Petzal: The Four Toughest Men of the Old West

In compiling this list, I’ve given myself more latitude then usual—from the post- Lewis and Clark era into the early days of the 20th century. I would not want to neglect one of these men and have his shade come after me in the next life.

HUGH GLASS: In 1823, while a member of a trapping expedition led by Andrew Henry, Hugh Glass was mauled by a sow grizzly. His back and scalp were torn apart and one leg was broken. Because they were in Indian country, and because it seemed obvious that Glass could not live, Henry detailed John Fitzgerald and the 17-year-old Jim Bridger to stay with Glass until he died, bury him, and then catch up with the main party.

When Glass survived for 4 days, Fitzgerald and Bridger decided that there was no sense in waiting longer and left, after taking Glass’ rifle, tomahawk, and knife. Eventually, Glass grew strong enough to crawl, and be began his journey to Fort Kiowa, 200 miles and 6 weeks away. He set his own leg and let maggots eat the rotting flesh on his back. He lived on roots and berries, and on one occasion was able to drive a pair of wolves away from the carcass of a buffalo calf.

When he made it, he swore revenge on Fitzgerald and Bridger, but it was not to be: the former had joined the army, and he forgave the latter because of his youth. Glass was killed near the Yellowstone River by Arikara Indians in 1833.

JOHN WESLEY HARDIN: Some gunmen (Wyatt Earp, most notably) built awesome reputations despite having killed very few people. (Earp got three or four.) However, this fun-loving Texan stacked up the bodies on an assembly-line basis. Born in 1853, Hardin stabbed a schoolmate at the age of 14, and then got serious a year later when he shot his first man. For the next ten years his life was one protracted gunfight, interrupted by arrests and escapes from jail. In 1878, he was tried and sentenced to 25 years for murder in Texas, but was pardoned in 1894.

Hardin then went bad. He studied law and opened a more or less successful practice. In 1895, he was murdered in El Paso by Constable John Selman, who shot him in the back of the head while Hardin was rolling dice. Hardin claim to have killed 44 men; the real number is probably more like 30. It will do.

BEAR RIVER TOM SMITH: Remember all the punchouts in the Saturday afternoon Westerns? Mostly that stuff never happened, but here was one lawman who did use his fists in favor of his guns. Tom Smith was a New Yorker, a professional middleweight prizefighter, and a policeman who was hired by the city of Abilene, Kansas, in 1869. Smith enforced a highly unpopular no-guns policy in the cowtown, and for the most part, made the law stick by beating the hell out of people with his bare hands. He was thought to be completely fearless, and never backed down from a fight, no matter what the odds.

Smith met his end while carrying a gun to serve a warrant on two local farmers. He was shot, then clubbed with a rifle butt, and then decapitated with an axe. Smith was succeeded by James Butler Hickok, who believed in shooting people.

FRANK HAMER: Born in 1884 he is my personal selection as the toughest sumbitch of all. This Texas Ranger is best known for leading the posse that killed Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in 1934 (and forget the crap you saw in the movie; no one ever got the drop on him). He was a big man who would cheerfully stomp a mudhole in your ass or shoot you if you broke the law. He was never beaten in a fight of any kind; he survived numerous gunshot wounds and killed numerous people. Hamer did not play politics, which probably cut short his Ranger career.

Hamer’s career spanned the last of the Old West and into the 20th century. He served 18 years in the Rangers, and even after his retirement he retained a special commission as a Ranger. During his life, he refused money (a lot of it, reportedly) to tell his life story. Hamer died in his bed in 1955. His biography, I’m Frank Hamer, appeared in 1968, and if you can find a copy, grab it.