, features the courthouse and jail that remains in much the same condition as when New Mexico’s most famous outlaw was held there behind bars.

White hat tours

Thankfully, for every desperado that ran lawless through the West, there was someone to stand against him. The legend and lore of the American West is filled with white hats. People like Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill, and other notable lawmen, cowboys, and entertainers have filled history and legend as the good guys of the West.

Wild Bill Hickok has gone down in history as a figure larger than life: a lawman, a scout, a gambler, and a renowned gunfighter. His life and death have become interwoven with Deadwood, a mining town in the Black Hills that was famous for its lawlessness and rowdiness: gambling, prostitution, saloons, opium, and murder — including the murder of Wild Bill himself, shot in the back of the head during a poker game. Groups can participate in a hand of poker — or any other number of games — without the bullet at one or two of Deadwood’s more than 80 gaming establishments.

Hickok’s life is celebrated each year in Deadwood during Wild Bill Days. The annual summer festival, held in June, features live music, a barbecue cook-off, and such Wild West activities as a Firearms and Old West Auction and Show and a Cowboy Fast Draw Championships.

Throughout the rest of the year, Deadwood remains a quintessentially Western town. The Days of ’76 Rodeo is regarded as the best PRCA Midsize Rodeo, and will be held for the 87th year on July 21–25, 2009. Historic re-enactments are performed daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day, including a live shootout on Main Street and the re-created trial of Wild Bill’s murderer, Jack McCall.

Wild Bill Hickok is buried at the Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, in a plot that also contains the body of Calamity Jane. The graves of heroes like Wild Bill are scattered throughout Western North America.

Take Buffalo Bill as an example. He was best known throughout the world as a Western showman, an entertainer who made a name for himself with his traveling show, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World. He performed with such well-known figures as Sitting Bull, sharpshooter Annie Oakley, and Gabriel Dumont, Métis leader and commander of the Métis forces in Canada’s North-West Rebellion of 1885. But before his life as a showman, Buffalo Bill Cody worked as an Army Scout, gold miner, and Pony Express rider, as well as a driver on a wagon train and a contracted buffalo hunter, which earned him his nickname after he killed nearly 5,000 buffalo in 18 months. And although he never faced down a brigand over the barrel of a six-shooter, Buffalo Bill remains one of the most iconic good guys from a romanticized West.

In 1917, Buffalo Bill was buried on Lookout Mountain in Golden, Colo., a 30-minute drive from downtown Denver, in a site that overlooks both the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains. Groups can visit Buffalo Bill’s grave and memorial, which also includes a museum and gift shop. The museum collects many items from the legend’s life and compiles the world’s largest collection of Wild West show posters. Museum exhibits include historical timelines of Buffalo Bill’s life and show business career, antique firearms, and an exhibit on Buffalo Bill’s relationship to the Indians.

It’s a good year to visit Golden. The city will be celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2009 with a yearlong series of events. Groups can get an idea of what life was like at the city’s founding with a visit to one or more of the Golden History Museums, which include the Astor House Museum, a boarding and rooming house built in 1867; Clear Creek History Park, which re-creates an 1800s mountain ranch to let visitors see how Colorado’s early settlers worked and played; and the Golden History Center, which serves as a starting place for exploring the city’s history through exhibits, lectures, programs, and events.

Buffalo Bill’s legacy is also large in Cody, Wyo., which was founded by William Cody and bears his name. The Buffalo Bill Historical Center is a complex of five museums that — along with the Whitney Gallery of Western Art, the Cody Firearms Museum, the Plains Indian Museum, and the Draper Museum of Natural History — includes the Buffalo Bill Museum. Old Trail Town, a collection of relics and buildings from the Wyoming frontier, is located at the site of Old Cody City.

Shoot ’em up

When black and white hats crossed paths, bullets and blood were sure to follow. Perhaps the most famous of these clashes was the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Ariz., where Virgil, Morgan, and Wyatt Earp, along with Doc Holliday, faced down a rough band of criminals. After 30 seconds and some 30 gunshots, three men lay dead. Two more were wounded. The shootout has become a metaphor for the Old West showdown between frontier lawlessness and the rule of law.

With more than 400,000 people that take the wagon train to Tombstone each year, the Western town is an ideal stop for group tours exploring the Wild West. Even the streets of historic tombstone are dripping with iconic images of the West. While here, group members get the singular pleasure of strolling down a wooden boardwalk, pushing open the swinging doors of an old saloon, and looking both ways for horses before crossing the street.

It’s only fitting that, in a town known for the most famous gunfight in the West, one of the biggest attractions is a series of historic gunfight re-enactments. Grab a burger and beer — or a $2 margarita — at Six Gun City, where gunfights are performed several times each day. At Helldorado Town, groups can see a staged gunfight three times a day. There are several non-profit organizations that stage weekly showdowns in the street, along with everyone’s favorite reminder of vigilante justice, a hanging. Groups like Wild Bunch and Hell’s Belles or the Tombstone Vigilantes take turns on the streets of Tombstone, and can be contacted to arrange living history demonstrations and hangings.

For additional Wild West living history and another showdown between good and evil, head back to Colorado. One of the finest destinations in Cañon City — more popularly known as the site of the Royal Gorge Bridge and Railroad — is Buckskin Joe Frontier Town and Railway, a theme park that re-creates the Old West with authentic buildings from the 1800s, trolley rides, a restaurant, a saloon, gunfight shows, and the Buckskin Joe trademark show, the Hanging, which ends with the bad guy strung up and dangling from the gallows. Odds are, he’ll be wearing a black hat.

This article was published in the Summer 2009 Western issue of Group Tour Magazine. To see the full archived magazine, click here. Click here to print a pdf.