Monday, February 7, 2011

A Few Things About The Old West You May Not Know

Mention the Old West, and most people have certain images which come to mind. Among the most popular images are those of cowboys, horses, cattle rustlers, lawmen, outlaws, gunfights, deserts, mining camps, gold, prairies, and mountains. And while many of these images are historically accurate, they have also been slightly twisted by Hollywood movies. Some images, however, are more movies than reality. Take, for example, a few other images which conjure up the Old West, those being whiskey, saloons, and poker. These images are accurate too, but probably not in the way most people think. And, there is no doubt that the public perception with regard to these images is far more driven by celluloid than the truth.

In the movies we’re used to seeing a man push open the swinging doors of an ornately decorated and large clean saloon, belly up to the bar, and order a whiskey. As someone plays a piano in the corner, with dancing girls swirling around, the bartender takes out a clean bottle of bourbon, and fills a shot glass which is quickly consumed. The man then throws down a gold coin, and takes his bottle to one of the many gaming tables, and gets involved in a game of poker. The poker game then ends in a shootout, with dead bodies strewn about the floor. We’ve watched this scene a hundred times, if we’ve seen it once. The problem is that it’s not always an accurate or typical portrayal of the way it really was, so let me point out a few things about the Old West you may not know.

Until the Old West got a little more sophisticated in the late 1800’s, due primarily to the great wealth created by railroads, mining camps, and, cattle towns, most saloons were not large, not very ornate, nor were they very tidy. Floors were often covered with sawdust, which absorbed everything from tobacco juice, blood, beer, and liquor, as well as holding down other displeasing odors associated with saloons of the time period. Not the least of these odors was caused by vomit, deposited on the floor after drunken patrons of the saloon “aired their paunches.” Likewise, instead of a jingling piano, it was probably just as common to see a barber chair in the corner of a saloon. The saloon’s management, by providing barber services, encouraged self-professed religious men with a respectable cover story of why they’d been seen entering a saloon. And, after a haircut and shave, if these men just happened to find themselves having a few drinks at the bar, no one would be the wiser.

The saloon district in Austin, Texas was a place called “Guy Town.” And, the saloons in Guy Town were typical of those found in any city of similar size in the West during the mid to late 1800’s. One difference, perhaps, was that the saloons in Austin catered to some very influential clientele, given the fact that the Texas State Capitol was located in the city. State legislators, and other government officials, joined the common folk in enjoying the whiskey, woman, music, and gambling the saloons in Guy Town offered.

Dropping a coin or two on the bar is another lasting image of the Old West, but drinks in the saloons were often purchased with gold dust instead of coins. This allowed the enterprising bartender to steal from the saloon’s owners by using various techniques to keep a little gold dust for himself. One such technique involved using his head, so to speak. Before starting his shift, the unscrupulous bartender would rub grease or liniment in his hair. After taking the gold dust in payment, there would always be a little of it left on his fingers and beneath his finger nails. The bartender would then nonchalantly rub his hand through his sticky hair. Later he would wash the gold from his hair, and by doing so, supplement his income nicely.

The image of men sitting around a table playing poker is nearly synonymous with the Old West. But most saloons of the time period, especially in the early years, were relatively small, and only had room for a couple of gaming tables. Contrary to popular belief, poker, while played, was not the most popular game of the time period, and, in fact, prior to the early 1870’s, was rarely played at all. There was another card game which was far more popular, and because it has vanished from the gambling scene so completely, relatively few people today, including gamblers, have ever heard of it. Faro was the name of the game, and those who played were called “punters.” The game of faro was played on a table, and required special equipment which facilitated the game. As such, faro dealers made their money by traveling around the West with their gambling equipment, and setting up shop wherever they could. These dealers often rented space on a saloon floor, and, in return, gave a percentage of their winnings to the owner of the saloon. Unlike a poker game, in which each person playing banked their own game, and either won or lost according to the extent of their “investment,” in the game of faro, the game needed a financial backer, and the dealer himself staked his personal fortune as the faro bank. Punters playing faro were said to be “bucking the tiger,” and, because the game was easy to play, and, when played fairly, provided nearly the same odds to both the dealers and players, it was extremely popular. Because these even odds meant a lower take for the saloon, many dealers began cheating, and faro soon fell into disrepute.

Many famous names of the Old West were faro dealers at one time or another, including Wyatt Earp, "Doc" Holliday, and Bat Masterson. In the Texas Hill Country, Austin’s own Ben Thompson owned several gaming concessions around the city, including the faro operation directly above the well-known Iron Front Saloon, which was located on the corner of Sixth and Congress. Ben Thompson, in addition to being a gambler and saloon owner, was a prolific killer, gunfighter, and, at one time, held the position of City Marshal of Austin. Thompson had honed his faro skills in various places around the West, including Abilene, Kansas, and he made a lot of money running faro games in his Austin gambling establishments.

Another popular misconception of the Old West involves whiskey. As mentioned earlier, movies have often portrayed bartenders pulling clean bottles filled with bourbon out from behind the bar. While it is true, that good bourbon was available throughout the West at certain times and in certain places, it is truer still that the whiskey often served was some very bad stuff indeed. Called “Tarantula Juice,” “Coffin Varnish,” and “Stagger Soup,” the concoctions sold as whiskey were often made with cheap raw watered-down alcohol, and colored to look like whiskey with whatever was locally available, including, old shoes, tobacco, molasses, or burnt sugar. These whiskies were frequently given an extra “kick” by adding red peppers or, extra “flavor” by adding other things, like snake heads, which tainted the liquid. Now you understand what the cowboys, as portrayed in the movies, meant when they asked the bartender for a bottle of “your best whiskey.” They were asking for a bottle of real whiskey distilled in a place somewhere in the Eastern United States, like Kentucky, or, Pennsylvania.

It is interesting to note that the best whiskey from out East, in a lot of saloons, meant rye whiskey, not bourbon. Rye was just as popular, if not more popular, as bourbon in those days. The popularity of rye whiskey has declined significantly since the days of the Old West, but unlike the game of faro, it never disappeared entirely, except, perhaps, during prohibition. And, unlike faro, there has been a comeback of late in the enjoyment of rye whiskey, with some new brands appearing on the shelves of liquor stores. One brand, however, which was around back in the West, is still being sold today, and that brand is Old Overholt. The rye whiskies produced by the Overholt Family go back to around 1810, and were widely available in the West. In fact, Old Overholt was reputably the favorite whiskey of the famous gambler and gunman, “Doc” Holliday, who was no slouch when it came to appreciating the finer things in life, including a good whiskey.

Hollywood has portrayed violent confrontations with armed cowboys in saloons in hundreds of movies over the years. Usually, following an argument over a card game, the guns come out, and within a few seconds, men lay dead on a saloon floor, or stumble out into the street to die. There were, in fact, many shootings which actually did take place in saloons and which cost the lives of many men, including, some well-known characters from the Old West. “Wild Bill” Hickok, Morgan Earp, and Warren Earp, were just a few of the famous men who died from gunplay in saloons. Several legendary Texans also died by gunfire in saloons. Ben Thompson and John King Fisher were both ambushed and killed in San Antonio’s Vaudeville Theatre and Saloon in March of 1884, and the notorious killer, John Wesley Hardin, was murdered in El Paso’s Acme Saloon in 1895.

Despite the reality that guns were indeed drawn and fired in Old West saloons, there is another reality which is seldom portrayed in the movies. Many towns, while not prohibiting weapons outright, did require guns be checked in with the law, behind the bar in a saloon, or, perhaps at a hotel or rooming house. But the requirement to check weapons did not do away with the gun violence entirely, as some men merely chose to conceal their weapons. For example, the famous outlaw, Sam Bass, was shot up and died in Round Rock, a town on the eastern edge of the Texas Hill Country, after refusing to surrender his concealed pistol in a general store.  The local gun laws throughout the West did, however, help to hold down the number of shootings in saloons, where the whiskey flowed freely, and heated arguments over gambling and women were commonplace.

History, as we perceive it, is an interesting thing, because what we believe to be true about history probably isn’t, since the fact and the fiction have become so intertwined. Nowhere is this more true than when observing the popular public perception of the Old West. In the end, the perception is what it is, and will be what it will be, but, hopefully, you’ve learned a few things you may not have known before about this fascinating period of American history.


  1. Hey very nice blog!! Man .. Beautiful .. Amazing .. I will bookmark your blog and take the feeds also...Finally…have fun!

  2. Movie pictures, thanks for dropping by. I appreciate it. Glad you enjoyed the blog.

  3. It's crazy how horrible wiskey was. Colored with tobacco or shoes? Flavored with snake heads? You'd think that would scare everyone away from drinking.

  4. Mindy, thank you so very much for reading the blog and your insightful comment. In fact, whatever the quality of whiskey was in the West, it really didn't matter to the men who drank it. It was a tough life on the frontier, and men drank what was available, however bad. There were other things added to "whiskey," which I chose to not comment on, and, you really don't want to know about.

  5. Bob, thanks for the insight the 2nd best article I read all week and thanks for taking the time to notice....☼ I ♥ Florida! ☼ JUST CAST A LINE AND LET YOUR FLORIDA SOUL SHINE! ☼ I ♥ Florida! ☼

  6. Very nice blog! I was trespassing through Bloggapedia. I'm from India, and my image of the West was, of course, from hollywood blockbusters. I particularly like what you say in the end about history and facts getting intertwined. Every country/state has an image which is always a spiced up version of the real.

  7. Amritha, thank you for reading my blog and the very nice compliment. I am particularly pleased that you dropped by, as I have spent quite a bit of time in India over the years, including, Bangalore, other places in the Karnataka State, as well as Chennai and Mumbai. India is a fascinating country with wonderful people, and I've always enjoyed my visits there. All the Best.

  8. Excellent! I'll have a Johnny Walker neat...with a snake-head float, please.

  9. Thanks for the information, I enjoy listening to the radio show "Gunsmoke" on old time radio shows on cd and podcast and the one thing was that Marshall Dillon and his friends were always having a beer at anytime of the day. It made me curious, so I googled this same question and read your article. It is true, you can learn something new everyday!

  10. Great article on the bats in Austin.

  11. Peter, thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I appreciate you dropping in!