History Features

Splitting Hairs

The Fight Over Long Hair in the Old West

A few years ago, I attended the Dalton Days event in Meade, Kansas (held this July 13-14), and met two re-enactors from Arkansas. They told me the head honcho at Fort Smith keeps insisting to volunteers like them that “hippie style hairdos” were not worn in Judge Parker’s day (the Old West).

While it’s true a trend toward shorter hair emerged after the Civil War, there were plenty of exceptions (see examples at far right).

What seems to drive this modern-day prejudice says more about the 1960s than the 1860s. In the “Swinging Sixties,” when the so-called counterculture rebelled against the WWII image of “shave tail” manhood, hippies reverted (key word) to the long hair and facial hair of their grandfathers. Although it upset plenty of fathers, long hair wasn’t new by any means.

Of course, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers and John Wayne all had short hair. And in the movies, at least, only Gabby Hayes, or some goofy sidekick, wore their hair long.

But the Baby Boomers were simply aping styles from the real Old West, not the reel version. The photos prove it, and yet, more than a few historians from the WWII generation still cling to the notion that a man with long hair is not authentic and, by extension, somehow effeminate. Let’s see, that would include girly-men such as George Washington, Custer, Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok and Longhair Jim Courtright, not to mention Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Geronimo.

When studying old photos hair length evolves to shorter hair (and vice versa), with beards and mustaches styled up, down and around. After the Civil War, it appears young firebrands such as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday wore their hair short to upset their Civil War elders. Which, if true, would make it the polar opposite of the WWII aftermath.

The beardless, shorthaired look that dominated the 20th century is an anomaly to the rest of history. That some historians cannot see this fact is absurd, making me question their other conclusions and observations.

Long live long hair, and long may it wave!

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