The 1860s and the 1890s gave birth to the period known as the Wild West and laid a foundation to its ensuing mythology. It was an era of cowboys, Indians, pioneers, outlaws and gunslingers brought together by the purposes of expansion, defense, greed and reinvention.
Explore some of the legends of the Old West whose untamed spirits helped define the new frontier and the rugged individualism of America:
Billy the Kid
While not much is known of Billy the Kid's early years, he was born William Henry McCarty Jr. in the slums of New York City and was orphaned at 14. He eventually moved out West, where his days as a Wild West outlaw and gunfighter was ripe before him.
On the lam from New Mexican authorities for stealing, Billy the Kid fled to Arizona, where he murdered a man during a fight. He returned to New Mexico and joined a group of cattle thieves and fought in the Lincoln County War.
Although he boasted of having gunned down close to two dozen men, he probably killed less than 10 before he was fatally shot at the age of 21 by Sheriff Pat Garrett.
William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody lived many lives before he became known to the world for his eponymous Wild West tour. Barely a teen, he took part in California's Gold Rush and two years later, became a Pony Express Rider.
He served as an army scout in the Indian Wars, fought for the Union in the Civil War, and found a way of practicing his acting chops in between. By the time he launched his colorful cowboy-themed Wild West show in 1883, he was already a legend.
Easily identifiable by his coonskin cap, Davy Crockett — known for being a hunter, frontiersman, soldier and politician — is one of the most mythologized folk heroes and "forefathers" of the Wild West.
Called the "King of the Wild Frontier," Crockett got involved in Tennessee's local and state politics before representing it as a U.S. Congressman starting in 1827 through 1833. After barely losing his election to serve out a fourth term, a disillusioned Crockett moved to Texas, which was under Mexico's jurisdiction at the time, in 1835.
The following year, he fought for Texas' independence and was killed in the Battle of Alamo.
Born Martha Jane Canary in Missouri, Calamity Jane grew up to be an adventurous frontiersman and performer. Famous for dressing and shooting like a man — and drinking like one, too — Jane moved to booming gold rush towns out West and became an expedition scout in South Dakota. She became famous for her wild antics and quickly learned that telling tall tales of her exploits (real and mostly imagined) could make her a buck.
Jane toured with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and also appeared at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in upstate New York. Her rumored romantic relations with Wild Bill Hickok were probably started by her, but soon, she even tired of her fanciful stories and persona. Suffering from alcoholism, Jane died at 51. Per her request, she was buried next to Hickock.
Wild Bill Hickok
Like Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok was known for telling outlandish tales about his adventures out West. He was a wagon master, Union spy, lawman, gunslinger and gambler who became cemented as one of the most famous folk heroes of the era, thanks to his quick-draw duel with Davis Tutt in 1865.
While playing a poker game in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, Hickok was shot in the back by Jack McCall. At the time of his death, he was purportedly holding two pairs of black aces and eights, now known as the dead man's hand in poker.
Called "Little Miss Sure Shot" among many other names, Ohio native Annie Oakley lived an extraordinary life, thanks to her champion sharpshooting skills, which started in her teens. At 15, her talents came out in full view when she dared to compete with expert marksman Frank E. Butler, whom she'd narrowly beat in a shooting contest and eventually marry. Later, she'd meet Buffalo Bill and become one of his star attractions in his Wild West show, where she'd have the opportunity to meet royalty, world leaders, and even befriend Chief Sitting Bull.
Even up to her death, Oakley was setting records in shooting contests and preparing for a comeback. When she died in 1926, her husband of five decades was so devastated that he followed her to the grave just a few weeks later.
Robert LeRoy Parker, better known as Butch Cassidy, closed out the last decade of the 1800s being a wanted man. With his accomplice Harry Alonzo Longabaugh (aka the Sundance Kid), the two robbed trains, banks and led a posse of criminals called the Wild Bunch.
Cassidy and the Wild Bunch wreaked havoc in places like Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico before fleeing the country to evade law enforcement. To make a clean escape, Cassidy and the Sundance Kid took a flight from New York City to South America. In 1908 they got involved in a shootout with local authorities in Bolivia, and it's believed that the two men lost their lives there.
READ MORE: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: The True Story of the Famous Outlaws
Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Jesse James was another celebrated bank and train robber who, along with his brother Frank, led the James-Younger Gang.
The James Brothers fought for the Confederate Army during the Civil War and were accused of atrocious crimes against Union soldiers and abolitionists. Robbing banks, trains and stagecoaches throughout the Midwest, James gained celebrity status and notoriety, starting in 1866.
After close to two decades on the run, James' life of crime came to an end when he was shot by new gang recruit Robert Ford, who was promised by authorities to be forgiven of past crimes if he killed James.
Wyatt Earp was a complicated frontiersman who lived many lives — both savory and unsavory. Not only was he a businessman, brothel bouncer and gambler, but he also had a few run-ins with the law before deciding to become the law.
After moving from one boomtown to the next in search of easy money, he found himself in Dodge City, Kansas, as an assistant marshal where he would spend his days maintaining the peace and doing his fair share of gambling. In 1879 he and several of his brothers moved to Tombstone, Arizona Territory, hoping to get rich from the silver boom. While there, they found trouble waiting for them — a group of outlaws called the Cowboys. Soon, the Earps, along with friend Doc Holliday, would become legendary for their shootout with the Cowboys at the O.K. Corral in 1881.
John Henry "Doc" Holliday was born and raised in Georgia. Before he became a professional gambler and gunslinger out West, he became a dentist who built his career in Atlanta. Having caught tuberculosis from his ailing mother, Holliday decided to move to the Southwest in hopes that the drier climate would ease his symptoms.
Like Earp, Holliday was a drifter and risk-taker. Realizing playing poker was more lucrative than dentistry, he became a gambler and traveled westward: Texas, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. It was in Texas where he met Earp, and the two became lifelong friends. Holliday would eventually follow Earp to Tombstone, Arizona, and fight side-by-side with him at the O.K. Corral. At 36 Holliday succumbed to tuberculosis in Colorado.