How Violent was the American Frontier?

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs portrays a world of shocking violence, brutality, and indifference to human life, but does that mirror reality?

I’m a big fan of both Westerns and the Cohen Brothers, so I was eager to see their latest offering on Netflix, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), an anthology of six short films set in the Wild West. The stories were filled with interesting characters and scenarios, beautiful cinematography, and of course all the Cohen Brothers’ hallmarks, but something didn’t sit right with me.

Movies about the “Wild West” are almost always violent, focusing on battles with Plains Indians and Comanches, gunfights, bank robberies, and outlaws. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs focuses on a wide variety of Western life. We see traveling showmen, a prospector, a wagon train, and a coach ride. Sudden, brutal violence and indifference to human life ties them all together. At the end, I came away feeling sad, particularly after the wagon train short.

There’s no denying life could be brutally harsh on the nineteenth century American frontier. Disease, high infant mortality, the Indian Wars, lack of advanced medical care, and an austere environment all combined to make survival challenging at best. But hundreds of thousands of people did survive, thrive, and lived out their lives on the frontier, just like any other time.

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Hostiles: Eulogy for the Old West

An embittered Army captain must escort a hated adversary to his distant homeland.

Written and directed by Scott Cooper, Hostiles (2017) is based on a manuscript by Donald E. Stewart. Hostiles is a “revisionist” Western in the vein of Unforgiven (1992) and No Country for Old Men (2007). It is stark, gritty, and violent, focusing on survival in the vast western expanse. It is also a near-perfectly executed film; its main flaw being a tedious run time of two hours and 14 minutes.

In a remote outpost in New Mexico, Col. Abraham Biggs (Stephen Lang) sends Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) on one final mission. The U.S. Army has kept Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family prisoner, but now the Cheyenne chief is elderly and cancer-ridden. Capt. Blocker and a small detail must escort them to Montana’s Valley of the Bears. Blocker, on the verge of retirement, reluctantly agrees, despite decades of brutal warfare with the chief and his tribe.

Their journey is complicated when they come upon Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike), whose family was slaughtered by rampaging Comanches. Together, they must overcome hardships and their own prejudices if they are to survive and make it to their destination. They encounter hostile Indians, hostile whites, and raging monsoons, and leave a trail of bodies in their path.

Hostiles‘ story is about as straightforward as you can get: the protagonists travel from point A to point B, overcome obstacles along the way, and arrive at their destination with their perspectives changed. It would receive an A+ in any college screenwriting course. The film pays homage to the great Westerns that inspired it, at one point even taking a line of dialogue straight from Unforgiven: “I’ve killed everything that’s walked or crawled at one point,” says Master Sgt. Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane).

The film takes place in 1892, less than two years after the Wounded Knee Massacre that ended the Indian Wars, which lasted for more than 30 years. The characters mention Wounded Knee several times when reflecting on their past. Yet the nation is already moving on, as evidenced by Minnie, wife of Lt. Col. Ross McCowan, lamenting the atrocities committed against American Indian tribes. She does this in front of Rosalee Quaid, whose husband and three children, including a baby cradled in her arms, were shot down in cold blood by Comanches. Rosalee seems to (unrealistically) take it in stride.

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Wild West Town Gunfight

I loved visiting Donley’s Wild West Town in Union, Illinois with my dad as a kid in the late 1980s. My favorite part, aside from panning for fool’s gold, was the live action gunfight. They’ve changed the gunfight into a slapstick routine, but it’s all in good fun. I shot some footage and put together this video in the style of an old black and white silent film.

Deadwood, South Dakota

I’ve written about the Bullock Hotel, but Deadwood, South Dakota deserves an article all its own. I visited Deadwood on a trip that took me to Sturgis, Custer State Park, the Badlands, Devils Tower, and Mount Rushmore, among other places. I’m a huge fan of the old West, so I loved HBO’s series Deadwood (2004-2006), even if the dialogue was ridiculous. Even today, its population is tiny, but it’s the only city in the country that’s designated a National Historic Landmark District.

It’s rare to find a city with so much history, despite surviving predominantly off tourism. Nearly every hotel, bar, and restaurant in Deadwood doubles as a casino. My friend and I visited in early spring, so it was practically a ghost town. I imagine it’s flooded with tourists in the summer, especially when people come to nearby Sturgis for its annual motorcycle rally.

We stayed at the Bullock Hotel, named for Seth Bullock, the first sheriff of Deadwood. It’s one of the most famous haunted hotels in the United States. In 1992, it was featured on Unsolved Mysteries and is reportedly haunted by a host of spirits. The hotel has an entire guestbook where visitors can share stories of their ghostly encounters, although we didn’t experience anything unusual.

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The Copper Queen’s Lady Julia, and Other Unearthly Guests

The Copper Queen is a popular jewel nestled in the picturesque town of Bisbee, Arizona, but do guests share their rooms with something unseen?

  • Copper Queen Mining Company owner Phelps Dodge built the hotel in 1902 to attract investors.
  • According to eyewitnesses, three ghosts stalk its halls: “Billy,” “Howard,” and Julia Lowell.
  • Julia, a former prostitute, is the most famous ghost whisking her way through the halls of the Copper Queen.
  • The Copper Queen has appeared on both Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures.

Rising above the colorful tapestry of tightly clustered homes and businesses blanketing the Mule Mountains in southeastern Arizona, the Copper Queen Hotel stands as a gilded monument. For over 100 years, it has served as a social anchor for the former mining town of old Bisbee. I first stayed at the Copper Queen Hotel in 2009 while visiting friends from Phoenix.

I had heard rumors that the hotel was haunted, but it wasn’t until I returned a few years later that I discover just how much. In the interim, the hotel had published its logbook of ghostly encounters from 2000 to 2008, and the book contains many interesting gems.

Phelps Dodge, owner of the Copper Queen Mining Company, built the grand hotel in a bid to lure investors to the area. It took four years to complete the hotel, and it opened on February 22, 1902. When the copper mines closed in 1975, Bisbee had to find a new focus. It became a cultural destination for artists and tourists.

All the while, the copper queen hotel continued to provide a luxury accommodations. Sitting on the balcony, guests can still enjoy a sip of wine while looking out over the town of Old Bisbee nestled in the picturesque mountains. The chill on the back of your neck may be the mountain breeze, or it might be something else…

According to various eyewitness accounts, there are three ghosts stalking the halls. One, only known as “Billy,” is an adolescent boy who was said to have drowned in the San Pedro River. He is drawn to the hotel because his mother was a former employee. “Billy” has rarely been seen, but he is accused of stealing and moving guests’ personal items. Others have heard him laugh or cry.

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Haunted Tombstone, Arizona

This legendary Wild West town offers a glimpse of the past—sometimes unintentionally!

  • Tombstone was founded in 1879 in southern Arizona by prospector Ed Schieffelin.
  • It was the scene of the famous “Shootout at the OK Corral”, which became the subject of popular movies and literature.
  • Big Nose Kate’s, the O.K. Corral, and Crystal Palace Saloon are all believed to be home to restless spirits.

I first visited Tombstone in 2009, which was a dream come true for this fan of old Westerns. Even though I was born in 1981, I was raised on TV shows like Rawhide and Bonanza. I never had the opportunity to travel out west until after graduate school. When I did, some friends from Phoenix and I made sure to explore everything the town had to offer. One of the most famous buildings in Tombstone is the Bird Cage Theatre.

I never thought I would return, but I recently found myself back in that oddly-named showcase of the Wild West. As I sat down for dinner at Big Nose Kate’s, two cowboys sat at the table next to mine playing cards. Yeah, that felt right. I could feel the living, breathing history there. As it turns out, many of Tombstone’s buildings are said to be haunted, not just the Birdcage. Big Nose Kate’s Saloon is one of these.

Big Nose Kate’s, located at 417 East Allen Street (you can’t miss it), was named after John Henry “Doc” Holliday’s companion, “Big Nose” Kate (Mary Katharine Horony). The saloon sits on the site of the former Grand Hotel, which burned in a fire in the spring of 1881. Sylvester Comstock, owner of the hotel, erected a more modest building in its place.

Patrons and staff have reported hearing the sound of boots thundering against the floor, beer mugs and other objects moving on their own, and even catching a glimpse of an ethereal cowboy. Joshua Hawley, author of Tombstone’s Most Haunted, witnessed one of these moving objects himself when a trophy slid off a mini fridge–narrowly missing one of the employees!

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Tombstone’s Bird Cage Theater

This old theater is one of the last surviving buildings from Tombstone, Arizona’s Wild West days. Do some of its infamous patrons still remain?

  • The Bird Cage Theater opened in 1881 and closed in 1889.
  • The theater operates as a museum, with hundreds of artifacts from Tombstone’s past.
  • At night, the sounds of laughter, yelling and music have been heard, as though the parties of the Old West were still raging.

The Bird Cage Theater at 535 E. Allen Street in Tombstone, Arizona, is one of the only surviving buildings from Tombstone’s Wild West days, the rest having been destroyed by two fires that swept through the town in 1881 and 1882. The Bird Cage Theater opened in 1881 and closed in 1889. In those short years, it gained a notorious reputation as a house of gambling, entertainment, and prostitution. As many as 26 people were allegedly murdered there, and there are over 120 bullet holes throughout the interior.

In 1882 the New York Times called it “the wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast.” Legendary figures like Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, Diamond Jim Brady, George Randolph Hurst, Johnny Ringo, and Wyatt Earp played poker and drank the night away there.

The Bird Cage Theater is also rumored to be haunted with the ghosts of Tombstone’s tumultuous past. TV shows like Ghost Hunters (2006), Ghost Adventures, Ghost Lab (2009), and Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files (2011) have all aired episodes about the theater. I’ve had a longtime interest in the Old West, so when I visited a friend in Arizona in 2009, we had to take a trip out to Tombstone. The Birdcage Theater was one of the places we visited. It is packed full of memorabilia and artifacts from the past.

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