The Most Significant July Event in Western History

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It’s probably a three-way tossup, depending on where your interests lie. It could be July 1, 1862 when President Lincoln set the route for the first transcontinental railroad, or it could be July 14, 1881 when Billy the Kid was killed in New Mexico Territory, or it could be several July 4th dates in the late 1800s when the rodeo was born.

The railroad route is the most significant for the whole nation, coming after years of angst and wrangling. Southern congressmen wanted a southern route, already anticipating their cessation from the nation, while northern congressmen insisted on a northern route. Soon after southern congressmen walked out of the Union, Congress gave President Lincoln the northern route he’d always wanted.

For Billy, or William H. Bonney Jr., the end came after years of wanted posters, arrests and escapes, when Sheriff Pat Garrett shot him to death in Fort Sumner.

And for the rodeo, well, it has lots of birthdays. July 4, 1869 in Deer Tail, Colorado Territory, one of the “first ever” rodeos saw cowboy Emilne Gardenshire win the title “champion bronco buster of the plains.” On July 4, 1883 in Pecos, Texas, the town claimed to hold history’s first rodeo. The next year on July 4 in Dodge City, Kansas, bullfighting was introduced in America, and on July 4, 1886, Prescott in Arizona Territory declared it staged the “first rodeo in America.”

But July has many other moments of note. Besides Billy, five others—including four humans—breathed their last breath in July: Sam Houston on July 26, 1863; Edward Judson, AKA Ned Buntline, the famous writer who brought Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok into the limelight, on July 16, 1886; Ella Watson, unfairly smeared as “Cattle Kate,” was lynched on July 20, 1889;Roy Rogers’ beloved horse Trigger, died on July 3, 1965, while Roy himself died July 6, 1998.

America added its 43rd and 44th states on July dates in 1890: Idaho on July 3, and Wyoming onJuly 10.

Never forget that on July 1, 1898, Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders were victorious on San Juan Hill in Cuba. Or that the train-robbing days of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ended on July 3, 1901 near Wagner, Montana Territory.

One of the most stupid bets ever made in the old West occurred on July 4, 1880, when Arizonan George Warren bet his share in the Copper Queen Mine on a horse race he lost—costing him about $20 million as his share in the rich Bisbee mine.

Of course, it was a sad July 6 in 1876 when Captain McCaskey had to inform 27 widows at Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory about the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Elizabeth Custer was wakened at 7 a.m. with the news of her husband’s death—along with her three brother-in-laws and a nephew—but she then went to comfort the other widows.

We’ve known the source of the Mississippi River since July 13, 1832, when Indian agent Henry Schoolcraft stumbled upon it. The river’s 2,552-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico begins as a trickle at Lake Itasca, Minnesota.

Wyatt Earp was appointed Pima County Deputy Sheriff in Arizona Territory on July 27, 1880.

On July 30, 1881, the Missouri Governor offered a $10,000 reward for the capture of Frank and Jesse James.

On July 13, 1950, the Ute tribe was awarded $31.7 million for land in Utah and Colorado that was taken from it between 1891 and 1938.

On July 23, 1950, the Gene Autry Show first aired on television.

On July 8, 1958, the first gold record—signifying a million dollars in sales—was awarded to the soundtrack of Oklahoma!

And it was a happy July birthday for Ken Curtis, or “Festus” of Gunsmoke on July 2, 1916; for Virgil Earp, oldest of the brothers, on July 18, 1843; for The Virginian author Owen Wister on July 14, 1860; for Margaret Tobin—the “Unsinkable Molly Brown” of Titanic fame—on July 18, 1867; for Yul Brynner of Westworld and The Magnificent Seven, on July 11, 1920, and for Danny Glover of Lonesome Dove and Silverado on July 22, 1947.

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