During the latter half of the 19th Century there were some marked similarities in aspects of America’s Wild West and the bush-ranging period of Australia.
Young, wild and lawless men operated in rural areas of both countries, generally good shots and great horsemen. In the United States they were commonly referred to as “outlaws” and in Australia “bushrangers”.
They responded in many ways to the social situation of the day – new population centres developing in previously remote areas, expanding rail systems, horse drawn coaches operating along the byways and new banks opening up along “whistlestop” settlements. Large herds of cattle that could be rebranded and on-sold at a healthy profit were attractive targets. And there was also the background of gold discoveries in both countries. The resultant “gold rushes” created fertile ground for outlaws and bushrangers alike, and they were not slow to seize the opportunities presented.
They were armed with rifles and revolvers, with the Colt Peacemaker – the famous 6-shooter – being a preferred weapon in America. Many were noted as skilful marksmen – the result of frequent practice and weapon handling.
The motivations of both outlaws and bushrangers were similar in some ways but different in others. There was the thread of criminality common to both with a desire to “get rich” irrespective of the legalities of the process.
But grievances, perceived or real, were also motivating factors. Jesse James, an iconic outlaw of the Wild West was a disaffected Confederate sympathiser who bitterly opposed the Union victory. He was a noted robber of trains and banks, and was suspected of several murders.
Ned Kelly, Australia’s most famous bushranger, believed that his family had been persecuted by the police and he also detested both the Victorian Government and the entire British Empire, the latter for their persecution of the Irish. Like James, Kelly was also a bank-robber and he was found guilty of the murder of three police officers. He later achieved immortality in Australian folklore by donning a suit of armour made from iron plate in his famous ‘last stand”.
James and Kelly both became popular men in history, characterised with debatable accuracy as “Robin Hood” figures who protected the downtrodden and vulnerable from persecution. Both met violent ends – Ned Kelly was hanged at Melbourne Jail in 1880 and Jessie James was shot dead for reward money in 1882.
Image: Ned Kelly – a photograph taken in 1880, the day before his execution, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.