Parenting Advice from the Wild West

Parenting Advice from the Wild West

Geronimo (right) and some of his warriors at their final surrender in 1886.
Geronimo (right) and some of his warriors at their final surrender in 1886. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

As a historian, I spend a lot of time researching the Wild West. As a parent, I’m always looking for good advice. So the natural question arises–what can we learn about raising children from America’s frontier?

The truth is, not much. In the early days of the Wild West, there weren’t many kids about, and when settlers came with their families, the little tykes were usually put to work on farms and ranches like they were miniature adults. Yet there are a few nuggets of wisdom handed down from that era.

Take Geronimo, for example. One of the last Apache holdouts against American settlers, he spent most of his time fighting rather than dealing with fatherhood, and yet in his autobiography, Geronimo related a customary Apache father’s advice to his son:

My son, you know no one will help you in this world. You must do something. You run to that mountain and come back. That will make you strong. My son, you know no one is your friend, not even your sister, your father, or your mother. Your legs are your friends; your brain is your friend; your eyesight is your friend; your hair is your friend; your hands are your friends; you must do something with them.

As you can see, the Apaches were highly individualistic. That bit about running to the mountain and back is actually true. There are several Apache accounts of “toughening up” the children. In winter, kids would break through the ice of mountain streams and take a plunge; they would practice constantly with bows and spears; and on hot summer days they would be given a mouthful of water and told to run a long distance without swallowing it.

No wonder these folks gave the U.S. Cavalry such a hard time!

Another proponent of the tough love school was Thomas Ketchum, who committed a string of successful robberies in the last decade of the nineteenth century. He sometimes rode with the Wild Bunch alongside Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and other times led his own gang.

Ketchum got so bold that he got stupid — he tried to rob the Santa Fe Railroad all by himself. This was a bad idea because the conductor blasted his arm to shreds with a shotgun. The conductor, you see, recognized him from the last two times he’d robbed the train. Almost dead from blood loss, Ketchum eventually turned himself in.

Ketchum was carefully nursed back to health so he would be fit for hanging. Several newspapers interviewed him and he had this to say to all the boys thinking of taking the path of crime.

My advice to the boys of this country is not to steal either horses or sheep, but either rob a train or a bank when you have got to be an outlaw, and every man who comes in your way, kill him; spare him no mercy, for he will show you none. This is the way I feel, and I think I feel right about it.

Tom Ketchum about to be hanged.
Tom Ketchum about to be hanged. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Good advice. He might have added that you should always get an expert hangman, because when the trapdoor dropped, the gathered crowd was shocked to see the noose yank poor Tom Ketchum’s head right off. The rope had been made too long and not tied properly, so it ended up acting like a guillotine. This being the Wild West, a commemorative photograph of the headless body was taken and sold as a memento. You can see that here. If you’re worried about your children turning into juvenile delinquents, show it to them.


Sean McLachlan is the author of the post-apocalyptic Toxic World series and several other titles, including his action series set in World War One, Trench Raiders. His historical fantasy novella The Quintessence of Absence, was published by Black Gate. Find out more about him on his blog and Amazon author’s page.

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Great thoughts, Sean!

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