The Real West
By David A. Fryxell
Like most boys growing up in the 1950s, Bob Alexander was raised on a wild and woolly diet of cowboys and Indians, heroes in white hats and villains in black, Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers. In the newfangled medium of television, the Old West was personified by Hugh O'Brian as Wyatt Earp—square-jawed and stout-hearted, a fearless defender of all that was right and just on America's rough-and-tumble frontier.
As Alexander writes in the preface to his newly published history of Silver City and southwestern New Mexico, Six-Guns and Single-Jacks, "Those dashing cavaliers wearing the pristine Stetsons were a paradigm for virtue, worthy of emulation: flawless characters blessed with honesty, integrity and, perhaps above all else, unwavering courage. One and all they were kind to little children, compassionate to the less fortunate, and always perfect gentlemen in the company of dainty ladies. Many smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, but none ever drank whiskey to excess, if they took a drink at all. With certainty it was understood they never swore. Those Old West heroes were how fathers vicariously imagined themselves, and what they wanted sons to grow into. Conquering evil was relatively simple: Do right, live right, and everything would turn out right."
Only when Alexander grew up and became a lawman himself, reading the true history of the Old West in his spare time, did he come to realize that real life in places like Silver City in the latter half of the 1800s was painted more in shades of gray than in the stark simplicity of black and white. Even his childhood hero Wyatt Earp—well, Alexander would rather not get into the cold hard facts about him, lest Earp's defenders in the tightly knit world of outlaw-lawman history get riled up.
Characters like Earp, though, and their truth-stretching biographers aggressively pursued the limelight, and brought the towns they'd blazed through into the legends along with them: Tombstone, Dodge City, Deadwood. Places like Silver City and old Grant County, which then encompassed the entire southwest corner of the state, including present-day Deming and Lordsburg, saw every bit as much Wild West action—but missed the subsequent spotlight.
"People who later exploited their careers didn't spend as much time in Silver City, or went on to make their names in other places," says Alexander. His white cowboy hat on the floor beside him and brushy white moustache pushing the boundaries of his chin, Alexander looks as though he could once have been one of those Western characters himself. He speaks with the courtly yet confident manner of a Texas-bred lawman who's carried a badge for 40 years. Soft-spoken, even deferential, especially to the ladies, Alexander nonetheless can be instantly read as someone you wouldn't want to mess with. And get him started spinning tales in his colorful, campfire-storyteller style and the real trick will be getting him stopped.
But the yarns he relates—off the top of his head, with no notes, studded with dates and details as sharp as the points on a sheriff's badge—are all true, meticulously researched and footnoted. Perhaps that's why he has little patience with the exaggerating gloryhounds who put towns like Tombstone on the Old West map.
"Mentioning the names 'Tombstone' or 'Dodge City' or 'Deadwood' straight away conjures up Old West images. 'Silver City, New Mexico,' does not. It should!" Alexander maintains in the opening of his book. "For a time—50 years or so—Silver City was the stage for Wild West drama of the first order, with a cast of colorful players numbering in the hundreds. They were not actors, though, and the set was not a sham. There was nothing counterfeit about the people or the place."
Chuck Parsons, editor of the National Outlaw/Lawman History Association Quarterly, agrees: "This corner of New Mexico Territory held all elements of humanity," he says. "Reading its history is like holding up a mirror to the entire Western adventure."
"Silver City is just a fabulous story that needed to be told," says Alexander, who lives in Maypearl, Texas, and is the author of five previous books of Western history. His book Fearless Dave Allison, Border Lawman won the 2004 Best Outlaw/Lawman Book award from the Western Outlaw/Lawman History Association.
"Silver City is the quintessential Western experience, because it had it all," he goes on, adding, "I don't know that everyday people who live in Silver City realize what a rich Old West history this area has. Maybe it took somebody from the outside to see it."
Writing came later, after he retired and took up teaching criminal-justice courses at an area community college while pursuing his lifelong interest in the Old West. "After all those years working in law enforcement, it seemed natural to learn about law enforcement in the Old West," he says. "I started to acquire books about the Old West, and found that reading the truth was much more interesting than reading fiction. It got to the point where I wasn't reading any novels—I hope that wasn't detrimental to my overall education.
"After I retired, I had a lot of things in my head that I wanted to explore from a nonfiction angle. I wanted to pick up on characters who hadn't been written about before, like Dan Tucker, who happened to be here in Silver City."
Tucker, who became the subject of Alexander's first book, Dangerous Dan Tucker: New Mexico's Deadly Lawman, also figures prominently—and bloodily—in his new Six-Guns and Single-Jacks. Variously a deputy sheriff, town marshal and deputy US marshal in Silver City and Deming, Tucker by his own account was "obliged to kill eight men." For good or ill, he was the real thing, not a 20th-century media confection.
"I like to write about characters history has overlooked," Alexander adds. "That means I can develop more of their story."
He began making research trips to southwest New Mexico, drawing on the resource of libraries and the Silver City Museum, meeting local historians and history buffs. Pretty soon, he'd accumulated enough material to write a whole book on Tucker. Even though he'd never written a book before, in typical straight-ahead fashion, Alexander plunged into it. "It was sometimes a struggle," he concedes, "like how you jump off a diving board for the first time."
But jump he did—and that's in keeping with his philosophy about historical research. "If you can tell a story completely, go ahead and write it," he says. "Too many people wait and wait and wait, wanting to know every single fact, every time a fella buttoned his pajamas. Then they die and the research passes down to their grandchildren, who don't care about it.
"As writers of history, we all help each other. It's like falling dominos. I would hope that if somebody else comes across new information, they would add it to our knowledge. I fervently believe that we do not own history. History is something to be shared."
While in Silver City on a research trip, Alexander got hooked up with M.H. "Dutch" Salmon, whose High-Lonesome Books is based here. Since 1986, the small publishing firm has produced more than 30 titles on Western Americana, hunting and fishing and natural history topics. Alexander's in-depth research fit right in with High-Lonesome's target audience of hard-core Old West history buffs. Salmon snapped up the Dan Tucker book along with Alexander's second project, John H. Behan: Sacrificed Sheriff. Alexander has since written three more books for High-Lonesome—Lawmen, Outlaws, and S.O.Bs. (a collection of 15 shorter tales of real-life Western characters); the award-winning Allison book, about an overlooked Texas lawman; and Sheriff Harvey Whitehill, Silver City Stalwart, published this spring.
Like "Dangerous Dan" Tucker, Whitehill also plays a leading role in Alexander's latest book, Six-Guns and Single-Jacks. But unlike Alexander's previous titles, his A History of Silver City and Southwestern New Mexico (as the book is subtitled) is written not for Old West "buffs"—though it will certainly appeal to them as well—but for the general public. (Read an excerpt here.) Alexander has synthesized his years of researching and writing about this corner of the Old West into a comprehensive 336-page history of those colorful pre-statehood days, illustrated with more than 80 rare historic photos that Alexander ferreted out from a wide variety of sources.
That broadening of his audience is why Six-Guns and Single-Jacks was published by Gila Books, another Silver City enterprise. Gila Books is a new book-publishing offshoot from the owners of Desert Exposure, in collaboration with a group of print and Web experts across the country. Six-Guns and Single-Jacks is its first title.
He also prefers to write in chronological order, telling things as they happened rather than trying to wrap up events in artificial thematic packages. "I try to tell a compelling story, but I let it unfold naturally.
"I don't look at events in a vacuum," he adds. "I don't concentrate on the violent aspects per se. I start at the beginning and tell the story of Silver City and old Grant County. If someone happened to get shot and it was a significant event, I told it. If the next thing was that Indians raided and the military responded, I told that. But if the next thing was that lightning blew up near the school, that's what I wrote."
That's just the way history really unfolded, Alexander says: "While somebody was getting shot in a bar, somebody else was laying the foundation for a church."
So he sought to give equal time to the "single-jacks" aspect of his title, and all that came after as a result of the region's mining boom. As he explains the less-familiar title term in the book, a single-jack is a short, one-handed sledgehammer. In drilling a hole for an explosive "shot," a miner might work alone—"single-jacking"—or a second miner might hold the drill steel while the first wielded a long-handled sledgehammer, a "double-jack."
In the book's introduction, Robert G. McCubbin, co-publisher of True West magazine, notes, "Although dominated by the violence and the lawlessness, there is much more to the Silver City story. The author gives us just enough of everything so we get a complete picture of the people and events that have brought Silver City and Grant County to where they are today."
Six-Guns and Single-Jacks concludes with New Mexico's statehood. "When southwest New Mexico shed that territorial skin, it began to shed that Old West image," Alexander says. "There's certainly room for someone to come along and pick up the story from that point on, but my style is best used with that Old West format. I'm known in my little circle as reasonably knowledgeable about the Old West. If I went too far afield. . . . Besides, nobody is going to want to publish an 800-page book."
"Bob, in a few short years, has joined the ranks of the foremost writers in the field of Southwestern history," McCubbin adds. "We are grateful for his untiring efforts to ferret out much of the little-known history that has been buried away in old newspapers and dusty archives awaiting someone such as he."
Magazines like McCubbin's True West and Alexander's previous books reflect a burgeoning interest in the real history of the Old West, as Baby Boomers reared on the Hollywood version begin to peel back the silver screen and search for the facts behind their childhood legends. "A lot of these people now have time and disposable income to buy books and to travel," Alexander says. "These are the very same people who grew up with Red Ryder, Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers. They have a pre-programmed interest in the Old West—it's how they grew up."
The Old West legend that the Baby Boomers grew up with, however, is largely a phenomenon of the 20th, not the 19th century. "The lure of the Old West happened mostly after 1900," Alexander says. "It didn't take off until the silent movies of the 1920s got the Old West into everybody's heads.
"The Old West we think of today is an illusion, and by and large an illusion created in the 20th century. You look at old pictures of how it really was—you can practically see the lice jumping off people."
That fictionalized Old West was re-created the way we wished the world had been, not the way it was. "The real Western characters mostly wore gray hats, like the rest of us do," Alexander says. "But the movies made the characters taller than life—what they thought the characters should be. Their triumph over evil—and they always did—was used as a lesson to children. Plus of course there's a natural allure, whether we admit it or not, to the thrilling aspects of life.
"Today we look at the Old West and say, 'My goodness, I was born 150 years too late.' But we don't really want to live it—just visit temporarily and at our leisure."
Alexander makes a sweeping motion with his big hands, as if to take in all the modern conveniences around him. He says, "Back then, when they had to live it, they were trying to get to the stage we're at today. They wanted to get out of the log cabin. Everybody wanted electricity, phones. They would have traded places with us in a heartbeat to have been able to take a hot bath and turn on a light switch."
That desire for a more civilized life was part of what made Silver City, unlike many frontier towns, "stick" as a community, Alexander says. "A lot of people came here intending to stay. In Tombstone, Deadwood, they weren't interested in staying. For some reason, when people got here, they attempted to build, to make a home; they came with a purpose to make a community. It wasn't just a mining camp, a transient deal. Maybe it was the weather, the availability of brick from the soil, the Eastern urbanity of the settlers."
Silver City, he notes, was largely settled by Easterners, whereas other parts of the West—including his native Texas—saw a greater Southern influence. "They brought a whole different philosophy."
Take Silver City lawman Dan Tucker, for example, who might have stepped right out of a Clint Eastwood Western. Alexander's new book points out that even the (later) fabled Wyatt Earp once went out of his way to avoid Tucker, then in Deming: "On their flight to avoid lawful prosecution for homicides committed in Arizona Territory and, while riding on the dodge, the Earp crowd smartly forwent a quick Southern Pacific Railroad train ride and a trip through pulsating Deming. Knowledge of the posting of Dan Tucker at Deming was widespread. The fleeing Earp bunch opted not to put Dan Tucker and his steady companion, a W. Richards double-barreled shotgun, to the test."
"It's a sad commentary on the times, but for lawmen and outlaws one of the benchmarks is how many fell before their guns," Alexander adds. "Two historians say it cannot be documented that Wyatt Earp ever killed anybody. They didn't have ballistics back then, so even at the OK Corral nobody knows for sure.
"Yet we can document that Dan Tucker killed at least eight in Grant County alone, which puts him in a league past Billy the Kid. That doesn't particularly speak well of him, since some of those people probably shouldn't have been shot." Tucker also claimed in a newspaper interview that he'd killed "several" in nearby jurisdictions, but Alexander—a stickler for proof—has been unable to document these notches on the lawman's gun.
Nonetheless, today we remember Earp and not Tucker, and it was Earp whose "life and legend" were immortalized in the early days of television. Alexander blames three factors for Tucker's comparative obscurity: "Number one, he wasn't a self-promoter," he says, ticking off the reasons on outstretched fingers. "Two, he probably had something in his character or background that made him not want the limelight. Three, there's no known photo of him—that's a handicap in 20th-century exploitation."
By contrast, Earp, who lived until 1929, shared his story avidly—"not for posterity, for money," Alexander notes sharply. "If a publicist wanted to write about somebody, they didn't necessarily tell the truth, just used real-life characters."
"Dan Tucker, for example, couldn't survive today. Back then, if you ran from the police, they shot you. Today that's not acceptable. To me as a history writer with a law-enforcement background, I like to draw parallels between law enforcement and society's attitudes, today versus then."
Back in the era he writes about, certain things were perfectly legal—or "winked at"—that today society says it won't tolerate, from prostitution to taking the law into your own hands. In his new book, Alexander notes multiple instances of lynching in old Grant County, including one double hanging in Shakespeare (now a ghost town near Lordsburg): According to folklore at least, one lynched man was a horse thief, the other guilty only of being "a damned nuisance."
When an Old West lawman shot an "owlhoot," well, that simply represented the era's acceptable extreme of what Alexander, in his criminal-justice classes, calls "the continuum of force." He says, "Back then, the lawman was given that tool. How well he exercised that discretion was how he was judged by the public."
Even today, Alexander says, "the biggest weapon a lawman has is not his six-shooter or billy club—it's discretion. He decides who to do what to and what degree, and then he has to answer for it."
In looking back at the actions of lawmen and ordinary citizens alike in southwest New Mexico's Old West days, he adds, "I realized I shouldn't judge them by today's standards. When I'm writing I try to understand the standards they had then. I try to look at it from their perspective."
If that leads to a more nuanced view than the fictional Old West he grew up on—where "conquering evil was relatively simple: Do right, live right, and everything would turn out right"—that's the difference, after all, between a story and history.
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.