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The Real Josey Wales

(And the Bizarre Story Behind the Legend!)

There is usually a grain of truth to most legends and so it is with Josey Wales. More than a grain...more like a bushel basket. Josey Wales was based on a real man and one that was reputedly as tough, violent and vengeful as Wales. But, unlike the movie, the real man did not have as his driving force a vengeance for losing his family to murder by Union soldiers. But his family was rousted from their house and their homestead burned to the ground by Union soldiers.

The real Josey Wales was a Confederate guerilla fighter, a “bushwacker,” an associate of the bloody Quantrill Raiders, horse rustler, deadly shot, and killer of many. He was born William “Bill” Wilson in the Ozarks in Missouri of a well-to-do family. He grew into a very tall, dark and handsome man—6’2”, with jet black curly hair and sparkling crystal blue eyes. He was an amiable fellow, good-natured, clever, and skilled at playing the violin, so he was always in demand for weddings and parties.

His nimble fingers were not only quick on the fiddle, however. They were quick on the trigger as well. He was a deadly shot and always had on both hips two .44-calibre six shooters. He was a sure-shot at a stand-still but also practiced assiduously shooting on the run from the back of his horse.

Bill’s prosperous farmer father had made pains to remain neutral in the violently split border state of Missouri. He had owned several slaves but freed them before the War and advised his grown children remain as neutral as possible. But, in the summer of 1861, just after the War had started, some horses were stolen from the Union government in the area by a Confederate guerilla gang. Bill Wilson was immediately regarded as a suspect. A few days later, a group of Union solders raided his home, threw out his family, stole everything they could and set the entire homestead on fire. That was the end of Bill’s “neutrality.”

He moved his family to a small cabin on his parents’ farm and began a campaign of blood vengeance that would become legend in the Ozark Mountains, then the entire country.

Bodies of Union soldiers started showing up everywhere. The first victims were the four Union soldiers who had raided his farm. He hid in the trees by the trail leading back to the Union headquarters at Rolla, Missouri, and waited for the soldiers. With both of his revolvers drawn, he surprised them on the road and killed all four.

Killing Yankees had a side benefit: Bill confiscated their Army mounts and supplied the Quantrill Raiders with mounts for their many raids. Bill Wilson became known as “The Great Bushwacker” because he ambushed his many victims. The number of Union soldiers Wilson killed is unknown—according to the legend, possibly dozens. When the War ended, there was a $300 bounty on him, an immense amount at that time. He rode to Texas with as many as 150 other Quantrill Raiders to hide out. Some brokered pardons with the U.S. government, but Bill Wilson never did. He continued to make trips back to Missouri to visit his family and was welcomed by the Ozark mountain people as a folk hero.

Bill Wilson lived near Sherman, Texas, and married an Indian woman named Mary Ann Noaks in April 1865. Later, about 1869, he was selling a wagon load of apples in McKinney, Texas, when two ex-Missouri Qauntrill Raiders—his old comrades!—spied him. They decided to rob him and ambushed him north of the small frontier town of Van Alstyne, shot him many times to ensure he was dead, robbed him and buried him in a shallow grave. The two desperadoes were later caught, confessed and were hanged in Sherman on March 26, 1869. But Bill’s grave was never found. The Great Bushwacker had, himself, been bushwacked in the end.

For about 60 years, Bill Wilson’s legend continued to survive in the South. Then one of his descendants, George Clinton Arthur, wrote a biography about Wilson in 1938: “Bushwacker: Missouri’s Most Infamous Desperado.”

It would be another 30 years before another book would be written about Bill Wilson and this one would lead to the famous movie. And, here, we get into truly strange territory. File it under “truth is stranger than fiction.”

Like the book’s protagonist, the author of the book had his own notorious personal history. Forrest Carter, born Asa Earl Carter, was a KuKluxKlan leader. In 1958, he quit the Klan group he had founded after shooting two members over finances. Then he became a speechwriter for George Wallace. He wrote Wallace’s infamous pro-segregation 1963 line: "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." Later, Carter ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor of Alabama on a segregationist ticket, but finished fifth of five candidates.

After dissolution of his political dreams, Asa Earl Carter receded into the background, changed his name after a famous Confederate General, moved to Texas, and under an alias, posed as the Cherokee writer, Forrest Carter. In 1972, he wrote “The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales.” Carter sent the book to Clint Eastwood’s office as an unsolicited submission. Eastwood’s partner read it and suggested buying the rights. (The same book was later re-released by the publisher with a new name, "Gone to Texas," and that is the title that is credited in the movie credits.) Neither Client Eastwood or his partner knew the author’s real identity as a rabid segregationist and would not for some years.

The movie, “The Outlaw Josie Wales,” was released in 1976. In that same year, as a result of an interview with Barbara Walters, several politicians and reporters recognized Carter as the anti-segregationist and former Klan leader. Then the New York Times broke an expose about him. Carter spent the rest of his life denying his past.

In a strange twist of life imitating art imitating life, Carter later wrote in his autobiography in 1985 of his Scottish-Cherokee grandfather, a man named Wales—the very name of his outlaw hero!

The story does not end there. Despite its ignoble origin, the film was a great commercial and artistic success and has become a cult classic. And, in another strange twist of fate, despite the concealed but reprehensible ideology of its author, in 1996, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

The movie portrays Native Americans and especially an old Cherokee man as very sympathetically and fellow renegades and free spirits, like Wales. See the video clip below of one of the movie's most iconic scenes:


SPOILER ALERT: The last scene of “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” has a sweet resonance and resolution, and a little inside joke for history lovers. When the men who have been hunting Wales, finally think they have found him in a bar in Santa Rio, a prostitute and other locals cover for the outlaw, saying that Wales was killed in a shoot-out in Monterrey. They vouch for Josey, saying he is a local. His name, they say: “Mr. Wilson”...

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"The True Story Behind Josey Wales" was first published on Facebook on April 1, 2020.

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