The Best Gunfighting Towns of the Old West: Deadwood, Springfield and Northfield
By Rich Grant
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
Guns blazing, horses rearing, real gunfights and bad guys falling on dusty streets.
If you took all the shootouts from the thousands of Western movies and added them together, you would have hundreds of hours of film devoted to smoking six guns.
This is surprising since all Western movies are based on a few real gunfights that lasted only a couple of seconds. But, what an exciting few seconds!
The classic gun battles of the Old West featured actual characters like Billy the Kid, Frank & Jesse James, Will Bill Hickok, Doc Holliday, and Wyatt Earp.
Most fun of all, today the sites of these celebrated shootouts still exist and are honored and preserved by the towns where they happened. So saddle up, pardner.
Practice a couple of quick draws and keep your trigger finger ready because it’s possible to walk the same floorboards the gunslingers walked, have a beer in the saloons they drank in, and even enter the banks they robbed. Yippie-kay-aye! Let’s go!
Where it All Began – Springfield, Missouri
You can blame almost all gunfighting legends on a reporter from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, who just happened to be in Springfield, MO on July 21, 1865. Also in Springfield, that fateful day was William Hickok, a young, unknown gambler and cowboy. A contemporary described him:
“He was a striking figure as I noticed him, a large broad-brimmed hat on his head, long drooping mustache, long flowing hair that fell about his shoulders, a brace of ivory-handled revolvers strapped to his waist, and an extra pair of holsters that fitted about the horn of his saddle where he could reach them instantly.”
On this day in Springfield, “Wild Bill,” as his friends knew him, got into an argument with a gambler named Dick Tutt. Wild Bill owed Dick Tutt money. So Tutt took Wild Bill’s watch as security. Bill told him, “Don’t be flaunting that watch around town.”
Foolishly, Tutt bragged to everyone he met that he had Wild Bill’s watch and was going to wear it in the town square. Wild Bill said, “Tutt shouldn’t pack that watch across the square unless dead men can walk.”
They finally met in the center of Springfield. On seeing each other, both pulled guns. Tutt’s shot missed. Wild Bill’s shot went straight through Tutt’s heart. At a distance of 80 yards, it was an incredible feat of marksmanship.
The story about the gunfight in Harper’s was a sensation! As it turned out, it was almost unlike any other gunfight in the Old West. But who cares? Two protagonists meeting in the town square for a shootout became the prototype for pulp fiction and Western movies.
Today, standing where the gunfight took place in rather seedy modern downtown Springfield, there’s not much to see. There are historic markers where both men stood.
Dick Tutt’s metal sign has a space the size of his heart carved out showing what a small target that would have been from 80 yards. Downtown Springfield is trying, and there are bars and restaurants in the small historic district worth visiting.
But there’s nothing “small” about Will Bill in Deadwood, South Dakota.
The Dead Man’s Hand
It’s ironic that Wild Bill is remembered most of all in Deadwood because he was only there for two weeks and never did anything but play cards. And get murdered.
He was shot in the back of the head in a poker game, his cards sprawled on the table next to his body: two black aces and two black eights, forever remembered as “the dead man’s hand.”
He’s buried in Deadwood and the local tourist bureau says there are more than 70 photos, murals, paintings and signs with images of Wild Bill at saloons, restaurants and gift shops around town.
They encourage you to take and post selfies with them tagged #WildBillMe. The more you take, the bigger prizes you can win.
Meanwhile, Deadwood is simply fantastic – wild and unique — it is possibly the best “Old West” town in the nation — a hoot of fun with bars and gambling. And the town is just as defiant of modern morals today as it was in 1876.
This was the third town in the U.S. (after Las Vegas and Atlantic City) to have legal gambling and is a place that is proud of the fact that its last brothel closed in 1980.
They even boast The Brothel Deadwood, which is a museum opened in 2020 that tells the 104-year history of prostitution in Deadwood – in an actual former brothel. You enter through a single door, climb a long flight of narrow stairs and come into the elegantly decorated parlor.
The first thing you learn on tours (presented every hour exactly on the hour, reservations recommended) is that the museum in no way endorses – or condemns – the sex trade.
Most of the emphasis is on the woman who entered what was called “the Sisterhood,” a place where men greatly outnumbered women and some of these “ladies of the evening” found themselves without marriage, abandoned, widowed, in abusive relationships or even starving.
They entered a profession completely devoid of the romance sometimes attached to it in Western movies – a world where drugs and alcoholism, unwanted pregnancy, legal troubles, venereal disease, social ostracization, and threats of physical violence were common.
Most sporting women had a difficult life, many of them committing suicide as they grew older and worked their way down the hierarchy from a parlor house to a common brothel to a low-end brothel and finally the end of the line, a crib house, a literal bed in a shack where these “daughters of joy” would entertain 30 to 40 men a night.
Wild Bill came to Deadwood in 1876 as an escort of “soiled doves” that included Big Dollie, Dirty Emma, Smoothbore, and Sizzling Kate. And Calamity Jane. It must have been quite a day in Deadwood when the celebrated Wild Bill brought his wagon train of prospectors and fancy-dressed prairie nymphs into the mining camp.
The Wild Bill that entered Deadwood was the most famous lawman of the West, having been town marshal in Hays City and Abilene, Kansas, bringing law and order to the wild cattle towns, killing several men in gunfights in the process.
But a shootout in Abilene in 1871 was to be his ruin. On a dark night, while gunning down a troublemaker in a fair fight, Bill saw something out of the corner of his eye and blasted his two pistols. He accidentally shot and killed his deputy and friend, Mike Williams.
Wild Bill was never the same. He gave up being a lawman, and took to drinking, gambling and of all things, acting.
Amazingly, he and Buffalo Bill Cody met early in the West as young men and became lifelong friends. Buffalo Bill somehow talked Wild Bill into appearing on the stage in New York in a play called, “Scout of the Plains.”
A newspaper wrote, “Wild Bill was a bad actor most anywhere, but he was an especially bad actor on the stage.” Wild Bill hated attention.
He would show up drunk, forget lines, hide behind scenery on the stage, shoot out spotlights, and intentionally fire his blank pistols beside the legs of actors playing Indians, causing them to yelp, howl and hop around the stage in pain when they were supposed to be dying.
Eventually, Buffalo Bill had to fire Wild Bill. Down on his luck, losing his eyesight, the former gunslinger went back West, married the love of his life, a circus performer called Agnes Lake, and went alone to the mining boom town of Deadwood to trade on his fame.
In Saloon #10
While it might not be completely authentic, Saloon #10 is a great deal of fun. It’s an Old West saloon with sawdust on the floor, stuffed animal heads, and servers dressed as saloon hall girls.
It was in a place called Nutall & Mann’s No. 10 Saloon that Wild Bill was murdered, and while the original location was across the street, the new Saloon #10 (billed as “the only museum in the world with a bar”) makes the most of its name.
There are reenactments of the shooting three times a day. Since it only takes a few seconds to walk up behind someone and shoot them, the saloon fills out the rest of the reenactment with an actor telling the history of Wild Bill.
Bill never played cards with his back to the front door, fearing some enemy might shoot him. When he entered the No. 10 Saloon on August 2, 1876, there was only one empty chair at a poker game, and that chair had its back to the bar and to a rear door.
He objected to the seat and everyone laughed him off. At 3 p.m. a drifter named Jack McCall walked over to the rear door and shot Wild Bill in the back of the head.
Why? No one knows for sure. In the reenactment, after the murder, McCall runs out onto Main Street, where other reenacting gunslingers fire guns, chase, capture and haul him to the Masonic Temple, where the Trial of Jack McCall is staged, just as it was in history.
It’s just one of a half dozen times during the day that reenacting gunslingers are out on Main Street firing guns. After three days in Deadwood, you become so used to hearing gunfire, that you don’t even look up when you hear angry words followed by explosions.
And Calamity Jane? She was a cantankerous, foul-mouthed, masculine-looking, part-time prostitute, stagecoach driver, drunk, and all-around troublesome character. Certainly, she and Wild Bill knew each other, but it’s doubtful they were ever lovers.
When Calamity Jane was dying, she said, “Bury me next to Wild Bill.” And they did. Perhaps as a joke. But the two are now side-by-side in a beautiful pine-covered mountain cemetery high above Deadwood. Bring something to drop on their graves. Dice, playing cards, whiskey shooters, and gambling chips were the top items on the day I visited.
Jesse James and the Great Northfield Bank Robbery
On September 7, 1876, eight of the most notorious outlaws in America rode their horses into the quiet little country town of Northfield, Minnesota.
All of them wore long, white linen coats to hide the fact they were carrying revolvers and cartridge belts. They were desperate men, killers, bank, and train robbers, Southerners, and former bushwhackers from the Civil War.
They came to Minnesota because in 1876, no one would suspect this type of outlaw military raid on an out-of-the-way farming town so far north.
The attack had been planned in great detail. Jesse James, Jim Younger and Bill Stiles hitched their horses in the town square, where they could cover the outlaw’s escape route. Cole Younger and Clell Miller got off their mounts on the main street and pretended to be adjusting saddles, while they surveyed pedestrians and kept a lookout.
Frank James, Bob Younger and Charlie Pitts tied up their horses on Division Street and strolled casually into the First National Bank. It was 2 p.m. and the most famous bank robbery in American history was about to begin.
The clock that hung in the bank that day in 1876 is still there. It still reads 2 p.m. In a “Twilight Zone” sort of atmosphere, everything in the room is the same.
When you stand on the original old floorboards and survey the bank counters and vault, you are seeing the exact same scene that Frank James and the other bandits saw as they came to the cashier window, drew their guns, and commanded, “Throw up your hands. We are going to rob the bank. Don’t any of you holler! We’ve got 40 men outside.”
Welcome to Northfield, Minnesota. It is a peaceful little place today, an hour south of Minneapolis, that is proud of its old one-time slogan “Cows, Colleges & Contentment.” Although the town wants to be known for its beautiful and well-respected St. Olaf and Carleton colleges, Northfield can’t escape the notoriety of being the site of the last holdup of the James-Younger Gang. Today, they have an annual celebration in September, “The Defeat of Jesse James Day.”
The Northfield Historical Society owns the Scriver Building where the robbery took place and they’ve done a splendid job of preserving the old bank with exhibits that detail the full seven bloody minutes that took place here on that sunny September afternoon in 1876.
There are saddles and guns that belonged to the outlaws, along with a rifle used by one of the town’s many heroes. You can almost smell the gunpowder and hear the gun blasts of the battle that took place just outside the front door.
The James-Younger Gang
When the James-Younger Gang rode into town, the former Southern Civil War guerrillas were already well known, credited with the nation’s first daylight peacetime bank robbery, one of the first train robberies, and some two dozen other daring holdups.
Frank James and Cole Younger had ridden with the vicious William Quantrill and his guerrillas during the Civil War. Both of them had participated in the massacre on August 21, 1863, where almost 200 unarmed men and boys in Lawrence, Kansas were murdered and the entire town was put to the torch.
Jesse James became a Union-hating bushwhacker at age 16 fighting for Bloody Bill Anderson, along with his friend, a 14-year-old Clell Miller.
When the war ended, many of the former bushwhackers naturally drifted into crime. Frank and Jesse James were especially well-known, lionized by Southerners as almost “Robin Hood” like figures. In truth, the bandits never shared their wealth with the poor and were involved in several cold-blooded killings of Pinkerton detectives assigned to capture them.
But the James brothers could be kind to fellow Southerners, often letting them keep their wallets and jewelry during robberies. The sympathy for the James boys increased in 1875 when Pinkerton detectives threw a bomb into their boyhood home, killing their half-brother Archie and gravely injuring their mother, blowing her hand off. Neither of the James brothers were in the house at the time.
The Northfield Raid
By 1876, the outlaws were so famous in Missouri, it was too risky to pull jobs there, so they hit upon a plan to rob a bank in the rich farming country up north in Minnesota. Traveling in small groups to avoid suspicion, the outlaws told everyone they were rich investors looking to buy farmland.
For a band of professional brigands, they made lots of mistakes. When eight strangers all wearing long linen coats came into town together, the residents got suspicious. Especially hardware store owner J.S. Allen. He didn’t like the looks of the three men who went into the bank, so he strolled over and peeked in the window.
Outlaw Clell Miller was assigned to guard the street and be on the lookout for something just like this. Miller walked over, stuck a gun in Allen’s face and told him to move on and not say anything. And with that, the entire holdup plan fell apart.
Allen bravely tore himself loose and ran down the street. With Miller firing shots at him, Allen yelled: “Get your guns boys. They’re robbing the bank!” Other merchants took up the cry and the whole town started yelling.
Miller jumped on his horse and along with Cole Younger started firing pistols at citizens, telling them to get back inside. Jesse James and the other two bandits guarding the escape route became alarmed at the gunfire, and all three rode down the street, firing their guns, smashing windows, and telling everyone to go inside.
A Swedish immigrant, Nicolaus Gustavson, who may not have understood English, stood on the street watching the gunman. Incredibly, Northfield was scheduled to have a “Wild West” show that very afternoon, and he might have thought this was part of the show. At any rate, when he didn’t move, one of the outlaws shot him in the head, killing him.
With two men down and the whole town shooting, the outlaws on the street had to be wondering what was taking so long in the bank? Cole Younger remounted and rode his horse down the plankboard sidewalk to the bank window.
Gunfighters In the Bank
Nothing had gone right in the bank from the moment the three outlaws entered. With guns out, they ordered the three employees to lie on the floor; then the bandits rifled through the cash drawers. There were only a few dollars and a bag of nickels; the drawer with $2,000 in it was lower, and the outlaws never noticed it. Inside the unlocked vault was $57,000 in cash. But the vault door was closed. The bandits thought it was locked and never realized all they had to do was turn the handle.
Instead, they ordered bank teller Joseph Lee Heywood to open the vault. He said it was on a time lock and he couldn’t open it. The robbers beat him on the head, but he refused to talk. Another bank employee bolted for the back door and was winged in the shoulder, but escaped.
Outside, it must have sounded like a battle was being fought. Frustrated, the outlaws fired a gun next to Heywood’s ear, but he still refused to open the safe that was, of course, open all along. By now, Cole Younger was sitting on his horse outside on the sidewalk, yelling into the bank, “For God’s sake, come out, they are shooting us to pieces!”
The three outlaws in the bank gave up, and walked out of the building and into a gun battle. One of them, probably Frank James, as he was leaving in total frustration, shot bank teller Heywood in the head, killing him. The desperate outlaws were so confused, they left behind the bag of nickels.
The Hunt for the James-Younger Gang
Among the many mistakes the outlaw gang made was failing to cut the telegraph wires. They planned to do it after the robbery. Within hours, posses that would eventually reach a total of 1,000 men were on their tail.
Still, in 1876, the bandits held a lot of cards. They stole horses, hid by day and rode by night, and whenever they encountered someone, they told them they were part of a posse chasing the bank robbers.
For two weeks they eluded capture, trying to get back to Missouri. The James brothers split off, made it back to Missouri, and went back to train robbing. But Frank James was spooked by the Northfield disaster and later wrote, “I was tired of being an outlaw.”
He decided to go straight. Years later, he surrendered and as part of a plea deal was found not guilty of all crimes and given a full pardon.
Jesse became increasingly erratic and dangerous, and his new gang of criminals was not on par with the old. Finally, on April 3, 1882, one of his fellow outlaws, Bob Ford, decided to turn traitor and go for the reward. Waiting until Jesse was unarmed standing on a chair to hang a painting, Ford shot him in the back.
The Younger brothers and Charlie Pitts had a tougher time. After two weeks of running, the hungry, wet, tired, and wounded outlaws were finally surrounded by a posse. Charlie Pitts wanted to surrender, but Cole Younger said, “Charlie, this is where Cole Younger dies.” The posse opened fire and another bloody gun battle raged. Pitts took a bullet to the chest that killed him instantly. Cole had 11 shots in his body before one bullet scraped his scalp and knocked him unconscious. Jim and Bob Younger have wounded again and surrendered.
The three brothers pleaded guilty, were given life sentences, and served as prisoners together at Stillwater Penitentiary in Minnesota. Bob died in prison; Jim and Cole were pardoned, but Jim could not adapt to being free and killed himself.
Incredibly, Cole Younger and Frank James got together later in life and started a Wild West Show that toured the country. Both of them wrote fanciful books that had little truth but gained them lots of notoriety.
But in the end, it was Frank James who wrote the best epitaph of his life. “I have been hunted for twenty-one years. I have literally lived in the saddle. I have never known a day of perfect peace…We sometimes didn’t get enough to buy oats for our horses. Most banks had very little money in them.”
Going to Deadwood: There’s so much to do in Deadwood. It’s the most fun to stay downtown within walking distance of the historic district, where all the fun and activity takes place. Deadwood.com
Northfield is about an hour south of Minneapolis and has been declared by countryliving.com as one of the “50 Most Beautiful Small Towns in America.” Go here for more information on the activities of the James-Younger Gang.
COMING IN PART II: On the trail of Billy the Kid and the Last Gunfight – the battle of the OK Corral.