A Roundup of Some of the Wildest Characters in the Wild West

By: Sarah Gleim  | 
John Wayne Western
(From left) Lee Marvin and Jimmy Stewart star alongside John Wayne in the Western classic, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." Public Domain

Stories of the American West have been romanticized throughout history. You only have to look to the big screen to see how the Western became a defining American artform, with larger-than-life actors, like John Wayne in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," Clint Eastwood in "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" and even Hailee Steinfeld in "True Grit."

But these were just actors starring in movie roles. In the real wild west, there were characters so cool (or cold, depending on how you look at it), their stories read like they were written for film. Except they weren't. These wild west women, outlaws and cowboys weren't fictional — they were 100 percent genuine. Here are some of their best characters from the American west.


The Outlaws

The wild west might not have been so wild if it wasn't for the gritty outlaws that ruled the towns. We're talking about gunslingers whose names you probably know: Jesse James, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.

But they're not the only bad guys who made names for themselves. There also was Johnny Ringo. He was an infamous outlaw cattle rancher whose life took a fateful turn when he crossed paths with O.K. Corral veterans Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, Arizona. His story is memorialized in the film "Tombstone," where he meets his demise by a gun-wielding Holliday, though some western historians think Ringo likely committed suicide instead. Check out more wild west outlaws here.


The Ladies of the West

Calamity Jane
Martha Jane Cannary, better known as Calamity Jane, was an American frontierswoman and sharpshooter. Late in her life, she appeared in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. Library of Congress

Of course, not all the shady characters of the wild west were men. There were plenty of women who were as daring as their male counterparts. Take Calamity Jane, for instance. She was known to be one of the most adventurous and foul-mouthed women on horseback. She ran with Wild Bill Hickock and was a sharpshooter, like another famous female, Annie Oakley.

Then there were the Petticoat Rulers. In 1920, just after the 19th Amendment, these five women were voted to power in Jackson, Wyoming, and reestablished order to the western town. This was an historic win, not just because they were women, but also because they dominated their male opponents by a margin of 2-to-1. Read more about the Petticoat Rulers here.


The Illustrious Cowboy

Black cowboys
Black cowboy Isom Dart (left) was born a slave and turned horse-thieving outlaw, while Bill Pickett (right) created the popular rodeo event of steer wrestling. Public Domain

Finally, there's just no way to talk about the wild west without telling the story of the cowboy. Who was he? How did become so engrained in the story of the American west?

For one thing, there were tons of real cowboys in history — and many of them were Black. There was Isom Dart, a former enslaved man who turned horse-thieving outlaw; and Bill Pickett who is credited with creating the popular rodeo event of steer wrestling.


And then there's Bass Reeves. Reeves was the first Black man to become a U.S. deputy marshal west of the Mississippi. He also was the inspiration for the Lone Ranger. Yes. That Lone Ranger. Find out more about the American cowboy, including Black cowboys, at these links.