In any western movie, the bounty hunter is paid his money on the spot, amounting to hundreds to thousands of dollars. That was a lot of money, and I have a hard time believing that the small town sheriff had that amount of cash on hand to pay. Is it a realistic representation of the time or just a movie trope?

Reference: "For a few dollars more" Guy Callowy, $1,000 for murder. El Indio, $10,000. A wagon full of dead bad guys, $27,000.

"Django unchained": In other words marshall, you owe me two hundred dollars

  • Do you have any specific movie/bounty as an example - historically, Jesse James probably had the highest bounty of $5,000 (which was privately funded by the railroad companies he robbed) - which would be about $125,000 now. But most bounties would be 1-10% of that, or even less - which would still be about the average annual wage back then.
    – HorusKol
    Commented Mar 6, 2021 at 11:43
  • I'm not really sure why this is attracting such bad press. To me it's a valid question, even if the answer is 'it's probably not realistic'. It's probably going to be hard to actually prove either way, but that doesn't invalidate the question itself.
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Mar 6, 2021 at 17:32
  • @Tetsujin It's actually not. There have been scholarly articles/thesis' written on the bounty system of the old American West, for instance. The short answer is bounty pay outs as shown in most cinematic feature films is not accurate at all.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Mar 10, 2021 at 11:50
  • OP, if you are really interested in the bounty system used in the American West of the 19th Century, you might consider asking that in History. Leave out the movies as your basis, or just mention that is where you got the idea of the question. I'm not sure if it has already been asked, or not, so you might want to search it first.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Mar 10, 2021 at 11:53

1 Answer 1


Just to be clear, I'm going to call it 'movie trope'.

Cash-based society.
Banks had cash; maybe the sheriff went there, rather than keeping it all himself. Maybe he had to cash some government check, so it took a month to call in from the next big town, so the movie trope becomes expedient to plot.

The audience doesn't need to know how the cash gets there, just that the bounty hunter got paid.
Big wads of cash and shiny gold coins are exciting. Tramping across the Yukon for a month to go fetch it isn't.

If you watch a lot of cowboy movies, it seems a bank is robbed every hour. If the sheriff then went off in chase of the robbers, taking all the alpha males and best horses with him as a posse, all the robbers have to do is split into two parties and send one back to steal the cash from the sheriff's safe too;) Sometimes plot just has to be plot.

  • May be amounts are adjusted for inflation?
    – Candid Moe
    Commented Mar 8, 2021 at 19:06

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