Romanticised in novels, film, costume and games, the American West nurses a cache of dramatic stories and extraordinary personalities, some of whom have been essential to America’s self-image.
Among them are notorious outlaws but also iconic figures like Stagecoach Mary, who brandished firearms as a US postal service mail carrier, and the Lakota leader Crazy Horse, who famously defeated the US Army at Little Bighorn.
The period of the Wild West is typically regarded as spanning the mid to late 19th century. During this time, the westward expansion of the United States continued and the population of remote settler towns exploded. The history of the American frontier is one of hardship, endurance and also conquest, for the growth of the settler population was hitched to the dispossession of the indigenous inhabitants of the land.
Here are 7 iconic figures of the American frontier.
1. Allan J. Pinkerton
After tipping off a local sheriff about counterfeiters operating in the woods near Dundee, Illinois, the Scotsman Allan J. Pinkerton (1819-1884) was appointed the first police detective in Chicago. Shortly afterwards, in 1850, he founded the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.
The agency solved a series of train robberies, supplied intelligence and security to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, and was later utilised by businessmen to infiltrate unions and intimidate workers. Its activities were so notorious that “the Pinkerton detective, in both action and reputation, came to symbolize, for good and bad, the new industrial order,” according to S. Paul O’Hara in Inventing the Pinkertons.
2. Stagecoach Mary
The renowned stagecoach driver Mary Fields (c. 1832-1914) delivered mail between Cascade and St. Peter’s Mission in Montana between 1895 and 1903. She regularly encountered wolves and outlaws on the route, so carried multiple firearms with her, including a revolver beneath her apron. For her reliable and dauntless service, she acquired the nickname ‘Stagecoach Mary’.
Fields was born into slavery in Tennessee around 1832. After emancipation following the Civil War, Fields worked on a steamboat, and later for St. Peter’s Mission in Montana. There she took on responsibilities typically regarded as ‘men’s work’, such as gardening, repair work, maintenance and heavy-lifting. She drank in saloons and may have been dismissed by the convent after getting into a gunfight with a man who objected to taking orders from her.
She was the first African American woman to become a US postal service contract mail carrier and on retirement was a respected figure in Cascade. She was exempt from a Montana law which forbade women to enter saloons and her home was rebuilt by volunteers after it burned down in 1912.
3. Crazy Horse
Crazy Horse (c. 1840-1877), or Tȟašúŋke Witkó in Lakota, led a war party at the Battle of Little Bighorn on 25 June 1876, where they successfully routed the US Army forces led by General Custer. An apparently lonesome, aloof yet generous man, Crazy Horse was a leader among the Oglala band of the Lakota people.
Crazy Horse is remembered for his refusal to submit to the US government’s attempts to enclose Lakota people within reservations. Before his death in captivity in 1877, at the approximate age of 37, Crazy Horse fought in numerous battles against the US Army to confront the settlement of indigenous lands.
His remains were supposed to have been buried at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. His face, meanwhile, is depicted on the Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills, commissioned by Lakota elder Henry Standing Bear in 1939. And his name has been used to promote any number of products which benefit from association with a legendary figure of the Wild West.
4. Ben Lilly
The famous big game hunter Benjamin Vernon Lilly (1856-1936) was prolific in his hunting of apex predators in North America around the tail-end of the Old West period.
Born in 1856 in Wilcox County, Alabama, ‘Ol’ Lilly’ moved to Louisiana and later to Texas. Lilly ultimately earned the reputation of a ‘mountain man’, roaming and hunting across swathes of the American frontier throughout his life.
He became notorious for the numbers of grizzly, cougars and black bears he killed, and in 1907 guided President Theodore Roosevelt on a hunting expedition in Louisiana.
Geronimo (1829-1909) is one of the most iconic figures of the American West. A leader among the Chiricahua tribe of Apache, Geronimo fought against US and Mexican forces until his surrender in 1886. The Apache Wars had begun in 1848, when American settlers entered traditional Apache lands in the Southwestern United States.
As a prisoner, Geronimo was himself exhibited by his captors at shows such as the Trans-Mississippi and International Exhibition in Omaha, Nebraska and Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show. Despite Geronimo riding horseback alongside five chiefs in President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 Inaugural Parade, Roosevelt refused Geronimo’s request to free Chiricahuas who remained prisoners of war.
6. Wyatt Earp
Among the most famous of Old West gunfighters is the lawman Wyatt Earp (1848-1929). Wyatt Earp’s law-enforcement career culminated with a dramatic shootout at the O.K. Corral on 26 October 1881, where he was accompanied by his brothers Virgil and Morgan, as well as friend Doc Holliday.
After the shootout with the Cochise County Cowboys, perhaps the most famous gunfight of the American Old West, Wyatt Earp formed a federal posse to hunt down the remaining outlaws. Earp died in 1929, by which time he had garnered notoriety after being accused of fixing a boxing match. He also made a significant sum of money from his businesses in nascent boomtowns, namely the Dexter Saloon in Nome, Alaska.
7. Annie Oakley
Annie Oakley (1860-1926) was an expert in marksmanship who made a name for herself in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Oakley was born in 1860 to an impoverished family in Ohio, and her career as a sharpshooter took her to Europe where she performed for Queen Victoria and Umberto I of Italy, among other heads of state.
On the occasion that the US and Spain should go to war, she even offered the US government her services to recruit a company of 50 “lady sharpshooters”. Oakley is quoted as saying, “I would like to see every woman know how to handle guns, as naturally as they know how to handle babies.”