Vintage Historical Photos of the Wild West

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)

Custer’s Last Photograph
A vain man, George Armstrong Custer posed for more than 150 photographs in his lifetime, including this last photo, taken of him two months before the 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn that would end his life.
Perhaps the most storied lawmen of the West were the Texas Rangers. Comanches, not outlaws, were the principle adversaries of the Rangers in the years immediately following the Civil War.
Buffalo hunting began as a business in 1870, peaked in 1872-73, and the millions of Buffalo were gone by the mid ’80s. The Buffalo hunters were most easily distinguished by their weapons—usually large caliber Sharps rifles.
Gunfighters were a unique Western frontier product and a breed of their own—neither outlaw nor lawman but often either or both during their lifetime. This photo of Billy Brooks depicts a typical gunfighter of the 1870s, and he fit the mold: he was a lawman in Newton and Ellsworth, Kansas, a gunfighter in Dodge City—before any of those towns became “cowtowns”—and he died at the end of a rope in 1874 as a horse thief. This photo was probably taken circa 1872.
MILITARY LEADERS: General George Crook
George Crook was the army’s pre-eminent Indian fighter during the Indian Wars, serving all across the West from California to Montana to Arizona. He was effective but not spectacular or flamboyant. Here Crook is pictured in Arizona in 1886 with two Apache scouts, Dutchy and Alchesay, and his favorite mule, Apache. Would Custer have dressed the way Crook is dressed? Or have ridden a mule?
LAWMEN: Joe LeFors
There were many lawmen in the West who gained fame in their days, including Pat Garrett, Bat Masterson and Heck Thomas. Joe LeFors was made famous as the persistent lawman in the white hat in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, referenced by the oft-repeated line: “Who is that guy?” “That guy” was LeFors. Although he did pursue the Wild Bunch, his most famous exploit was tricking Tom Horn into a confession, which led Horn to being hanged. LeFors lived to old age and wrote a manuscript about his life.
The earliest of the Western frontiersmen were the explorers and the mountain men or trappers. Since this period was generally from 1800 to 1840, the camera was not around to capture these individuals until old age. Kit Carson was a mountain man, scout and military leader. He caught the American imagination early, primarily because of his association with explorer John Fremont. Carson lived until 1868 and this photo, taken shortly before he died, reveals the character of this modest and deservedly admired man.
OUTLAWS: Ned Christie in Death
Ned Christie was not your typical bank- and train-robbing outlaw. He was a Cherokee whose crime was “running whiskey” and possibly horse theft. His notoriety came from the fight he waged against the lawmen trying to arrest him. As can be seen from this photo, he eventually lost, being gunned down in his fortified home on a mountaintop near Tahlequah, Cherokee Nation, in 1892. By the 1890s, photos such as these were often taken of dead outlaws, almost as if they were “trophies.”
WOMEN: Rose Dunn
Rose Dunn was guilty only of liking the company of outlaws. She was real (some have doubted she existed), and she became known as Rose of Cimarron when she was but 15 years old. There is controversy regarding the role she played in the big battle between lawmen and outlaws in Ingalls, Oklahoma Territory, in 1895. This photo is also questioned, some saying it was made by Bill Tilghman, sheriff of Oklahoma’s Lincoln County, for his 1915 movie, Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws. But that cannot be. The photo is definitely from the 1890s.
WILD WEST SHOWMEN: Texas Jack Omohundro
Much of the interest in the Old West was originally generated by the frontier characters who became showmen and carried the romance of the West all through this country and over to Europe. Texas Jack Omohundro was a genuine frontier scout before he joined Buffalo Bill Cody on the stage. It is said they were lousy actors, but they sure looked good! This photo shows us what the audiences saw onstage. You can see why they loved them, even if they could not act.
Some photos of the Old West are just interesting and curious. In this circa 1870 tintype, the unidentified Cherokee, one of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes relocated to Indian Territory, is wearing “civilized” (white man’s) clothing, which his people had adopted by that time. He proudly brandishes a gold tinted knife. One wonders the significance.
The cowboy is one of the favorite characters of the Old West, but few individual cowboys became famous. They were proud of what they did and often posed for studio photos, decked out in their favorite outfit. This unidentified cowboy is typical of his kind and obviously genuine, wearing boots, chaps, a great gun belt and holster, bandanna and fantastic hat, while proudly displaying his Colt Single Action. The photo probably dates from the 1880s.
GAMBLERS: W.H. “Billy” Simms of San Antonio
Gamblers considered themselves the elite of frontier society. They were a troublemaking group that included many notorious gunfighters. This autographed photo of Billy Simms, a typical gambler dandy, was presented to vaudeville performer Eddie Fox at the Jack Harris Saloon and Vaudeville Theater in San Antonio. Gunfighter Ben Thompson also gave Fox an autographed photo in 1879. Thompson killed Jack Harris in 1882 and was in turn killed in 1884 in the same theater by Simms. Yes, gamblers were a rowdy bunch.
SCOUTS: Yellowstone Kelly
Scouts were the first frontiersmen to be popularized in story and onstage. They were some of the most flamboyant of all the Old West characters. The most famous was Buffalo Bill Cody, whose first stage show was Scouts of the Prairie in 1872. Luther Kelly was a typical scout, and like most, he had a colorful nickname: “Yellowstone” Kelly. Among his many experiences in the West was his role as chief of scouts for Gen. Nelson A. Miles. This photo, taken early in his long career, shows him to be as “stage-worthy” as Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack Omohundro.
While most people were terrified of bandits, this woman was attracted to them. Belle Star was associated with a number of different outlaws. She even married a few of them! This photo was dated back to 1886, which was three years before her mysterious death
During the tumultuous times of the Wild West, there were numerous battles that took place between the settlers and those native to the land. Two of the biggest battles were The Battle of Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee. The man on the left (Black Elk) participated in both battles and also performed as a “show Indian” for Queen Victoria.
While many of the frontier conflicts didn’t favor the Native Americans, the Battle of the Little Bighorn definitely did. They were able to defeat the U.S. cavalry led by General Custer. Here is a photo of the battleground during a much more peaceful time. A few Native Americans are visiting the land that was the site of one of the Wild West’s greatest conflicts.
William T. Anderson,better known as Bloody Bill, was one of the deadliest and most brutal pro-Confederate guerrilla leaders in the American Civil War. Anderson led a band that targeted Union loyalists and Federal soldiers in Missouri and Kansas.
On 26 Oct 1864 Anderson was hit by a bullet behind an ear, by a Union force of 150 men led by Lieutenant Colonel Samuel P. Cox.
Photo on right is Anderson a few hours after death
William T. Anderson,better known as Bloody Bill, was one of the deadliest and most brutal pro-Confederate guerrilla leaders in the American Civil War. Anderson led a band that targeted Union loyalists and Federal soldiers in Missouri and Kansas.
On 26 Oct 1864 Anderson was hit by a bullet behind an ear, by a Union force of 150 men led by Lieutenant Colonel Samuel P. Cox.
Photo on right is Anderson a few hours after death
This photo of the Canyon de Chelly is simply breathtaking. We see Navajo riders in the foreground on their journey and in the background we are treated to an epic view of the mountains and cliffs.
This photo was snapped after a three-month cattle drive. Before going into town to celebrate, all the cowboys would take a dip in the river (yes, together) to clean off after the long trip.
People back in the days of the Wild West were nomadic, and often wouldn’t settle in one place for too long before getting back on the trail on the hunt for the ideal spot to plant real roots. This wasn’t an easy process and could often take weeks or months of travel. Here we see a couple stopping for a quick lunch before they continue on their journey.
The Rufus Buck Gang was a team of multi-racial men who went on a massive and violent crime spree in 1895. This included robbery, rape and murder. They were eventually captured after their months-long crime spree. As punishment for their crimes, the members were hung at Fort Smith.
In Hollywood, Wild West bandits are usually depicted as men, but there were plenty of female bandits as well. This is Pearl Hart, who committed one of the last stagecoach robberies of the period. She became pretty famous, and was even the subject of a piece in Cosmo. She was locked up in 1902, but was released early.
Before the Texas Rangers were a baseball team and a law enforcement agency, they were just an unofficial bunch of cowboys who patrolled the border. The group was first founded back in 1823 and as time went on, they grew to larger numbers and eventually became official. In the early days, they even had to provide their own guns!
This is a truly amazing photo that shows Sioux teepees as far as the eye can see. Settlements like this were fairly common throughout the Wild West. Unfortunately, these Native Americans were forced to move quite a bit when settlers came and wanted their land, unless they decided to fight for it!
This is a truly amazing photo that shows Sioux teepees as far as the eye can see. Settlements like this were fairly common throughout the Wild West. Unfortunately, these Native Americans were forced to move quite a bit when settlers came and wanted their land, unless they decided to fight for it!
Buffalo Bill was a legend long before he became famous for his traveling show that featured the untamed nature of the west. He was a rider for the Pony Express, an army scout, and a bison hunter. The person at the number six spot was another extremely famous legend to come out of Wild West history.
The railroad is one of the most important creations in American history. But for the most part, it wasn’t even created by Americans. Chinese workers were largely used and paid very little. They worked long hours to get the work done to help America become more connected as a country.
This is a photo of part of the once-bustling community of Gold Hill, Nevada. Throughout the mid to late 1800s, this settlement was rich with gold, which attracted miners and made the land very prosperous. As of 2016, the area is completely uninhabited and has stood derelict for years.
One of the favorite pastimes of cowboys and bandits alike was gambling. Here we see a couple of different men sitting around a table playing a card game. While these games were often played in good fun, sometimes, things could get ugly if someone at the table was accused of cheating.
Billy the Kid is one of the most famous outlaws of the Wild West. He claimed to have shot and killed 21 men in his young life, but records have only proven 8. There was a ton of mystery surrounding this man as there are only two known photographs of him in existence.
To execute someone in modern times, there are lengthy trials and difficult decisions made by judges and juries. Not so in the Wild West — they practically had an express lane. Public executions were common, and most crimes punishable by death would shock modern folk. For example, this photo features the grim execution of an accused horse thief.
There were many bloody confrontations between the Native Americans and the settlers. Out of these bloody battles, many legends were born. One of those legends is Geronimo. He was the great leader of the fierce Apache tribe and was one of the most famous Native American icons in history, bar none.
This photo gives a great distant view of the town of Sante Fe, New Mexico. This photo was taken in 1873, but the settlement was around long before that. it is believed that Santa Fe has been inhabited since 1050 AD, making it one of the oldest continually inhabited locations in North America.
Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, 1885
Indian chiefs and U.S. officials. 1. Two Strike. 2. Crow Dog. 3. Short Bull. 4. High Hawk. 5. Two Lance. 6. Kicking Bear. 7. Good Voice. 8. Thunder Hawk. 9. Rocky Bear. 10. Young Man Afraid of His Horse. 11. American Horse. 12. W.F. Cody (Buffalo Bill). 13. Maj. J.M. Burk. 14. J.C. Craiger. 15. J. McDonald. 16. J.G. Worth. Taken at Pine Ridge, Jan. 16 ’91
Outlaw Belle Starr with Deputy U.S. Marshal Benjamin Tyner Hughes, at her arraignment in Fort Smith, Arkansas. 1880s
Steve and Charlie Utter at the grave of Wild Bill Hickok. Mount Moriah Cemetery, Deadwood, Dakota Territory, August 1876

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