Television westerns are a subgenre of  television programming in which stories are set primarily in the American Old West, Western Canada and Mexico during the period from the end of the Civil War to the end of the so-called “Indian Wars” at the end of the nineteenth century. Early TV western series helped define America as a nation. Westerns sought to teach the values of honesty and integrity, hard work, racial tolerance, determination to succeed and justice for all. They were, in a sense, modern morality plays where, at the show’s end, moral lessons had been taught and learned. Many TV Westerns addressed social issues such as racism and prejudice in a more forthright and articulate manner than their cinematic counterparts. These types of show were very popular on radio in the 1930s and 1940s and Hollywood made western movies for the silver screen. Westerns on TV screen was a natural transition. (“A Beginner’s Guide to Classic TV Westerns,” Brandon Nowak, July 10, 2014, https://tv.avclub.com/a-beginner-s-guide-to-classic-tv-westerns-1798270)

One of the first westerns that aired on TV in 1949 was The Hopalong Cassidy Show, starring William Boyd as Hopalong. These shows were edited from movie “shorts” made in the Thirties and Forties. TV also used many Hollywood B-movie Westerns of that era as time fillers, starring actors like: Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, John Wayne, Lash LaRue, Buster Crabbe, Bob Steele, Johnny Mack Brown, Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard and others. In the late 50s, westerns completely took over television. In 1958, eight of the top ten TV shows were westerns.

The typical cowboy hero had his favorite horse, for example Roy Rogers had “Trigger,” the Lone Ranger had “Silver,” Lash LaRue’s horse was “Black Diamond,” Gene Autry had “Champion” and Hopalong Cassidy had “Topper.” The horses of the Ponderosa in the television series Bonanza were treated as stars: Ben rode “Buck,” a buckskin; Little Joe rode “Cochise,” a paint; Hoss rode “Chub,” a dark bay; and Adam rode “Sport,” a sorrel. Many TV cowboys were “Singing Cowboys,” including Roy Rogers (“The King of the Cowboys”), Gene Autry (“America’s Favorite Cowboy”), Bob Steele, Ken Maynard, Tex Ritter and Rex Allen (“The Arizona Cowboy”). These singing cowboys got their start in Hollywood westerns and transitioned to television as TV popularity grew. “They were stars of movies, radio, recordings and eventually television. And the merchandising was phenomenal. Roy and Dale (Evans, his wife) supposedly had their names on about 15,000 products during their careers. The audience was saturated on every level and at every age group. People talk about the merchandising of the Ninja Turtles now, but with the singing cowboys it was more broad-based.” (Quoting John Longellier, Director of the Gene Autry Museum, “Hats off to the Singing Cowboys of Yesteryear”, L.A. Times, May 15, 1992.)

In this section, we will highlight several of the longer running Cowboy Shows:

Roy Roger and Dale Evans

Roy Rogers had been on the radio for nine years before moving to TV. The Roy Rogers Show was an American Western television series that broadcast 100 episodes on NBC for six seasons between December 30, 1951 and June 9, 1957. The show starred Roy Rogers (“The King of the Cowboys”) as a ranch owner, Dale Evans as the proprietress of the Eureka Café and Hotel in fictional Mineral City (Dale Evans was Roy Roger’s actual wife) and Pat Brady as Roy’s sidekick and Dale’s cook. Brady’s Jeep “Nellybelle” at times had a mind of her own and sped away driverless with Brady in frantic pursuit on foot. Animal stars in the show were Roy’s Palomino horse “Trigger” and his German Shepherd “Bullet, the Wonder Dog.” Typical episodes followed the stars as they rescued the weak and helpless from the clutches of dishonest lawmen, con artists, bank robbers, claim jumpers, rustlers, and other “bad guys.” The show’s theme song, Happy Trails, was written by Dale Evans and sung by her and Rogers over the end credits of each episode. https://youtu.be/SY47sdLrMbA

Some trails are happy ones,
Others are blue.
It’s the way you ride the trail that counts,
Here’s a happy one for you.

Happy trails to you,
Until we meet again.
Happy trails to you,
Keep smilin’ until then.

Who cares about the clouds when we’ere together?
Just sing a song, and bring the sunny weather.

Happy trails to you,
Til we meet again.

The Lone Ranger

The Lone Ranger first appeared in 1933 in a radio show. The TV show aired on ABC for eight seasons, from 1949 to 1957. It starred Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger and Jay Silverheels, who was a Mohawk from the Six Nations Indian Reserve in Ontario, Canada, as Tonto. Moore was not the only actor who played the Lone Ranger, but he was probably the best-known. Moore was replaced in the third season by John Hart, but he returned for the final two seasons. A total of 221 episodes were made.

According to the show’s origin story, the Lone Ranger is the sole survivor of a six member Texas Rangers posse led by Captain Dan Reid that was betrayed and ambushed. They pursued a band of outlaws led by Bartholomew “Butch” Cavendish, but they were led the into an ambush at Bryant’s Gap. Later, a Native American named Tonto stumbles onto the grisly scene. He discovers one of the rangers, Captain Reid’s younger brother, John, barely alive, and he nurses the man to health. According to the television series, Tonto gave John a ring and the name Kemo Sabe, which means “trusty scout.” John Reid then tells Tonto that he intends to hunt down Cavendish and his men and to bring them to justice. To conceal his identity and honor his fallen brother, John fashions a black domino mask using cloth from his late brother’s vest. To aid in the deception, Tonto digs a sixth grave and places at its head a cross bearing John Reid’s name so that Cavendish and his gang will believe that all the Rangers had been killed. In many versions, Reid continues fighting for justice as the Lone Ranger even after the Cavendish gang is captured.

At the beginning of each episode, the magnificent white stallion, Silver, would rear up with the Lone Ranger on his back, then they would dash off, with the Ranger shouting, “Hi-Yo, Silver!” Tonto could occasionally be heard to urge on his mount by calling out, “Get ’em up, Scout!” At the end of each episode, after their mission was completed, one of the characters would always ask, “Who was that masked man?” When it was explained, “Oh, he’s the Lone Ranger!,” the Ranger and Tonto would be seen galloping off with the cry, “Hi-Yo, Silver! Away!”

The Lone Ranger’s calling card was a silver bullet. The Lone Ranger and his brother, Dan, had a silver mine that they planned on working after their lawman careers. A retired Texas Ranger named Jim Blaine, who knew the Lone Ranger’s true identity, agreed to work the mine and make the silver bullets. The Lone Ranger and Tonto would periodically visit the mine and stock up on supplies, including silver bullets. In folklore, a bullet cast from silver is often one of the few weapons that are effective against a werewolf, witch, vampire, or other monsters. The masked man decided to use bullets forged from the precious metal as a symbol of justice, law and order, and to remind himself and others that life has value and the decision to shoot someone is not to be taken lightly.

The show’s theme music was primarily taken from the “March of the Swiss Soldiers” finale of Gioachino Rossini’s William Tell Overture, which thus came to be inseparably associated with the show. William Tell Overture (instrumental) https://youtu.be/PcRWO-jvjDI

“Hi-O Silver” – The  Lone Ranger Theme Song: Written by Robert Schaefer and Eric Freiwald; these lyrics start with the origin story of the Lone Ranger; the instrumental William Tell Overture is at the end) (lyrics transcribed from YouTube) https://youtu.be/vavK9JFQfVw

Six Texas Rangers rode in the sun, Six men of justice rode into ambush, and death for all but one

One lone survivor lay on the trail, found there by Tonto, the brave Indian Tonto, he lived to tell the tale

Hi ho Silver, Hi ho Silver away (2x)

His wounds quickly mended and there with a knife,

Six graves were put there to hide from the outlaws that one man lived to fight

He chose silver bullets, ———-, a mask to disguise him, a brave silver stallion and, thus began his fame

Hi ho, Silver, Hi ho, Silver away, the Lone Ranger was his name.

(Instrumental interlude, William Tell Overture)


Gunsmoke was a radio show before it appeared on TV. The radio series ran from 1952 to 1961. Gunsmoke was the longest running TV Western (1955-75). More than six hundred episodes were made. Gunsmoke starred James Arness as Matt Dillon, marshal of Dodge City in the 1880s. Gunsmoke was the first TV Western to tackle adult themes, with prostitution, child abuse and other previously taboo subjects featured. At the end of its run in 1975, Los Angeles Times columnist Cecil Smith wrote: “Gunsmoke was the dramatization of the American epic legend of the west. Our own Iliad and Odyssey, created from standard elements of the dime novel and the pulp Western as romanticized by [Ned] Buntline, [Bret] Harte, and [Mark] Twain. It was ever the stuff of legend.” During its second season in 1956, the program joined the list of the top-10 television programs broadcast in the United States. It quickly moved to number one and stayed there until 1961. It remained among the top-20 programs until 1964.

Surrounding Dillon were characters who became one of television’s best known “work-place families.” Kitty Russell (Amanda Blake) owned and managed a local saloon, The Long Branch, and over the years developed a deep friendship with Dillon that always seemed to border on something more intimate. Doc Adams (Milburn Stone) represented science, rationality and crusty wisdom. His medical skills were never questioned, and he patched up everyone on the show, often more than once. Dennis Weaver portrayed tender-hearted and gullible Chester Goode, Deputy Marshall. Chester’s openness and honesty were often played against frontier villainy, and his loyalty to Dillon was unquestionable. When Weaver left the show in 1964 he was replaced by Ken Curtis as Festus Hagen, a character equally adept at providing humor in the often grim world of Dodge and a foil to the taciturn and sometimes obsessive professionalism of Dillon. Burt Reynolds appeared on Gunsmoke from 1962-65 in the role of Quint Asper. (From the Museum of Broadcast Communications Encyclopedia of Television originally published 1997.)

While Gunsmoke had its share of shoot-outs, bank robberies, cattle rustlings, and the like, the great strength of the program was the ongoing exploration of life in this community, with these people, in this place, at this time. In Gunsmoke, Dodge City stands as an outpost of civilization, the edge of America at the end of a century. It is one of the central images of the Western in any of its media creations–a small town, a group of professionals, perhaps a school and a church, surrounded by the dangers of the frontier, its values of peace, harmony, and justice always under threat from untamed forces. Such a setting becomes a magnified experiment for the exploration of fundamental ideas about American culture and society. Issues faced by the characters and community in Gunsmoke ranged from questions of legitimate violence to the treatment of minority groups, from the meaning of family to the power of religious commitment. Even topics drawn from American life in the 1950s and 1960s were examined in this setting. The historical frame of the Western, and television’s reliance on well-known, continuing characters allowed a sense of distance and gave producers the freedom to treat almost any topic. (Encyclopedia Brittanica.)

The Gunsmoke radio theme song and later TV theme was titled “Old Trails, also known as “Boothill,” sung by Tex Ritter, written by Glenn Spencer (1955). https://youtu.be/BwkG9-DouBc

Some will lose their nerve tonight
Others lose their lives
A flash of fire in the fight
A cold look in my eyes
Passing judgement in the street
Where justice is revealed
I deal with darkness ruthlessly
I love the way it feels

Hear the roaring of the gun
Dead before the fear
Gunsmoke on the setting sun
You know the end is near

There’s a shadow on my life
That’s colder than the night
A chilling silence in the air
To fuel this dream of light
Dancing madly from the bar room
Where whiskey blinds my eyes
Lady luck is lonely now
Her streak has been denied

Hear the roaring of the gun
Dead before the fear
Gunsmoke on the setting sun
You know the end is near

I can hear the painful cry
That lets me know you’re there
You’re tryin’ hard to stop me
When you know I just don’t care
Another moment on your own
A life shot full of holes
I like how music pulls you in
To calm your restless soul

Hear the roaring of the gun
Dead before the fear
Gunsmoke on the setting sun
You know the end is near
Know the end is near

Wagon Train

Wagon Train (1957-65) was the epitome of the classic television Western from the genre’s golden age. It premiered on NBC on September 18, 1957. Its time slot was Wednesday nights 7:30-8:30. For the next five years the show was one of the top three rated shows in the country, often second only to Gunsmoke. Wagon Train featured Ward Bond as Major Seth Adams perennially leading settlers from Missouri to California, and Robert Horton as his scout. Each week the show would feature some of Hollywood’s top talent, such as Ernest Borgnine (who appeared in the first episode, “The Willie Moran Story,”) Shelly Winters, Lou Costello, or Jane Wyman, who would help Bond and Horton solve a problem that arose out of the context of a traveling caravan. The series was set in the post-Civil War West, the late 1860s-early 1870s. Each year, the show began in St. Joseph, Mo., and followed a wagon train as it headed west to California. During the course of the season, the travelers would encounter Native Americans, the elements, the Rocky Mountains, the prairies and the deserts. Each week the show would concentrate on a different member of the wagon train.

Wagon Train lasted eight seasons, moving from NBC to ABC in September of 1962. In 1963, its format expanded to 90 minutes, but returned to hour length for its final run from 1964-65. It survived several cast changes: Ward Bond (Major Adams), the original wagon master, died during filming in 1960, and was replaced by John McIntyre (Chris Hale); Robert Horton (Flint McCullough) left the series in 1962 and was replaced as frontier scout by Robert Fuller (Cooper Smith). Only two characters survived the eight year run in their original positions: Frank McGrath, as comical cook Charlie Wooster, and Terry Wilson’s assistant wagon master Bill Hawks.

The show’s ability to survive a network switch and periodic cast changes during its eight-year-run attests to the popularity of the program. Of seven Westerns in the Nielsen top ten in the United States, Wagon Train was in constant competition with Gunsmoke for supremacy. By 1959, the show was firmly ensconced in the top twenty-five programs in the country, bouncing as high as number one in the spring of 1960, and maintaining its number one position over Gunsmoke throughout the 1961-62 season

Over the years, there were several theme songs. Among the most remembered is the one from the second season. (Roll Along) Wagon Train (1958) https://youtu.be/pFF7r1TsdKA

Roll along

Wagon Train.

Rollin over prairie where there ain’t no grass,

Rollin over mountain where there ain’t no pass.

Sittin on a board

eye in the weather,

Prayin to the Lord

We stay together

Side by side on the Wagon Train.

Wagon Train

Roll along.

Pickinup a passenger in every town,

Wonderin if he’s ever gonna shoot you down.

Lookin for a pal,

ain’t it a pity,

Lookin for a gal,

needn’t be pretty

If she’ll ride on the Wagon Train.

Wagons ho!

Gotta keep em on the run.

Time to go!

And follow the sun.

Roll along

Wagon Train.

Never had a cabin near a general store,

Only had a wagon and a forty-four.

Sittin on a board

Eyein the weather

Prayin to the Lord

we stay together

Side by side on the Wagon Train.


Maverick (1957-62) premiered on September 22, 1957, and pretty soon won over the viewers from the powerful opposition of CBS’s The Ed Sullivan Show and NBC’s The Steve Allen Show, two programs that had been Sunday night favorites from the mid-1950s.

The Maverick brothers were poker players from Texas who traveled the American Old West by horseback and stagecoach, and on Mississippi riverboats, constantly getting into and out of life-threatening trouble of one sort or another, usually involving money, women, or both. They drifted from saloon to riverboat looking for a score until trouble found them. The Mavericks were TV’s most reluctant heroes. They’d rather talk their way out of trouble. Buy the fella a drink, offer a cigar, play a few hands of cards – anything but gunplay at which they weren’t especially adept. Too often, however, they found themselves having to rescue someone, hopefully a damsel in distress. They would typically find themselves weighing a financial windfall against a moral dilemma. Their consciences always trumped their wallets since both Mavericks were intrinsically ethical. The series had finished at #6 in the Nielsen ratings in the 1958-1959 season, then fell to #19 in 1959-1960 and out of the top 30 during its last two season.

“Maverick Theme,” https://youtu.be/mCF8j6hh4ck (The closing theme song was entirely instrumental during season one. A vocal version with lyrics debuted partway through season two, being used intermittently in place of the instrumental version. The vocal theme finally saw regular use by the end of season two and for all seasons thereafter. The vocal theme was performed by an all-male chorus.)

Who is the tall dark stranger there?

Maverick is the name.

Riding the trail to who knows where

Luck is his companion

Gamblin’ is his game.


Smooth as a handle on a gun

Maverick is the name

Wild as a wind in Oregon

Blowin’ up a canyon

Easier to tame.


Riverboat ring your bell!

Fare-the-well Annabelle!

Luck is the lady that he loves the best!


Nachetz to New Orleans

Livin’ on jacks and queens

Maverick is the legend of the West.


Riverboat ring your bell

Fare-the-well Annabelle!

Luck is the lady that he loves the best!


Natchez to New Orleans

Livin’ on jacks and queens

Maverick is the legend of the West.

Davy Crockett

One of the biggest television hits of the 50s decade was a western mini-series (the first mini-series on TV) about real-life character Davy Crockett. Crockett was an actual frontiersman, who served in the United States Congress and fought in the Battle of the Alamo before dying in said battle. He also participated in Andrew Jackson’s Indian Wars as a peace negotiator. He opposed President Jackson’s Indian Removal Act.

Davy Crockett was a five-part serial which aired on ABC from 1954–1955 in one-hour episodes on the Disneyland show. The series starred Fess Parker as the real-life frontiersman and Buddy Ebsen as his friend, George Russel. The five parts were “Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter” (December 15, 1954), “Davy Crockett Goes to Congress” (January 26, 1955), “Davy Crockett at the Alamo” (February 23, 1955), “Davy Crockett’s Keelboat Race” (November 16, 1955), and “Davy Crockett and the River Pirates” (December 14, 1955).

The shows sparked heated debate, with many questioning whether Crockett was really deserving of the amount of attention that he was receiving. Letter writers also questioned the series’ historical accuracy. Disney billed his hero as ‘King of the Wild Frontier,’ but historians were appalled at the public’s fanatical acceptance of the legend, and protested that he was never king of anything. In fact, Crockett had been a juvenile delinquent who ran away from home at the age of 13 and became a wife deserter, a coward and a lousy congressman who had bought his way out of the army. Nevertheless, the shows proved very popular. They were combined into a feature-length movie in the summer of 1955, and Parker and Ebsen toured the United States, Europe, and Japan.

The program became a national marketing phenomenon. Disney capitalized on the show’s success by licensing the sale of various types of Crockett paraphernalia, including coonskin caps and bubble gum cards. The Davy Crockett craze was so intense and unexpected that it even shocked Walt Disney himself. In about seven months over $100 million worth of Davy Crockett items were sold, including coonskin caps, toy rifles, lunch boxes, knives, camping gear, cameras, books, records, jigsaw puzzles etc. Despite the fact that his contract with Walt Disney called for a percentage of the merchandising sales from Disney’s company, Parker was unable to profit from the wild popularity because his contract was with Walt Disney personally rather than the company. This cost Parker millions of dollars from the runaway bonanza of Crockett merchandising. By the end of 1955, Americans had purchased over $300 million worth of Davy Crockett merchandise ($2 billion by 2001).

“The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” sung by Fess Parker (1955). (The theme song The Ballad of Davy Crockett was recorded 16 times in 1955. Three versions made the Billboard Top 10 in a single month, including the Number One version by Bill Hayes.) https://youtu.be/txcRQedoEyY

Born on a mountain top in Tennessee
Greenest state in the land of the free
Raised in the woods so he knew ev’ry tree
Kilt him a be ‘are when he was only three
Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier

In eighteen thirteen the Creeks uprose
Addin’ redskin arrows to the country’s woes
Now, Injun fightin’ is somethin’ he knows
So he shoulders his rifle an’ off he goes
Davy, Davy Crockett, the man who don’t know fear

Off through the woods he’s a marchin’ along
Makin’ up yarns an’ a singin’ a song
Itchin’ fer fightin’ an’ rightin’ a wrong
He’s ringy as a be ‘are an’ twict as strong
Davy, Davy Crockett, the buckskin buccaneer

Andy Jackson is our gen’ral’s name
His reg’lar soldiers we’ll put to shame
Them redskin varmints us Volunteers’ll tame
‘Cause we got the guns with the sure-fire aim
Davy, Davy Crockett, the champion of us all

Headed back to war from the ol’ home place
But Red Stick was leadin’ a merry chase
Fightin’ an’ burnin’ at a devil’s pace
South to the swamps on the Florida Trace
Davy, Davy Crockett, trackin’ the redskins down

Fought single-handed through the Injun War
Till the Creeks was whipped an’ peace was in store
An’ while he was handlin’ this risky chore
Made hisself a legend for evermore
Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier

He give his word an’ he give his hand
That his Injun friends could keep their land
An’ the rest of his life he took the stand
That justice was due every redskin band
Davy, Davy Crockett, holdin’ his promise dear

Home fer the winter with his family
Happy as squirrels in the ol’ gum tree
Bein’ the father he wanted to be
Close to his boys as the pod an’ the pea
Davy, Davy Crockett, holdin’ his young’uns dear

But the ice went out an’ the warm winds came
An’ the meltin’ snow showed tracks of game
An’ the flowers of Spring filled the woods with flame
An’ all of a sudden life got too tame
Davy, Davy Crockett, headin’ on West again

Off through the woods we’re ridin’ along
Makin’ up yarns an’ singin’ a song
He’s ringy as a be ‘are an’ twict as strong
An’ knows he’s right ’cause he ain’ often wrong
Davy, Davy Crockett, the man who don’t know fear

Lookin’ fer a place where the air smells clean
Where the trees is tall an’ the grass is green
Where the fish is fat in an untouched stream
An’ the teemin’ woods is a hunter’s dream
Davy, Davy Crockett, lookin’ fer Paradise

Now he’s lost his love an’ his grief was gall
In his heart he wanted to leave it all
An’ lose himself in the forests tall
But he answered instead his country’s call
Davy, Davy Crockett, beginnin’ his campaign

Needin’ his help they didn’t vote blind
They put in Davy ’cause he was their kind
Sent up to Nashville the best they could find
A fightin’ spirit an’ a thinkin’ mind
Davy, Davy Crockett, choice of the whole frontier

The votes were counted an’ he won hands down
So they sent him off to Washin’ton town
With his best dress suit still his buckskins brown
A livin’ legend of growin’ renown
Davy, Davy Crockett, the Canebrake Congressman

He went off to Congress an’ served a spell
Fixin’ up the Govern’ments an’ laws as well
Took over Washin’ton so we heered tell
An’ patched up the crack in the Liberty Bell
Davy, Davy Crockett, seein’ his duty clear

Him an’ his jokes travelled all through the land
An’ his speeches made him friends to beat the band
His politickin’ was their favorite brand
An’ everyone wanted to shake his hand
Davy, Davy Crockett, helpin’ his legend grow

He knew when he spoke he sounded the knell
Of his hopes for White House an’ fame as well
But he spoke out strong so hist’ry books tell
An’ patched up the crack in the Liberty Bell
Davy, Davy Crockett, seein’ his duty clear

When he come home his politickin’ done
The western march had just begun
So he packed his gear an’ his trusty gun
An’ lit out grinnin’ to follow the sun
Davy, Davy Crockett, leadin’ the pioneer

He heard of Houston an’ Austin so
To the Texas plains he jest had to go
Where freedom was fightin’ another foe
An’ they needed him at the Alamo
Davy, Davy Crockett, the man who don’t know fear

His land is biggest an’ his land is best
From grassy plains to the mountain crest
He’s ahead of us all meetin’ the test
Followin’ his legend into the West
Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier.

At the close of the Fifties, 30 Westerns aired on prime time each week, and Westerns occupied 7 spots in the Nielsen Top-10. Other popular 1950s TV Westerns included: The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, The Rifleman, Have Gun – Will Travel, Wyatt Earp, The Cisco Kid, Rawhide, Cheyenne, Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre, Death Valley Days, Zorro, and many others. Traditional Westerns began to disappear from television in the late 1960s and early 1970s as color television became ubiquitous. 1968 was the last season any new traditional Westerns debuted on television.