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Mythbuster: American West Duels; Movie Fiction or Historical Fact or Both?

A common theme in Western Movies is the duel. Usually, two men, a bad guy and a hero who is trying to exact revenge, stand in the middle of a dirt road running through the center of the town. The bad guy on one end, the hero on the other. At noon, once the clock sounds, the two men draw their pistols from their holsters and shoot, the villain losing the duel. Personally when I think of films that demonstrate this theme, I think of the films A Fistful of Dollars, High Noon and The Quick and the Dead in which the hero is trying to prove themselves, while at the same time seeking revenge. I wonder though, were duels really a part of the American West? How historically accurate are these scenes in Western movies of duels? If they did occur, how common were duels?

Quick Dead Duel
Screen shot from The Quick and the Dead [4]

In my research I have found that duels are not a product of the American West, nor were they very common in the American West. Dueling originated in Europe amongst Aristocrats, and was a rite of passage to prove one’s honor and manhood. It was a social thing to do in Europe. [1] It was deemed noble and morally correct because, “On the hazy theory that God identified the good guy and lent him a hand, the winner, whether he did his own fighting or hired a proxy, was more than just the winner. By the fact of winning he was held to be innocent of the charges brought; he was honest, and the defeated man a liar; the disputed land, or ox, or fair maiden was rightfully his.”[1]

Dueling did happen in the United States and it was most common in the American South post-Revolutionary War and pre-Civil War, not in the American West. “Kentucky and Tennessee… during and after the Revolution were infinitely more violent than anything that came later.” [2] Dueling during this time period was a staple in American politics and military. “American custom, popular clear into the 1890s, of “posting” in taverns and on street corners notices that called the coward a coward. (Posting was also a common way of issuing a challenge in the first place.) Obeying the code of honor showcased a man’s courage, integrity and conviction, and marked him as leadership material” [1] Most duels in the United States took place in Bladensburg, Maryland, one mile outside of Washington D.C. At this one specific location over one hundred duels occurred [1]. Historically, in the United States, the two most popular duelist were Aaron Burr and Andrew Jackson. Aaron Burr was Vice President of the United States when he shot and mortally wounded Alexander Hamilton. Andrew Jackson, who became President of the United States was involved in 14 duels [1].

Aaron Burr
Aaron Burr in a duel [5]

Dueling did occur in the American West.The American West was a ripe location for dueling, “Scholars suppose that dueling took root with the most primitive judicial systems, when disputes insoluble by witness testimony were solved in a trial by combat” [1] The American West was a violent and lawless place in the 19th century. It was a mixture of ex soldiers, adventurers, gamblers, killers and miners [2]. The people of the American South brought with them their traditions of dueling to the American West [2]. As those traditions went west, they lost their formality, “and sometimes instead of the courtly letter of challenge delivered by a dignified second, a glass of whiskey thrown in the face would suffice.” [1] Instead of the duel, it was more likely someone would be shot and killed from behind unexpectedly, which is how “Wild Bill” met his demise in 1876 when he was assassinated by Jack McCall [3].

There is one case of a duel in the west that was similar to the famous duels of the westerns. This duel starred the infamous “Wild Bill” Hickok and took place in Springfield, Missouri, in 1865, which could be considered the “west”. The duel was against a one Dave Tutt and it took place because of a card game and a woman. The two men faced each at 75 yards, and when Dave Tutt advanced, Hickok drew one of his pistols and shot and killed Dave Tutt [2]. It is a common image of the two duelists drawing their pistols from their holsters as quick as they could and fire off a shot, a quick draw. However, it was more common for the duelists to already have their weapons drawn and took time to aim, since accuracy was more important and than speed [2]. Also dueling in the west usually consisted of the use of bowie knifes, rifles and shotguns, since these were the weapons most people had in the west because they served more practical purposes, pistols were not that common [1].

However, the duel was not the main or a common way to keep law or to settle scores in the American West. Instead, there was a combination of a lynch mob and a court. Vigilance committees were formed to deal with crime and accusations. Typically they consisted of a swift trial and then a public hanging. This was because jails and prisons were far and few between, and those that did exist were easy to escape out of [2]. Scores were settled in the west with minor wars and battles, usually between cattlemen and homesteaders, such as the case of the Johnson County War of 1892 [2].

Through my researched, I have deduced that duels did occur in the American West, but they were not frequent, nor done in the manner which is depicted in western films. Duels were most common in the American south prior to the Civil War, not in the west post-civil war. The west was still a violent, lawless area, but it was not a place of duels, but mostly consisted of brawls, behind the back shootings, hangings, and small wars.

Author: James Hotaling


[1] Holland, Barbara. “Bang! Bang! You’re dead: dueling at the drop of a hat was as European as truffles and as American as mom’s apple pie.” Smithsonian 28.n7 (Oct 1997): 122(8). Academic OneFile. Gale. Worcester State College. 15 Oct. 2009
Gale Document Number:A19868394

[2] May, Robin, and G.A. Embleton. The American West. London: Almark Publishing CO. LTD. 1973. Print.

[3] Rosa, Joseph G. They Called Him Wild Bill: The Life and Adventures of James Butler Hickok. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. 1974. Printed.

[4] http://rossvross.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/border-kid.jpg

[5] http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/jah/87.3/images/mr_2_f1.jpg

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