Bill O'NealGunfighters intrigue me because nothing is more dramatic than life and death conflict, especially when that conflict is carried out by men in big hats and boots, armed with six-shooters and Winchesters.

Researching my book Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters required reading and annotating the books and articles that had been written by the mid-1970s. Of course, so much excellent research and writing has been done in the field since then; the task would take far longer today.

The strangest Old West gunfighter I’ve come across is the murderous Cullen Baker, who had a weird approach to women.

A gunfighter who should be better known is Arizona lawman Harry Wheeler.

The toughest female gun-toter was Belle Starr (she had to be tough, with her leathery looks).

The most courageous gunfighter was Nate Champion during Wyoming’s Johnson County War.

The struggle over good and evil can be best seen in gunfighter Henry Brown, a two-gun shootist who alternated in deadly fashion between frontier outlawry and law enforcement.

The scariest Old West gunfighter I’d never want to run into is young John Wesley Hardin, who was kill-crazy.

My father, a Mason, was the first—but hardly the last—member of the Masonic Lodge to relate to me that after the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto, the vicious dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna saved his life by flashing the secret distress signal to fellow Mason Sam Houston.

The Chisholm Trail has always held a special appeal because my great-grandfather was a drover who helped shove cattle herds up the famous trail during the 1870s and 1880s.

If a history class is dull, it’s the teacher’s fault.

My biggest influence has been Dr. Ralph Goodwin, a brilliant historian of the Westward movement.

A subject I’d like to dig through the archives and get to know better is Ben Thompson.

Nearly all Westerns actors, from Tom Mix through Clint Eastwood, have played a Texas Ranger character at least once.

At this year’s San Jacinto Day, I was struck by the presence of Sam Houston IV, the great-grandson of Gen. Houston and grandson of Temple Houston, the general’s youngest son and a gunfighter of proven skill.

I am reading James L. Haley’s masterful biography of Sam Houston.

The greatest gunfighter movies are 1993’s Tombstone and 2003’s Open Range. As a teenager I was deeply influenced by 1960’s The Magnificent Seven.

Texas gunfighter Jess Standard was not a gunfighter. We later found out that my great-grandfather was just a workaday cowboy—to my great disappointment!


Bill O’Neal, Texas State Historian

The author of nearly 50 books, Bill O’Neal became Texas state historian in 2012. His next books will be about Sam Houston as a leader (for University of North Texas Press) and Texas gunslingers (for Arcadia Publishing). Although he retired as a history professor at Panola College in Carthage, Texas, he continues to teach at the college periodically. His honors include being named the “Best Living Nonfiction Writer” by this magazine and receiving the NOLA award for his 2004 book, The Johnson County War.

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