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Sins of Omission

The Gunfighter: Myth or Reality?

The reality of the Old West does not sit well with many in academe, who take pride in thinking they are debunking what they call cherished myths of the American people.  I think this is especially the case when talking about gunfighters.  There is clearly an impulse to attempt to destroy what most of us see as men of exceptional courage with nerves of steel.  Better to deny such men existed—or you might be expected to live up to their example.

I was recently taped for a program focusing on the Hollywood version of the Old West.  Not surprisingly, one of the questions that arose concerned the portrayal of the gunfighter.  Did such a man ever really exist?  Did he ever really face down an adversary in the street of a Western town and shoot it out?  I got the feeling everyone expected me to answer that, other than Wild Bill Hickok and Dave Tutt letting lead fly in the town square of Springfield, Missouri, such a scenario occurred only on the silver screen.  Somehow, this has become the prevailing wisdom, especially in academe.

James Butler Hickok and Davis K. Tutt both served in the Civil War, but on opposite sides—Hickok for the Union, and Tutt the Confederacy.  July 1865 found them both in Springfield, Missouri, trying their luck as gamblers.  Hickok occasionally lost more than he won.  Tutt was a consistent winner, and one of those he often bested was Hickok. ...

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