While many stories of the American frontier are tall tales, the real gunslingers had fascinating histories. Some were courageous lawmen or heroes for hire, and others were wily con artists or violent outlaws. Here are the ten greatest.
10. Billy the Kid
Billy the Kid was born William Henry McCarty, Jr., in 1859, probably in New York City. Orphaned as a teenager, he moved West in search of work. By 1877, McCarty was a cattle guard on John Tunstall’s ranch in Lincoln County, New Mexico. Tunstall was in a business feud with other local merchants that escalated in 1878, when a posse led by Sheriff William Brady murdered Tunstall. To retaliate, McCarty joined a gang called the Regulators, eventually becoming its leader. The Regulators’ first major victory was the murder of Sheriff Brady. When it was clear that the Regulators had lost the Lincoln County War, McCarty fled to Texas. There, he was caught and sentenced to death, but he killed his guards and escaped from jail. Sheriff Pat Garrett hunted McCarty down and killed him in 1881. McCarty probably killed fewer than ten men, but after his death, he gained credit for many more.
9. Isom Dart
Many African-Americans sought new lives in the West, but few became gun-slinging outlaws. Born a slave in 1849 and brought to Texas during the Civil War, Dart quickly gained a reputation as a conniving horse and cattle rustler. Known as the “Black Fox,” Dart’s preferred weapons were his wit and his expert horsemanship, although he often became embroiled in barroom gunfights. Dart was such a successful outlaw that only the best could stop him: Tom Horn, the great assassin, was hired to shoot him dead in 1900.
8. Wyatt Earp
Wyatt Earp was born in Illinois in 1848. He set out west with his brothers, Virgil and Morgan, and his friend Doc Holliday, working in several frontier towns before settling in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1879. Outlaw cowboys plagued Tombstone, stealing mules and robbing stagecoaches. Earp first confronted the Cowboys as a deputy sheriff, then as a freelance lawman. After several minor skirmishes, Virgil Earp learned that the Cowboys had assembled men and arms at the O.K. Corral. On October 26, 1881, the Earps and Holliday ambushed the Cowboys there, killing three. The Earps were tried for murder but not convicted, and the Cowboys retaliated by killing Morgan Earp. After this, Wyatt Earp fled Tombstone on a “vendetta ride,” killing outlaws as he headed west. He led a quiet life afterward, but Tombstone made him a legend, especially because he was never wounded in a gunfight.
7. Belle Starr
Known as the Queen of the Oklahoma Outlaws, this femme fatale was one of the Wild West’s great criminal masterminds. Born Myra Maybelle Shirley in 1848, she followed her first husband, Jim Reed, into a series of outlaw gangs. After Reed died, she continued her life of crime, slinging twin pistols while wearing fashionable dresses. She became the brains behind many criminal operations, assembling bands of outlaws, harboring fugitives, and fencing stolen goods. In 1889, she was ambushed and murdered, but she had so many enemies that her killer was never identified.
6. James “Killer” Miller
Jim Miller began his life of crime early: in 1874, when he was eight years old, he was arrested but not prosecuted for the murder of his grandparents. At nineteen, he murdered his brother-in-law but was not convicted. He moved to Pecos, Texas, and reinvented himself as a devout family man and Texas Ranger. But he kept killing, now as a hired assassin. His victims included Pat Garrett, killer of Billy the Kid. His cruelty caught up with him in 1909, after his arrest for the murder of Gus Bobbitt. During his trial, a mob broke into the jail and lynched him.
5. Tom Horn
Tom Horn was the most deadly hired gun in the West. Born in 1860, he served as a civilian scout in the Apache Wars, where he witnessed Geronimo’s surrender. Afterward, he became a detective in Denver but was fired from his agency after murdering two train robbers. This act of frontier justice led to a career as an assassin for hire - a career so successful that no one knows how many men he killed. In 1902, he was convicted for one murder he probably didn’t commit, that of 14-year-old Willie Nickell, and he was hanged in 1903.
4. Wild Bill Hickok
James Butler Hickok was born in Illinois in 1837 and moved West after a brawl made him a fugitive. He served in the Civil War but was discharged, a pattern that repeated in his many sheriff jobs - he was hired to keep peace and then fired for murdering men. Hickok won several legendary shootouts and became notorious for his quick draw. Perhaps his most famous ocnfrontation was with Davis Tutt, a former friend with whom he’d fought over women and money. Following a card game, Hickok shot and killed Tutt from 75 yards away. Hickock died as he lived: in 1876, he was fatally shot in the back of the head during a poker game for reasons that are still unknown.
3. Calamity Jane
Martha Jane Canary was one of the toughest women in the West as well as one of the greatest exaggerators of her own deeds. She was born in 1852 in Missouri, and both of her parents died when she was a teenager, leaving her to raise her younger siblings in the wild Wyoming territory. In the early 1870s, she became a military scout, fighting against Indian uprisings, and probably a prostitute as well. She followed Wild Bill Hickok to Deadwood, South Dakota in 1876, and she remained there after his death, protecting pioneers’ stagecoaches from Indians and outlaws. For the last ten years of her life, she traveled in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, spinning tall tales about her adventures.
2. John Wesley Hardin
Hardin might have been the bloodiest gunslinger in the West: he murdered at least 27 people and took credit for many more. He killed a former slave named Mage in 1868, when he was only fifteen. From then on, Hardin was a fugitive, gambling and picking fights throughout Texas. Once, while staying in a hotel in Abilene, he fired through the wall to permanently silence the snoring man next door. The law finally caught up with Hardin in 1874, when he fatally shot Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb. While in prison for Webb’s murder, Hardin studied religion and law, and he was freed in 1894. One year later, John Selman Jr. confronted Hardin in a saloon and shot him dead, claiming self-defense.
1. Jesse James
Born in 1847, Jesse James used good looks and brazen crimes to become a celebrity in his own time. James and his brother, Frank, got their start in the Civil War as Confederate guerrillas. After the war, they robbed banks Jesse killed the cashier during their 1869 robbery of the Daviess County Savings Association, making himself the most famous outlaw in America. The brothers joined Cole Younger to form the James-Younger Gang, plotting public hold-ups that were as much performance as crime. A botched heist in Minnesota disbanded the gang, and James’s new partners in crime, the Ford brothers, became his downfall. The governor of Missouri paid the Fords to betray James; in 1882, they shot him dead.