8 of the Most Famous Cowboys & Figures in Wild West History
The American cowboy occupies a revered position in history, folklore, and popular culture.
The most famous figures of the West represent a diverse range of characters who left an indelible mark on American history. From sheriffs and outlaws to cowgirls and entertainers, their stories continue to captivate audiences worldwide.
They embodied the spirit of adventure, courage, and independence that defined the West, inspiring generations to embrace the cowboy way of life. Their legacies serve as a reminder of the rich tapestry of American history and the enduring fascination with the mythic West.
Here’s a look at 8 of the most famous cowboys, outlaws and other figures of the American West.
1. Bill Pickett (1870-1932)
Bill Pickett was an African American cowboy who made significant contributions to the rodeo world and the cattle industry. He was the star of the 101 Ranch Wild West show, where he invented “bulldogging,” a method for wrestling a bull to the ground by twisting its neck and biting its lip. He invented the technique by observing how bulls would wrestle with each other. Today it remains the only rodeo event with origins traceable to a single individual.
Pickett also performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, breaking down racial barriers and promoting African American culture in the West. His bulldogging performances became a centerpiece of the show, making Pickett into a world-renowned cowboy. In 1971 he was posthumously elected to the Cowboy Hall of Fame, the first black cowboy to receive such an honor.
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2. Wild Bill Hickok (1837-1876)
Wild Bill Hickok is synonymous with the Wild West. Known for his fearless demeanor, Hickok became a legendary figure during the frontier era. Hickok is best known for his marksmanship in gunfights, partly since he was ambidextrous. He would carry two pistols, one on each hip, and he could draw and shoot quickly and accurately from either side.
Hickok’s most famous gunfight occurred on July 17, 1870, in the town of Springfield, Missouri. While he was gambling at the Lyon House Saloon, he had a confrontation with a local gambler named Davis Tutt. The two men, who had a longstanding dispute, faced off in the town square. Hickok managed to shoot and kill Tutt with a single bullet, marking one of the most iconic moments in Wild Bill’s career.
His adventures and gunfighting skills made him famous, but it was his reputation as a sheriff that truly solidified his place in history. He was elected sheriff in Abilene, Kansas in 1871 to enforce the law in a lawless town of cowboys, which he successfully did with a strict adherence to the local statutes. Wild Bill Hickok’s larger-than-life persona has been celebrated in countless books, movies, and television shows.
3. Billy the Kid (1859-1881)
Born Henry McCarty, this outlaw gained notoriety for his involvement in the Lincoln County War and his exploits as a gunslinger. The war took place in New Mexico in 1878 between rival businesspeople and ranchers.
Billy the Kid played a starring role in a shootout at Lincoln, New Mexico, where his gang attacked and killed a posse led by sheriff William Brady. Billy was subsequently captured and put on trial for killing the sheriff and sentenced to death, but he escaped jail in April 1881. Billy was shot and killed by Pat Garrett in July that same year.
The Lincoln County War and Billy the Kid’s involvement in it have become the subject of many books, films, and legends, contributing to his status as a legendary figure of the Old West. “I’m not afraid to die like a man fighting, but I would not like to be killed like a dog unarmed,” Billy once said. While the conflict itself was rooted in local rivalries, Billy the Kid’s participation added an element of youthful rebellion and outlaw lore to the story.
Related read: 10 Famous Guns of the Old West, from Revolvers to Rifles
4. Wyatt Earp (1848-1929)
Wyatt Earp is most famous for his role in the gunfight at O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona on October 26, 1881. At the time, he was serving as sheriff of the town and tried to enforce an ordinance prohibiting cowboys from concealing and carrying firearms.
Tensions ran high between the cowboys, including Ike Clanton, and law enforcement. Earp led a group which confronted a group of local cowboys, and the scene quickly escalated into a gunfight, resulting in the death of several individuals, and spurring the subsequent “Earp Vendetta Ride,” leading to even more bloodshed.
Earp went down in history as the epitome of the fearless officer. “Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything,” he once remarked. His life and adventures have been the subject of numerous films and books, immortalizing his legacy as one of the Wild West’s most interesting figures.
5. Jesse James (1847-1882)
Many cowboys moonlighted as outlaws who committed all kinds of sundry deeds. Jesse James led a gang that carried out numerous high-profile robberies and shakedowns, making him a legendary figure in American folklore.
James’ string of robberies started in 1866 when he held up the bank in Liberty Missouri, walking out with $60,000 in cash. But his most audacious act occurred in 1874 when he robbed a moving train for the first time in American history at Gad’s Hill, Missouri. His gang stopped the moving train, forced all the passengers to give them cash and valuables, then rode off unscathed.
Jesse led his gang through a variety of different bank and train robberies around the West, at times causing bloodshed and the loss of innocent lives. He eventually retired from his life as an outlaw and assumed an alias in St. Joseph, Missouri, but one of his close associates shot him in the back of the head in 1882, hoping to collect a bounty from the U.S. government.
Although his actions were often criminal, Jesse James became a folk hero to some, representing the rebel spirit that characterized the American frontier.
6. Annie Oakley (1860-1926)
Annie Oakley, whose real name was Phoebe Ann Moses, was a famous sharpshooter and stage performer who gained worldwide notoriety. In 1885, she joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows, a traveling circus of sorts where she demonstrated various gunslinging feats. Among her repertoire of tricks, she could hit small targets from a great distance, split cards with a bullet, and hit targets while riding full speed on horseback.
One of the reasons Annie Oakley was so famous is that she defied and transcended gender stereotypes at the time. “I would like to see every woman know how to handle firearms as naturally as they know how to handle babies,” she said.
She traveled to England and performed for Queen Victoria as well as other notable figures in Europe. This helped popularize the American frontier abroad and cemented her place as a global celebrity. She also donated substantial sums of money to charitable causes, including for veterans and orphans.
7. Buffalo Bill Cody (1846-1917)
William Frederick Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill, was an actor, scout, and entrepreneur who played a significant role in shaping the myth of the American West.
As his name might suggest, Buffalo Bill originally gained notoriety for his skill as an expert shooter in hunting buffalo. He boasted that he once killed over 4,000 buffalo in a year and a half to feed a crew of railroad workers, though that figure is unreliable.
Buffalo Bill was most famous for creating and running Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a traveling show that centered around various aspects of frontier life, such as cowboy stunts, reenactments of buffalo hunts and Native American ceremonies. Buffalo Bill took his show on the road around the U.S. and eventually across Europe, making him into an international star and introducing such figures as Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull to the rest of the world.
Related read: When Did the Wild West Really End?
8. Tom Horn (1860-1903)
Tom Horn was a notorious cowboy, scout, and officer who enjoyed his fair share of controversies. Horn began his career as a cowboy and became known for his exceptional skills as a tracker and sharpshooter.
He worked as a scout for the U.S. Cavalry during the Apache Wars, which involved a long series of conflicts from 1849 and 1886. Horn gained notoriety for his ability to locate and pursue outlaws across the Southwest.
Horn’s reputation took a darker turn when he became a controversial figure as a hired killer or “stock detective” for cattle ranchers. The authorities accused Horn of being involved in multiple range wars and implicated in several high-profile murders.
One of the most notable cases was his trial for the murder of a 14-year-old boy named Willie Nickell, for which the authorities eventually convicted him and sentenced him to death by hanging. The media widely reported on the trial and execution of Tom Horn, making him into the subject of significant debate and controversy long after his death.
What to Read Next
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- 20 Wild West Towns Where You Can Still Experience the Frontier
- 7 Facts about Johnny Ringo You Won’t Learn from Movies
References & Further Reading
OldWest.org strives to use accurate sources and references in its research, and to include materials from multiple viewpoints and angles when possible.
- Bill, B. (2010). Buffalo Bill’s Life Story: An Autobiography. Skyhorse Pub.
- Hanes, B. C. (1989). Bill Pickett: Bulldogger. University of Oklahoma Press.
- Horn, T. (2016). Life of Tom Horn: Government Scout and Interpreter. CreateSpace.
- Kasper, S. (2016). Annie Oakley. University of Oklahoma Press.
- Rosa, J. G. (1990). They Called Him Wild Bill: The Life and Adventures of James Butler Hickok. Univ. of Oklahoma Press.
- Rutter, M. (2023). Frontier Terror: Murder, Lynching, and Vigilantes in the Old West. TwoDot.
- Stiles, T. J. (2003). Jesse James: Last rebel of the Civil War. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
- Tefertiller, C. (1999). Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind The Legend. John Wiley & Sons.
- Utley, R. M. (1991). Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life. University of Nebraska Press.