History Features

What the Brits are Doing for the West

Experts on Billy the Kid, Wild Bill and others are on the wrong side of the Atlantic.

Experts on Billy the Kid, Wild Bill and others are on the wrong side of the Atlantic.

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As any reader of True West knows, interest in the Old West is worldwide—people love reading about the Earps and Custer, Billy the Kid and Geronimo just as much in exotic foreign climes as they do in the American West.

Over the years, though, the most prolific output when it comes to historical research and writing has been coming from England. What we didn’t know was why, so we decided to ask some of the best-known British exponents of the art how they first got involved with documenting our history. Some of the answers may surprise you.

—The Editors

Britain’s Westerners

If you were searching for well-written research on Wild Bill Hickok, Apache scout Mickey Free and Billy the Kid, and rock-solid information on the lives and careers of Jesse and Frank James and the Youngers, Black Jack Christian and forgotten bandits like Oliver Curtis Perry, Eugene Bunch or the Farrington Gang, would the first place you’d look be England? Probably not, but that’s where you’ll find it, created by some of the best living writers on the frontier West. Notable among them are Joseph G. Rosa, the unchallenged authority on Hickok; Robert J. Wybrow, one of the leading living writers on Jesse James and his era; Jeff Burton, renowned outlaw and Oklahoma history researcher; Roy O’Dell, expert untangler of the lives of obscure outlaws; Allan Radbourne, a hugely respected authority on the Apache Wars; and myself, Frederick Nolan, an award-winning chronicler of Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War.

Between us all, we have clocked up well over a quarter of a millennium’s worth of research (were you to include the works of highly-regarded British military historians such as Barry C. Johnson and Francis Taunton, and the late and much lamented Colin Taylor, a world-famous ethnologist of the Plains Indians, you could probably double that figure).

Let’s stick to the outlaw-gunfighter bunch, six of the best men in the business, all of them living on what might look to Americans as the wrong side of the Atlantic. No surprise, then, that the question these experts are most frequently asked is, how did you first get interested in the Old West? And the answer is the same in all cases: we all grew up watching Westerns, either at flea-pit cinemas or (depending on age) on TV. But whether it was When the Daltons Rode or the latest installment of Cheyenne, Wagon Train, Gunsmoke or Maverick, “Somehow we knew,” Burton says, “that however preposterous their screen personae and antics, the celluloid Kit Carson, Wild Bill, James and Younger brothers, and Buffalo Bill were named after real people, dead but deathless.”

Somehow, out of those old horse operas, the desire was born in each of us to get at the truth, the real story, rather than the Cinemascope epic. For me, the deter-mination to separate fiction from fact was born after I read and was enthralled by Walter Noble Burns’ The Saga of Billy the Kid. For Burton, it was first works by Zane Grey and then Earle R. Forrest’s Arizona’s Dark and Bloody Ground; for Roy O’Dell, an article by William B. Secrest, Sr. did it. Wybrow got his first taste of Jesse James in the works of Carl W. Breihan and Will Henry. In Joe Rosa’s case, it began with Gary Cooper in The Plainsman: “Later, of course, I managed to get closer to the subject [of Hickok] but still floundered in a mass of legend and myth. Then early in the 1950s, I began to ‘research’ and soon discovered the problems.”

Back in those faraway times before the dawning of the Internet, problems were in profusion. Like never being less than 5,000 miles away from the scenes and sources, the libraries and museums and repositories; like having to wait … and wait … for replies to hopeful airmail letters to distant—and often fledgling—historical societies. The answer to any question—even if answered immediately, and even if the answer was merely ‘no’—could take between 14 and 40 days to come back. There were no interlibrary loans and, even if you had the money, buying American books was a longwinded...

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