Big Jim Courtright: 9 Things 1883 Didn’t Tell Us about the Old West Lawman
By Karen Harris
While both Yellowstone and 1883 are works of fiction, the shows’ creators wove in some characters and events from Old West history, just to whet our appetites and add to the authenticity of the shows.
One of these additions was the character of lawman Big Jim Courtright, also known as “Longhair Jim,” who was played by Billy Bob Thornton in 1883. Unlike Tim McGraw’s James Dutton, Courtright really did exist, but viewers only saw a glimpse of Courtright and his complex, colorful life.
Let’s rectify that by reviewing 9 interesting things about Big Jim Courtright that 1883 forgot to tell us.
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1. His name wasn’t really Jim.
When Big Jim was born in early 1845 near Springfield, Illinois, his parents named him Timothy Isaiah Courtright. Not Jim or James, as you might expect. During his time as a Union soldier in the Civil War, Courtright was sent to Vicksburg.
Somewhere along the way, someone asked him his name. When he answered “Tim,” they misheard him and started calling him “Jim.” Honest mistake. I imagine things were pretty loud during the Civil War, what with all the cannons and shotguns.
But Courtright never corrected them. Perhaps he was shy. Or perhaps he couldn’t hear them properly either. Whatever the reason, Courtright adopted the name “Jim,” which he used the rest of his life.
As for the “Big” part of his new nickname, I couldn’t find any references to Courtright being unusually tall, and old photos of him don’t show him to be a husky fella, so the origins of “Big” is still a mystery. Maybe the reason for this moniker is a story I don’t really want to hear.
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2. His hair wasn’t really that long.
Big Jim Courtright’s other common nickname was “Longhair Jim.” I don’t know about you, but I’m picturing Keanu Reeves, Jason Momoa, or Kenny G. Courtright acquired this nickname after the Civil War ended and he worked as an army scout in the Old West.
He followed the style of other scouts and grew his hair out. But it was never really all that long, despite what the nickname indicates. He reportedly visited a barber for a trim when his hair got long enough to touch his shoulders. I don’t think that is even long enough for a man-bun, let alone a nickname.
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3. Big Jim took a bullet for his commanding officer.
Big Jim Courtright was only 17 years old when he enlisted in the Union Army. He joined the Seventh Iowa Infantry, serving under General John Logan. He fought at Vicksburg and Fort Donelson, and was praised for his bravery and gun skills.
According to legend, he once took a bullet that was meant for his commanding officer, General Logan. His thigh wound quickly healed and he was left with a nasty scar and his commanding officer’s unending gratitude. A medal and some cash would have been nice, but…what can you do.
4. He sure liked guns.
Big Jim Courtright, as the stories go, loved guns. He practiced shooting from the time he was a young child. In fact, he was obsessed with firearms, which apparently didn’t worry folks back in those days.
He worked on hitting his targets, but also on his quick draw skills and some trick shooting. As a young man, he adopted the unusual habit of wearing two six-shooters, both on his right hip. And backwards.
He wore his pistols with the butt in the front. With his right hand, he could swiftly draw one of the guns from his right hip and somehow flip the weapon around to hit his target with lightning speed.
It seems like clumsy positioning to me, but whatever worked. I won’t judge his techniques, especially since they were so effective. Today, Old West gun and shooting historians believe that Big Jim Courtright had one of the fastest draws in the Old West — faster even than Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, and Bat Masterson.
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5. He performed as a sharpshooter with his wife.
When Big Jim Courtright was 25 years old, he married Sarah Elizabeth Weeks. His bride was also a gun enthusiast — or maybe she was just a good sport. Either way, Courtright taught her how to shoot and she had a good eye for it.
From time to time, Big Jim and Sarah Courtright put on shooting demonstrations and charged folks an admission price to watch them shoot up things. Fun times!
The couple even performed their gun tricks with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. But showbusiness wasn’t in Courtright’s blood. He had a particular set of skills — which made him a good candidate for being a lawman. Or a criminal. Or both.
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6. He was simultaneously a lawman and a criminal.
When Big Jim Courtright rolled into Fort Worth, Texas, in 1876, the city had only been incorporated for three years. In that short time, however, it earned a reputation for being one of the rowdiest, most violent Old West towns.
Much of the lawlessness was centered in Fort Worth’s red-light district, a place known as Hell’s Half Acre. Here, criminal activity, gambling, prostitution, and drinking ran rampant. As the newly hired town marshal, Courtright was instructed by town officials to clean up the crime and violence.
Courtright had other ideas.
Sure, Hell’s Half Acre was overrun with prostitutes, gambling halls, and saloons, but Big Jim Courtright understood that those nefarious activities brought money into the area. And he wanted a piece of the action.
He used his position as the marshal of Fort Worth to set up a “protection ring” and extort money from local business owners. He was a racketeering lawman, if you will.
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7. Big Jim provoked gunfights as a hired hitman.
Big Jim Courtright was a ruthless man with no qualms about killing. He occasionally worked as a hired hitman by more squeamish men who wanted to eliminate their enemies.
Courtright may have even murdered a few of his own enemies as well. His favored method of assassination was not to hide behind a tree and ambush his target. Instead, he engaged with them in a tavern or gambling hall and picked fights in public.
Courtright provoked his target until the other man was so angry that he went for his gun, intending to draw it on Courtright. But Courtright was quicker. As soon as the other man’s hand twitched by his holster, Courtright would use his legendary quick draw skills to shoot the man dead — before he could even pull out his own gun.
Big Jim Courtright did this in crowded public places, so there were always plenty of witnesses to testify that Courtright acted in self-defense. The victim drew first. This sneaky tactic worked most of the time: Courtright was occasionally arrested for murder, but always got off.
Apparently, no one knew about his sharpshooting background.
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8. He lost a gunfight to a former friend.
Fate finally caught up to Big Jim Courtright and, believe it or not, he was outgunned by one of his former friends.
Courtright paid his old chum a visit on February 8, 1887, but he wasn’t trying to renew their friendship. He was pushing his “protection” policy on Short. Short had his own reputation for settling disputes with his gun, so he told Courtright that he didn’t need his “protection.” The two started to spat and maybe someone said something about the other guy’s mother, and in any case the exchange grew heated.
Courtright and Short took their argument outside, as etiquette dictated. According to witnesses — which included Bat Masterson — the two men were only about three feet apart from each other when weapons were drawn.
This time, Luke Short got off the first shot. His bullet ripped off the thumb on Big Jim Courtright’s shooting hand, which was a problem. Clumsily, Courtright tried to pass his gun to his left hand, but he was too slow. In his defense, he had just lost a digit and probably a lot of blood, which tends to slow people down.
That gave Short the time he needed to pump three bullets into Big Jim Courtright’s chest. He fell face first into the dusty streets of Hell’s Half Acre.
This event, although short and one-sided, became one of the most iconic gunfights in Old West history.
9. Folks flocked to Courtright’s funeral.
Big Jim Courtright walked the fine line between lawman and criminal. He bullied business owners into paying for protection, murdered his enemies by tricking them into drawing first, and was a well-known hothead in Hell’s Half Acre.
But the people of Fort Worth greatly admired Courtright. His funeral was the biggest one Fort Worth had even seen, and his funeral procession spanned more than six blocks. People came out in droves to bid Big Jim a final farewell.
Explore the Old West!
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- 10 Facts You May Not Know About Quanah Parker, the “Last Chief of the Comanche”
- Why Did People Move West in the 1800s?
- The Origins of Scalping: A True and Surprising History
Sources & Further Reading
- Jim Courtright of Fort Worth: His Life and Legend, Robert K. DeArment
- Jim Courtright: Two Gun Marshal of Fort Worth, F. Stanley
- Draw: The Greatest Gunfights of the American West, James Reasoner
- Famous Gunfighters of the Western Frontier: Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Luke Short and Others, Bat Masterson
- 200 Texas Outlaws and Lawmen: 1835-1935, Laurence J. Yadon & Dan Anderson
- Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters, Bill O’Neal
by Karen Harris
Although Karen lives in the Midwest, she likes to put the emphasis on the "west." A freelance writer who specializes in American history, Karen has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Central Michigan University and a master's degree in English from Indiana University.