5 Famous Outlaws of the Old West

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
Today, the stories of the outlaws from the American wild west seem like nothing more than entertaining stories. However, the lives and crimes of these individuals left their mark on the history of the region. These outlaws instilled fear into their communities by robbing, murdering, and committing other crimes against innocent people. We’re taking a look into the legacies of five famous figures of the wild west. 
 
Billy the Kid
 
Henry McCarty, or better known as Billy the Kid, was one of the most notorious outlaws in the American wild west. His exact birth date is unknown, but historians can say with certainty that Billy was an orphan by the time he was 15 years old. As a young boy left to fend for himself, he began stealing horses. By the time he was 17 years old, Billy has committed his first murder. He claimed the act was done in self-defense, but after this, the boy transformed himself into one of the most feared men in the American West. Legend says he killed 21 people and moved from town to town, joining gangs under different names. 
 
When Billy was finally caught, he was convicted and sentenced to hang for murder. However, just before the scheduled date of his execution, Billy killed his guards and escaped prison. At just 21 years old, he was then the most wanted man in the west. In 1881, he was tracked down by buffalo hunter Pat Garrett and shot through the chest.
 
John Wesley Harden
 
One of the most famous gunmen of the American wild west, John Wesley Hardin was rumored to have killed 30 to 40 men. He came from a family who was fighting for the independence of Texas, however, this never meant that Harden was a good boy to begin with. When he was 11 years old, Harden stabbed another boy and when he was just 15, he killed a former slave and the three soldiers who tried to arrest him. Most of the murders he committed were over somewhat trivial events like Harden losing card game matches. During a shoot-out between Harden and Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb, Harden was shot and wounded. He was wanted “Dead or Alive” with a hefty reward out for him. Finally, Harden was caught by the Texas Rangers in 1877 and was sent to prison, but after years of good behavior, he was released in 1894. Still, he was murdered by being shot in the back of the head during a dice game shortly after release. 
 
Jesse James
 
As perhaps one of the most famous outlaws of the American wild west, Jesse James was known as a bank and train robber and a leader of the James-Younger gang. James was born in 1847 and served in the Confederate Army with his brother before they both left the military for careers in the criminal old west. The two brothers came from an affluent family of farmers, leading many to speculate why they chose to live such a life of crime. Some theorized that the brothers were like a Robin Hood gang, stealing from the rich to give to the poor, but there is no evidence to support this. 
 
Between 1860 and 1882, the gang robbed 20 banks and trains and murdered anyone who stood in their way. They stole an estimated $200,000 all while trying to further the message of the Confederacy. After James murdered a banker in Missouri, there was a call for his arrest. To receive the large reward for James, one of the members of the gang murdered James in his home. 
 
Clanton Gang (“The Cowboys”)
 
This roughly organized gang of convicts became known throughout the wild west for their work-stealing cattle, robbing stagecoaches, and committing murder. Newman Haynes Clanton, known as “Old Man,” was the leader of the gang. Old Man was accused of smuggling and murder, among other crimes, by lawman Wyatt Earps, but the lawman was never able to convict the accused. In 1881, the Guadalupe Canyon Massacre included Clanton and his men attacking a group of Mexican cowboys and murdering 19 of them. However, The Cowboys did not come away unscathed. Friends of the murdered cowboys sought out Clanton and his men, killing Clanton and four of his men. 
 
The Innocents
 
Ironically referring to themselves as “The Innocents,” this gang of outlaws operated out of Montana and was led by Henry Plummer during the 1860s. During this time, they killed over 100 people on the road between Bannack and Virginia City. Unlike other gangs at the time, it was estimated that there were perhaps over 100 members that attacked people traveling to the area hoping to make a living on mining. To keep track of the many members associated with the group, the password, “I am innocent” was used along with a secret knot to recognize each other. 
 
In 1863, a group of citizens gathered to hunt down these criminals. Despite all the murdering and law-breaking, there remains today little evidence that connects Plummer to any crimes committed in the area. Most of the information known today comes from the confession of a criminal trying to save his own life. Despite this, in 1864, Plummer and 21 other men were captured and hung for their crimes. 
 
These outlaws and their legacies help create the history of the wild west.