The best books on Wild West Desperados

Jim Motavalli Author Of The Real Dirt on America's Frontier Outlaws
By Jim Motavalli

Who am I?

I wrote my first cover story on climate change circa 1996, when the computer modeling made clear what would happen. Then I began to see clear physical evidence that the planet was warming, and not much was being written about it outside academic circles. That led to the book Feeling the Heat. I recruited a bunch of experienced environmental journalists, sent them around the world, and they came back with very detailed and important reporting based on what they’d seen—melting glaciers, rising seas, changing ecosystems.


I wrote...

The Real Dirt on America's Frontier Outlaws

By Jim Motavalli,

Book cover of The Real Dirt on America's Frontier Outlaws

What is my book about?

I’m struck by how far from reality are the movie and TV portrayals of Wild West legends. They’re invariably cleaned up and made into lovable rogues, when the truth was far reality. And so I give you the real, warts and all, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Calamity Jane and Belle Starr, as well as many lesser-known figures—from Johnny Ringo to Nat Love—whose lives you will find amazing. Meet Pearl Hart, celebrity stagecoach robber, and Hoodoo Brown, a bad hat who sometimes wore a tin star. Never heard of Rufus Buck or Cherokee Bill? They’re all here, stripped of Hollywood glitz. My companion book is The Real Dirt on America’s Frontier Legends (the good guys). 

The books I picked & why

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The Life of John Wesley Hardin: As Written By Himself

By John Wesley Hardin,

Book cover of The Life of John Wesley Hardin: As Written By Himself

Why this book?

This is one of many Wild West autobiographies posted in various formats at the invaluable and for the most part free to use Archive.org. The book is remarkable because it’s one long excuse for the author’s many murders. Hardin—far from the sympathetic figure portrayed in Bob Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding” (with an extra “g”)—comes across as a vicious racist and dissembler. He maintains that the people he shot all but begged him to finish them off. Remarkably, he became a lawyer before being plugged himself. 


Old Deadwood Days

By Estelline Bennett,

Book cover of Old Deadwood Days

Why this book?

There are many media depictions of Deadwood, including in a popular HBO series with a lot of swearing in it. This book is fascinating because it’s a report by an eyewitness. Want to know what an evening was like at Al Swearengen’s Gem Theater, portrayed in the show? The Gem was “a clangorous, tangling, insidious part of Deadwood’s nightly life,” Bennett tells us. 


The Authentic Life of Billy, The Kid

By Pat Garrett,

Book cover of The Authentic Life of Billy, The Kid

Why this book?

Like many of the period books, this one has to be seen in context. It was written just eight months after Garrett shot William Bonney, so the story is at least fresh. But subsequent scholars have found the story to be full of holes and self-serving versions of history. But it makes fascinating reading, because shooter and victim had a history. According to Garrett, the Kid’s last words were in Spanish, “Quien es?” (“Who is it?”)


Black Cowboys in the American West: On the Range, On the Stage, Behind the Badge

By Bruce A. Glasrud (editor), Michael N. Searles (editor),

Book cover of Black Cowboys in the American West: On the Range, On the Stage, Behind the Badge

Why this book?

By some estimates, a quarter of the cowboys on the frontier were African-Americans. I tell some of their stories in my Outlaws book, but this is a much more complete account. Some of the prominent figures of color—Nat Love, Bass Reeves, Rufus Buck, Cherokee Bill, Jim Beckwourth—are portrayed in the 2021 Netflix movie They Harder They Fall, but any resemblance to actual history in that film is purely coincidental. 


Soapy Smith: The Life and Legacy of the Wild West's Most Infamous Con Artist

By Charles River Editors,

Book cover of Soapy Smith: The Life and Legacy of the Wild West's Most Infamous Con Artist

Why this book?

Why isn’t Soapy Smith better known? He was one of the most outrageous con men who ever lived, and would make a fine subject for a film. After a colorful life of fleecing people with three-card monte and bunco of every description (and getting run out of Denver), he turned up in Skagway, Alaska during the Gold Rush of 1896, and his gambling parlor took the miners for every penny. He was finally gunned down in 1898. 


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in American frontier, the American West, and pioneers?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Hanging Tree and Other Stories, Roughing It, and The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard if you like this list.