(Gun)Smoke Gets in Your Eyes:
A Revisionist Look at "Violent" Fort Griffin
HISTORIANS WHO HAVE ARGUED THAT THE AMERICAN WEST WAS NOT
especially violent have had to contend with a monolithic image of a
place where social conditions were as wide-open as the region itself. The
readiness of both writers and readers to believe that gratuitous violence
was almost a way of life created a mythological frontier that has persisted
in the face of all conflicting evidence. The experience at Fort Griffin,
Texas, during the late 187os demonstrates why such long-held assump-
tions are so difficult to overcome. The town, just northeast of present-
day Abilene, possessed all the lurid ingredients for which enthusiasts of
"Wild West" history and fiction could hope. And, even when discounting
the apocryphal tales and exaggerations, violence arguably occurred on a
regular basis. Even so, the town was not as violent as its nostalgic pro-
moters have contended, and more importantly, violence did not tran-
spire in the manner that prevails in the popular imagination.'
Few places could rival Fort Griffin as a frontier boom town. Even T. R
Fehrenbach, in his popularly acclaimed Lone Star, presented a distorted
picture of the river bottom village as a "typical [western] hell-town"
where raucous trail drivers and buffalo hunters-"a rough, bearded,
* Ty Cashion earned the Ph.D. from Texas Christian University in 1993 and is currently assis-
tant professor of history at East Texas State University. He is the author of "A Texas Frontier:
The Clear Fork Country and Fort Griffin, 1849-1887" (University of Oklahoma Press, forthcom-
ing, 1996). He wishes to express his appreciation to TCU Professor Emeritus Donald E. Worces-
ter for reading an early draft of this article.
' For a probing discussion of western violence see Richard Maxwell Brown's essay-appropri-
ately titled "Violence"--in The Oxford History of the American West, ed. Clyde A. Milner II, et al.
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 393-425. The accompanying "Bibliographical Note"
provides an admirable guide to the most recent scholarship, including Brown's most recent
monograph, No Duty to Retreat: Violence and Values in American History and Society (New York: Ox-
ford University Press, 1991). This chapter complements Brown's thorough essay "Historiography
of Violence in the American West," in Michael P. Malone (ed.), Hstorians and the American West
(Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), 234-269. The "Appendix" (261-271) in Roger D.
McGrath, Gunfighters, Hghwaymen, and Vigilantes: Violence on the Frontier (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1984), assesses the topic by separating authors into two camps, one arguing that
the West was violent and lawless, the other representing the opposing view.
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 99, July 1995 - April, 1996. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101217/. Accessed March 9, 2014.