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Firearms: A Dangerous Necessity in the Old West

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Hal Schindler
Published: 09/11/1994 Category: Features Page: D1

There is a tendency on this slope of the Continental Divide to lose perspective occasionally and confuse the Western myth with reality. That can be dangerous, especially now that Americans are becoming ever more conscious of guns–recalling a time in frontier history a half-dozen generations gone by when carrying a pistol in public was as commonplace as wearing a hat. The image of the square-jawed man of few words with a six-shooter on his hip come to tame a town is the stuff of daydreams and childhood fantasies.

More likely is the picture of an overland traveler in a weathered-and-worn prairie schooner pulled along by a double team of trail-weary oxen. Inside the wagon, one would probably find within easy reach a handgun–which might or might not function each time it was called upon. And there would be a musket, a muzzle-loader that required a lead ball be rammed in place down the barrel bore atop a measured amount of black powder. A percussion cap would complete the firing chain.

All very primitive by today’s standards and not always dependable by any standard. But always dangerous. Western myth holds that pioneers, settlers, mountaineers and all other manner of frontier citizens knew their way around guns. It was part and parcel of their everyday lives. True–in most respects. With firearms so accessible the danger, ironically, was less that hot tempers would provoke an endless round of gunfights, but that careless disrespect of such weapons would produce disastrous consequences. Annals of the West are rife with examples.

Early immigrants on the overland trail constantly abused or ignored the most basic precautions. Medorem Crawford, guiding a wagon train to Oregon in July 1842, sadly recorded the death of a man named Bailey near Independence Rock, “shot while walking through camp by accidental discharge of a gun from a wagon. He lived an hour.” Wrote Crawford, “My feelings on this occasion can hardly be described. A young man in the vigor of youth and health taken from our company, wrapped in a buffalo robe & buried in this dismal prairie. What sad tidings for his parents & friends, who like my own are far from here.” Three days later, he noted in his journal, “Mr. Bennett’s daughter slightly wounded by an accidental discharge of a gun.”

In 1847, during the Mormon hegira from Winter Quarters, Neb., Brigham Young took special pains to instruct the advance party of pioneers to travel in groups of ten, “as we were in Indian country and for every man to carry his gun loaded.” But, he stressed, percussion caplocks were to rest on a piece of buckskin with “caps ready to slip on in an instant in case of attack, or if it is a flintlock it should have cotton in the pan and a powder flask handy to prime quick.” The reason for this caution, he said, was to prevent accidents.

On an evening in June, however, as the advance company moved into camp on the Sweetwater River, 19-year-old John Holman, musket in hand, was herding several of Brigham Young’s horses. He jabbed one in the flank with the muzzle of his rifle–the hammer caught on his clothing and the gun discharged into the best horse in camp. The shot tore into the animal’s abdomen. It died a few hours later. Thomas Bullock, camp historian, ruefully noted it was the third horse accidentally killed on the trail. There is no record of Young’s reaction to the death of his favorite mount.

A gold-seeker headed for California was camped on the Big Blue River in Kansas on a cold and disagreeable Sunday in April 1849 when he heard the report of a gun in a wagon “about eight paces distant.” He heard someone cry, “Sacre! Oh, mon Dieu!” and saw a body fall “with a heavy squelch to the ground,” from the back of the wagon. “It proved to be a young Frenchman, Nicholas Boismenue by name. He had crawled into the back part of his wagon and finding his gun there had attempted to draw it towards him with the muzzle pointing directly at his breast; something coming in contact with the lock raised the hasp which coming down on the cap exploded the gun, the contents of which he received in his breast ranging downwards towards his hip and causing his death almost instantly,” J.W. Berrien wrote in his diary.

Frederick Gardiner was with a group of Mormon missionaries headed east in May 1857 when one of the party, a fellow from Big Cottonwood in the Great Salt Lake Valley, pulled a rifle muzzle-first from a wagon. It discharged and the heavy lead ball took away half his head. “We buried him on the Little Sandy,” Gardiner said.

Similar incidents abound. When a group was sent from Salt Lake City in October of 1853 to settle near Fort Bridger, they reported one of its members, Silas Pratt, suffered a wound in the hand when a pistol accidentally fired. And when Mormon guerilla leader Lot Smith regrouped his company after burning a government supply train at Simpson’s Hollow in present Wyoming, he suffered the only casualty of the raid. Smith was reloading his weapons and had placed a pistol atop a large clump of sagebrush. In picking it up, the trigger caught on a sage branch and the gun fired. “The ball passed through Orson P. Arnold’s thigh, breaking the bone in a fearful manner, struck Philo Dibble in the side of the head, and went through Samuel Bateman’s hat just missing his head.” Young Arnold was sent home, suffering greatly, he ultimately recovered.

It is all part of the saga of the winning of the West and the heavy price paid.