"So stagecoach guards rode shotgun - they just didn’t call it that in the 1880s, as far as anyone has yet discovered. The term “riding shotgun” to refer to the guard sitting next to the driver doesn’t emerge from the Old West but rather from movies and TV shows about the Old West. To date no one has found a cite for “riding shotgun” during the time stagecoaches were actually used.
"The earliest usage we’ve found in pulp fiction occurs in the March 27, 1921 issue of the Washington Post’s “Magazine of Fiction,” in a story entitled “The Fighting Fool” by Dane Coolidge. "
Well, I got you beat by 16 years on the print usage. From The Sunset Trail, by Alfred Henry Lewis, 1905, p. 349 (which can be found at Google Books):
“Wyatt and Morgan Earp were in the service of the Express Company. They went often as guards—“riding shotgun,” it was called—when the stage bore unusual treasure.”
Note that not only does this push back the print date a decade and a half, but it also states, by my interpretation, that the term was in used while Wyatt and Morgan Earp were performing such duties. Alfred Henry Lewis was a friend of Bat Masterson (to whom the book was dedicated) as well as Theodore Roosevelt, which makes him a fairly prestigious source. Assuming we take his word that the term was in use when the Earps were working for Wells Fargo, it would place it in use prior to Morgan Earp’s 1882 assassination, and likely prior to his wounding in the OK Corral gunfight five months earlier. And if the gunfight at the OK Corral isn’t smack in the prime of “the Old West,” I’m not sure what is…
Thanks for the find. I’ll get around to revising the Staff Report in the next few weeks.
The 1905 reference is probably indicative that the term was used earlier, but not conclusive. Anything earlier that I found is about “stagecoach guards with shotguns” and “shotgun messenger.” but I don’t pretend to have done any sort of exhaustive search.
While Alfred Henry Lewis actually lived the life of a cowboy for a few years, much of his writing in the 1897-1908 period is of short stories/novels about life in the West, and most were works of fiction. So, for now, until we uncover that phrase from the 1880s-1890s, let’s just say it fits in with the writers of Western fiction which was very popular in the early 1900’s.