When you think of the Wild West what is the first thing that pops into your mind? Maybe you think of a saloon or a duel between two cowboys in the street. Clint Eastwood or John Wayne may also come to mind as they both played cowboys in famous films such as A Fistful of Dollars and Riders of Destiny.
Historically, this time in American history was characterized by settlers who were travelling and expanding the land west of the Mississippi River. The beginning of the Wild West is usually characterized by the Louisiana Purchase made in 1803 and ends around 1912 when the last of the mainland states, Arizona finally joined the Union.
Although these might be the official dates, the West was not completely settled by 1912.As is true with most cases of territorial expansion, the Wild West was not free of controversy and violence. There are many tragic stories involving bloodshed and death on the frontier that can’t be avoided.
Although the Wild West movies may not be entirely accurate, one thing they did get right was the amount of violence. Not only were people killed by shooting from waring groups but many died on the long journey to settle the West. There was war between Mexico and Texas and there was also a high death toll of Native Americans due to wars and disease.
Another violent trend that was big in the Wild West was banditry. You’ve likely heard the likes of Billy the Kid who was a bandit in the Wild West who allegedly murdered eight people. But the myth that bandits and outlets ruled the West is not completely true. The uptick in violence lead to the creation of many vigilance committees made up of people trying to stamp out lawlessness.
The media and movies portrays the Wild West as being a time period full of chaotic violence and dramatic romantic relationships but is this really an accurate representation of what was occurring at that point in American history? Many of us think that the West was full of people walking around in cowboy hats but there is photo evidence to suggest otherwise.
See for yourself by tagging along with us on a photo journey to the Wild West. If you are a history buff or a Wild West enthusiast you will not want to miss out on these incredible pictures. Giddy up!
Wild Bill Hickok
James Butler Hickok better known as “Wild Bill” was a sort of folk hero of the Wild West. He was a famous frontiersmen and gained a name for himself from his tall tales of adventure (many of which were revealed to be false). He was known for many different roles including being a soldier and fighter and a gambler which led to his ultimate demise. While playing poker in 1876 Hickok was murder while holding what is referred to as the “Dead Man’s Hand.”
After the Louisiana Purchase was made in 1803 where a large portion of French controlled land was bought, there was a huge movement of settlers into the new territory. A total of 828,000 square miles were purchased from France at the mere cost of $15 million (we bet France is regretting that decision today). This photo pictures a family posing in front of their wagon making there way to Western territory in 1886.
You have likely heard of the Pony Express which was a mail and message delivery service. The service only lasted for 19 months and it took around 10 days for letters to travel across the country on horseback. This man is Charlie Miller who is rumored to have been the last surviving member of the mail service. He later went on to perform in Buffalo Bill’s show. Nicknamed “Broncho Charlie” he was the youngest rider on the Pony Express at just aged 11.
On the horizon
Here we see a cowboy atop his horse in Monument Valley on the edge of a precarious cliff. Located on the border of Utah and Arizona, Monument Valley is a region of the Colorado Plateau. The located is iconic and has been featured in many Hollywood films since it is the perfect Wild West location. When it’s not being used as a Hollywood film set, many visitors pass through the area on guided tours.
Keeping the peace
When you think of the Wild West you may think of bandits and criminals running wild and controlling towns. There was lawlessness in the Wild West, however, to combat it many towns implemented anti-criminal task forces. One such place was Dodge City which was notorious for high crime. The Dodge City Peace Commission is pictured here in 1883. They were set up to maintain peace and order in the city and were founded by Wyatt Earp (seated second from the left).
So many ponies
Here is a horse lovers heaven! Since the automobile was not available just yet in the Wild West, horses were the most convenient and fastest way to get around. That means that instead of car shows and dealerships, there were horse shows! Here we see one such show which took place annually in Waitsburg, Washington. We wonder if the potential buyers were allowed to take the horses for a test drive.
Here is a picture where you can see Wild West residents wearing hats other than cowboy hats. Besides the hats, something important to point out in this picture is the fact that these men are prospectors searching for gold in the Northwestern United States. This photo is thought to have been taken in 1867 although the height of the Gold Rush took place from 1848 until 1855 which led to thousands of people to risk their lives in search of fortune.
In this photo snapped in 1885 we see the result of the Louisiana Purchase in full force. This picture shows hundreds of American settlers travelling westward across the open and very dusty plains. These adventure seeking Americas were often in search of better land and a new life. These brave travellers created new communities and put their livelihoods at risk by heading to a new and far off place. This occurred through much of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
This photo is thought to have been taken around 1900 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This is one of those photos that just makes you hold your breath since these men and their horses are in such a precarious position on the edge of a dangerous mountain. The passengers in this crew must have been pretty important people since it looks like they are being guided by armed guards. Maybe they were guarding some gold from California.
Queen of criminals
The female horseback rider pictured here is Belle Starr who lived in the Indiana Territory. What is unique about Starr is that she had a strange attraction to bandits and outlaws. She even married a number of alleged Wild West criminals including Sam Starr and Jim Reed. This photo was taken in 1886, just three years before Starr was murdered under mysterious circumstances. Starr was a criminal herself as she was convicted of horse theft three years prior to this photo being taken.
Riders on the storm
Here we see the Canyon de Chelly located in the state of Arizona. This canyon has been home to home to human beings for over 5,000 years which includes the Navajo tribes who settled with their families and livestock in the area. This photo, which was captured in 1904, depicts a group of Navajo riders making their way across the desert. It was be pretty hot out there with the sun blazing down and no trees for shade.
No this isn’t the Jesse James who was once married to Sandra Bullock, This is Jesse W. James, a known outlaw. James has sometimes been referred to as the Robin Hood of the Wild West who stole from the rich and gave tot he poor, however, there is no evidence for this claim. He was the leader of the James -Younger Gang, a group of outlaws that was based in Missouri. James robbed banks, trains and was murdered in 1882.
Here we see two genuine cowboys in their leather chaps, handkerchiefs and cowboy hats. The man on the left is named Charley Nebo who was a proprietor of a horse ranch who made a lasting impact on the state of Nebraska. Charley was the son of immigrants as his father was from England and his mother was from Canada. After being discharged from the Union Army, he began a booming cattle business. Not as much information is known about his partner on the right is named Nick.
High on a hill
Pictured here is a group of men from the Crow nation lived near the Yellowstone River Valley in the Wild West. The river extends through three states including Wyoming, Montana and into North Dakota. This image was reportedly taken in Montana while this group of men dressed in typical Native American clothing was on horseback at sunrise. The Crow tribe still are a Federally recognized tribe today and they have a reservation in central Montana.
As photo taking technology wasn’t quite so advanced in the Wild West, it’s pretty incredible that this perfectly timed photo was taken. In the early 1900s this man was rearing up his horse, waving his hat and it was all caught on camera. This man looks like he was participating in a land rush as he is so enthusiastic. A land rush the aftermath that occurred when the U.S. government previously restricted land to be sold on a first come first serve basis.
While Hollywood may portray the lives of Native American women in a romantic way, in reality there was much more hard work involved. Native American typically maintained the home but in addition to cleaning, they could also build homes and keep the roof of the home intact. They also did such vital chores as repairing shoes and clothes and gathering firewood. This picture shows Barbara Rush from the 1954 film Taza, Son of Cochise.
While we may typically picture a cowboy when we think of a horseback rider, many other groups throughout history such as Native American tribes used horses as their primary form of travel. Here we see a large group of Native Americans from the Brule Sioux tribe. They are a sub-tribe of the Teton Lakota people and they were referred to as the Brule by French settlers. The name is thought to have derived from an incident where they rode through a grass fire on the plains.
An authentic cowboy
Here we see a typical looking cowboy complete with an intense look on his face, a cowboy hat and fringes on his clothes. This unnamed cowboy posed for this photo in 1890 and it looks like the horse was posing too. While cowboy has become commonly used word in our vernacular today, it was thought to have been coined until 1725 as a direct English translation of the Spanish word “vaquero.”
Cops and robbers
Since there were so many bank robberies in Wild West towns there must have been plenty of crime stoppers on patrol right? However, this is not the case as there weren’t actually that many robberies occurring. As you can tell from this street (confusingly named Manhattan in the state of Nevada) towns in the Wild West were pretty tiny. This means that the sheriff of a town would only be a few feet away from the bank and it wouldn’t be easy for a robber to plan a great escape.
This group of Native Americans look like they are lining up to head into battle back in 1890. However, this is far from the truth as
they are actually participating in the show we’ve already mentioned a couple of times, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Bill’s show was an open-air theatrical performance that often romanticized the American frontier to audiences. In addition to performers showing off their sharp shooting skills, there are often reenactments of historical events which might be what is going on here.
Protesting for rights
One issue that has been a controversial one for most of American history is the treatment of Native American people. Native Americans have faced challenges and been mistreated throughout history but there is still controversy today about logos and offensive names that include references to Native American people. Here we see Sacheen Littlefeather who appeared as an activist for Native American civil rights at the 45th Oscars. She accepted Marlon Brando’s award for best actor as the actor himself protested the ceremony.
Point and stare
This is yet another shot of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. A cowboy sits alongside two Native American men who seem to looking at something interesting off in the distance. It seems that many Native Americans were a part of these shows. They were not, however, portrayed in the best way in the shows as they were often depicted attacking white settlers where the intent was to show their “savage” and “wild” ways.
Native American women
This photo is thought to date back to around 1910 and it shows a young woman from the Piegan people sitting on a hill in a traditional Native American outfit. While women may have had more traditional roles in the new American society, in Native American culture, women were often taught the same skills as their male counterparts. This includes activities such as horse riding, using weapons, skinning leather and cooking.
Movies about the Wild West are entertaining but they have also put stereotypes about the time period in our minds. In these movies, we often see empty streets with rolling tumbleweeds and eerie music. However, from this picture we can tell that Wild West towns were often bustling centers of trade. We can see a trading post where merchants are bringing goods in their wagon to trade and sell. This was like the outdoor mall of the Wild West!
Speaking of Buffalo Bill whose real name was William Frederick Cody, here he is picture in 1900. Before there was a football team called the Buffalo Bills the original Buffalo Bill led a performance troupe in the late 19th Century. Buffalo Bill had many performers in his crew including Annie Oakley and Gabriel Dumont. They traveled across the country together showing off their talents and they even travelled to England to perform at the Queen’s Jubilee celebration.
This photo tells you exactly where it was taken in historic Deadwood, South Dakota. This photo was taken in 1889 and it depicts a procession of stagecoaches that are part of the Omaha Board of Trade. This photo is a part of what is thought to be the largest surviving collection of the world by this early Western photographer. If you have heard the name Deadwood before it might be because of the HBO show which is set in 1870s South Dakota.
Based on media and entertainment, most people assume that Native Americans and settlers were often engaged in fierce clashes involving violence. However, that was definitely not always the case. Here we see that is was possible for both Western folk and Native Americans to get along as they all sat down to enjoy a meal together. Native Americans were often guides that helped cowboys navigate through the territory and travel on long journeys in the Wild West.
While some might think that the West was only inhabited by cowboys, they may be surprised to know that women lived there too! Even more surprising is that some women were just as talented marksmen as the men. One of those women was Annie Oakley who became a member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show where she showed off her sharpshooting talent. Annie was born at the height in the height of the Wild West in 1899 and died in 1926.
Have you heard the phrase, “Circle the wagons?” This was a phrase that was common in the Wild West that most people assume refers to protection of wagons. Many believe that this command was given to settlers in order to protect their wagons and belongings from Native Americans if they approached travelers. However, it is now believed that the phrase was said in order to keep their cattle safe and from wandering off at night.
Myth vs. reality
Picture a cowboy in your head and what do you see? Most likely a rugged and handsome man with fringe flying off his jacket and a cowboy hat on his head. However, is that an accurate image? The typical wide-brimmed cowboy hat that we know and love wasn’t popular until the 1870s. Before that, most cowboys opted for a much more practical bowler hat that wouldn’t fly off their heads while trotting around on horseback. In this photo, we see a cowboy holding his hat by his side.