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How the Wild West built its legends : Glorious Bullshitters

What’s the common point between the great names of the Wild West and my job? We’re all really great at making up stories!

The conquest of the Wild West was the stuff of legends… which were mostly self-created. Whether they were heroes or outlaws, the great figures we now associate the era with all understood the importance of publicity, and often took matters into their own hands.

Of all of them, Buffalo Bill was the uncontested master of the craft. At the beginning of his career, when he was hunting Bison in the plains to force the Native American tribes out (let’s face it, the West wasn’t the best of places), Buffalo Bill started paying journalists and authors to write about him, self-propelling his own fame forward. He was a man with strong instincts for the theatrics. He reportedly once changed into his stage clothes before a skirmish with Native Americans, presumably to claim perfect accuracy when re-enacting it in his traveling show, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West”, later on (the way he turned a Cheyenne scout into a war chief was clearly not as important as his clothes)!

On the side of the bad guys, Jesse James was hailed as “the robin hood of the west” despite never actually sharing his ill-gotten wealth with poor people. How did he manage such a feat? By forging a partnership with a member of the press, of course! Jesse James and journalist John Newman Edwards both shared strong Confederale sentiments and a hatred of the Republicans ; Edwards quickly decided to use James’s spirited letters, in which he both defended the actions of his gang and railed against the government, as a way to promote his own political agenda, going as far as writing his own pamphlets in defense of Jesse James, such as “The Chivalry of Crime”. When half of the country sees you as an anti-hero, the fact that you’re robbing them blind doesn’t matter as much!

Being an outlaw in the West was no small feat, but being a woman was probably even harder. Martha Jane Cannary, the future Calamity Jane, understood this well, and she determinedly forged her own path forward, starting with crafting the legend around her nickname, supposedly given to her by a captain which she’d rescued from death. Like Buffalo Bill, she understood the need for self-promotion, and since she was illiterate, she hired someone to write her biography as a pamphlet, “Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane”. The pamphlet turned out to be the perfect piece of merchandise to sell to people who came to see her in Buffalo Bill’s shows. As I told you, the Wild West legends really understood business.

Although sometimes, these tall tales turned against them. Such is what happened to Wild Bill Hickok. Working on the side of the law for most of his life, he once tried to cement his reputation as an apt gunslinger by telling a reporter, Henry Stanley (who would later find Dr Livingstone in Africa), that he had killed over a hundred men. Bill would quickly grow to regret his own boasting, loathing the reputation it gave him of being a cold hearted killer.

There are so many more stories of the West to explore, and this is what makes it such an amazing playing ground when you write immersive experiences. Those glorious fibsters allow us to both showcase the legendary acts of bravado they claimed for themselves, and to go deeper and show the true flawed individuals behind the legends, which is always fascinating and enriching. It’s a scriptwriter’s dream!

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