What challenges did outlaws in the American Old West face?

The challenges faced by outlaws in the American Old West included persecution by lawmen, treachery from other outlaws, and the inherently dangerous nature of activities such as robbing trains and stealing horses or cattle.

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The main challenges faced by outlaws in the American Old West stemmed from their position outside the law in a society where the law was rudimentary and offered strictly limited protection even for the law-abiding. This meant that any altercation with a sheriff, marshal, or other officer of the law was likely to end in gunfire and death, quite possibly the death of the outlaw. Billy the Kid was, as his sobriquet suggests, one of the youngest to die in this type of shootout, at the age of twenty-one.

Many outlaws, however, were killed by other outlaws. Their position outside the law meant that they had no protection beyond what they could arrange for themselves. Jesse James was shot by Robert Ford, another outlaw and a member of his own gang, at the age of thirty-four. Ford believed that he would be well-rewarded for killing the must famous outlaw in the West, but instead he was charged with first-degree murder. Although he was pardoned, Ford was himself shot by another outlaw at the age of thirty. The outlaw who shot him died of gunshot wounds in an altercation with a police officer at the age of forty-six.

The incidents noted above illustrate the type of hazards posed to outlaws by the law and each other and the likelihood of early death. Quite apart from this, however, outlaws made their living by activities which were inherently dangerous, such as robbing trains, stealing horses and cattle, and fighting and killing other outlaws. If they were not killed deliberately, the possibility of injury or death was still unusually high.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
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