History

5 of the most notorious outlaws of the Wild West

America’s period of expansion from the East Coast across the continent has long captured the public’s imagination. The lawless world of the Wild West has been the setting for stories of high adventure where the roles of good and evil, of lawmen and outlaws, were always a bit blurry. Here are five of the most notorious outlaws that left their mark on the Wild West.

Joaquin Murietta

Antique stage coach in the middle of desert landscape
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The Robin Hood of El Dorado, as one of the most famous books about Murietta’s life describes him, was a Mexican immigrant who fought against unfair racial treatment in California. Born in Sonora, Mexico in 1830, Murietta moved to California to try his hand at prospecting. However, local authorities tried to drive out Mexican-Americans and pass legislation to limit their rights.

Murietta became a champion of the oppressed by robbing stage coaches and holding up gold mines. However, his destructive tendencies caught the attention of the local law enforcement, who demanded his capture — dead or alive. In 1853, Murietta was confronted and killed by a detachment of California Rangers.

Belle Starr

Horses walking through grass with mountains in background
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The most famous female outlaw of the Wild West was Belle Starr, who was born Myra Shirley in 1848. Starr grew up in Missouri, but moved to Texas during the Civil War in 1863. She ran away with a cattle rustler named Jim Reed to California, where she later became the so-called Bandit Queen.

In 1880, she moved to Oklahoma, where she ran a ranch that doubled as a popular hideout for other outlaws. However, she was accused of horse stealing in 1883. Although authorities could never provide enough proof for a conviction, she was shot in the back at her home in 1887.

Jesse James

Stage coach and bank
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One of the most notorious outlaws of the period was Jesse James, who committed many of his crimes with his younger brother, Frank James. The two distrusted the United States government during the Civil War and joined guerrilla forces for the Confederates.

After the war, the pair held up banks and stage coaches from Iowa to Texas. They had a long career as successful outlaws and successfully pulled heists for over 15 years from 1866 to 1881. However, Jesse James met an untimely end at the hands of Robert Ford, who shot him in the back of the head while James was unarmed.

Billy the Kid

Desert in New Mexico
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This outlaw was once known as William Bonney Jr. and later went by the pseudonym Henry McCarthy, but he will always be remembered by his nickname, Billy the Kid. Billy the Kid was born in New York City in 1859 and moved west with his mother after the death of his father — first to Kansas, then to Colorado, and finally to New Mexico.

It was in New Mexico that he became more involved in the robberies and lawlessness that he is famous for. By the time he was 21, he was credited with killing 24 people. He was captured by sheriff Pat Garret at the end of 1880, although he managed to escape a few months later. However, while on the run, Garret caught up with him and shot him to death on a ranch in New Mexico.

Butch Cassidy

Old train in desert with rocky hills in background
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Butch Cassidy, born Robert Parker in Utah in 1866, was the founder of the Wild Bunch gang, a group that performed some of the most famous train and bank robberies of the late 19th century. He first began his career of crime in his twenties as a cattle rustler. He was sentenced to prison for two years, but came out more determined than ever to get what he felt he deserved.

At first, he worked with a fellow outlaw named Elzy Lay, until Lay was captured and imprisoned in 1899. He then began working with his most famous partner, Harry Longabuagh, also known as the Sundance Kid. Butch Cassidy’s partnership with Longabaugh eventually ended in a shootout with the Bolivian Army in San Vicente, where Sundance was mortally wounded and Cassidy took his own life.