20 Vintage Photos Showing How Things Really Were in the “Wild West” of the 1800s

The American frontier, also known as the Old West or the Wild West, includes the geography, history, folklore, and culture in the forward wave of American expansion in mainland North America that began with European colonial settlements in the early 17th century and ended with the admission of the last few western territories as states in 1912 (except Alaska, which was not admitted into the Union until 1959). This era of massive migration and settlement was particularly encouraged by President Thomas Jefferson following the Louisiana Purchase, giving rise to the expansionist attitude known as “Manifest Destiny” and the historians’ “Frontier Thesis”. The legends, historical events and folklore of the American frontier have embedded themselves into United States culture so much so that the Old West, and the Western genre of media specifically, has become one of the defining periods of American national identity.

The archetypical Old West period is generally accepted by historians to have occurred between the end of the American Civil War in 1865 until the closing of the Frontier by the Census Bureau in 1890.

By 1890, settlement in the American West had reached sufficient population density that the frontier line had disappeared; in 1890 the Census Bureau released a bulletin declaring the closing of the frontier, stating: “Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports.”

A frontier is a zone of contact at the edge of a line of settlement. Leading theorist Frederick Jackson Turner went deeper, arguing that the frontier was the scene of a defining process of American civilization: “The frontier,” he asserted, “promoted the formation of a composite nationality for the American people.” He theorized it was a process of development: “This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward…furnish[es] the forces dominating American character.” Turner’s ideas since 1893 have inspired generations of historians (and critics) to explore multiple individual American frontiers, but the popular folk frontier concentrates on the conquest and settlement of Native American lands west of the Mississippi River, in what is now the Midwest, Texas, the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the Southwest, and the West Coast.

Enormous popular attention was focused on the Western United States (especially the Southwest) in the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century, from the 1850s to the 1910s. Such media typically exaggerated the romance, anarchy, and chaotic violence of the period for greater dramatic effect. This inspired the Western genre of film, along with television shows, novels, comic books, video games, children’s toys and costumes.

As defined by Hine and Faragher, “frontier history tells the story of the creation and defense of communities, the use of the land, the development of markets, and the formation of states.” They explain, “It is a tale of conquest, but also one of survival, persistence, and the merging of peoples and cultures that gave birth and continuing life to America.” Turner himself repeatedly emphasized how the availability of free land to start new farms attracted pioneering Americans: “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.” Through treaties with foreign nations and native tribes, political compromise, military conquest, the establishment of law and order, the building of farms, ranches, and towns, the marking of trails and digging of mines, and the pulling in of great migrations of foreigners, the United States expanded from coast to coast, fulfilling the ideology of Manifest destiny. In his “Frontier Thesis” (1893), Turner theorized that the frontier was a process that transformed Europeans into a new people, the Americans, whose values focused on equality, democracy, and optimism, as well as individualism, self-reliance, and even violence.

As the American frontier passed into history, the myths of the West in fiction and film took a firm hold in the imaginations of Americans and foreigners alike. In David Murdoch’s view, America is exceptional in choosing its iconic self-image: “No other nation has taken a time and place from its past and produced a construct of the imagination equal to America’s creation of the West.” (Wikipedia)

Just like frequent bar-goers today, the drinking got out of hand at times. Here we can see several men firing their guns at one man’s feet as he tries to avoid the bullets as fast as he can. This happened so often that it actually became a game known as the “bullet dance.”
Not to worry, there were also gambling halls available for those who preferred a more leisurely form of entertainment. These less intense places usually consisted of three things: whiskey, women, and wagers.
Someone no one ever wanted to sit next to at the betting table was Jack Vermillion. He was quickly dubbed “Texas Jack” once he shot a man over an argument at cards… in the eye. This gives his more commonly used nickname “Shoot-Your-Eye-Out Vermillion” a clearer explanation.
Another popular pastime of the Old West was having your fortune told by female Romani psychics. These “gypsies”, as they called them, were believed to have the ability to read people’s futures through crystal balls, Tarot cards, and the palms of hands…
Not all women told tales – meet Rose Dunn, a clever gunslinger known for her good looks and romantic involvement with western outlaws. Her unexpected loyalty gained the respect of many men, mostly gang members, making her the most protected woman in town.
For those few who were not into drinking, prostitutes, games, or any kind of sorcery, there was the highly influential Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. All thanks to its creator, a bison hunter named Bill, this traveling circus-like act depicted the Old Western lifestyle for people, without them having to actually live it.
One of the main stars was Native American, Whirling Horse. Though he was a “show Indian” he did come from a native tribe, and often portrayed the truth in his role as a victim of western expansion. This surprisingly helped with tensions during the American-Indian Wars.
In order to ease such tension, many cowboys would find themselves at the saloon. Usually joined by the outlaws, these groups of men would enjoy a nice, cold brew amongst each other before they got back to their, very different, business.
Now, let’s not forget about those serving the drinks. Take a look at these proud bartenders posing for a photo in the very first saloon ever established in 1822, Wyoming.
Nowadays, you have to be 21 to get served alcohol, but this well-known outlaw decided he would much rather kill eight men before turning that age! Born as Henry McCarty, “Billy the Kid” was one of the most ruthless gunfighters of the Old West.
With so much violence, there’s bound to be a doctor in the building, right? Wrong. Though “Doc Holliday” was a doctor, his degree was more aligned in the field of dentistry. Once he realized caring for teeth wasn’t on people’s list of priorities, this Doc turned into one of the Wild West’s most notable deputy marshals.
While the cowboys had the marshals to watch over things, the Apache tribe had their ancestors. These Native Americans believed they lived alongside the supernatural. Below are their “spirit dancers” who were thought to have the ability to summon these souls from the mountains.
What the land also had in store for those living in the Wild West was gold. Yes, the famous California Gold Rush began in 1848, bringing 300,000 people into the state. Unfortunately, this resulted in disease and starvation for most of the Native Californians.
With such a fluctuating economy, many Western people of the 19th century relied on original gangster ways – particularly robbery. William Brazelton, also known as “Bill Brazen”, was notorious for stealing while wearing a mask. Who knew this signature move would be replicated by almost every burglar today?
Bill wasn’t the only trying to support his family – take Annie Oakley for example. This young lady became known for her sharpshooting skills at the age of 15, though she first picked up a gun as an eight-year-old while hunting to feed her mom and siblings after her father died.
Struggling just as much were the other main group Indians of the Old West, the Navajo tribe. Though considered one of the more wealthy aboriginal groups of the United States, Navajos still struggled to support their families.
One of the people’s heroes was the courageous Jesse James. Though he was an avid gang leader and train robber, he rarely got in trouble with the law since he acted as America’s Robin Hood – only stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.
Following in our last outlaw’s footsteps was this rather young, multi-racial gang formed by Rufus Buck. Together these boys robbed both stores and ranches in the Arkansas-Oklahoma area for eight straight years before getting caught.
Those who ventured far across the land like our last group of men, were able to capture some pretty breathtaking views, as well as some much needed silence. This scenic photo is of the Canyon de Chelly in Arizona. Today, the area is actually reserved as a National Monument!
Lastly, a woman named Pearl Hart proved that 19th century ladies also had a knack for sticky fingers. Though stagecoach robbery was Hart’s speciality, one day she was caught stealing from one in Arizona. Locking up Hart with all males, including the guards, was a mistake – she quickly managed to escape shortly after being imprisoned.

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