History

20 Incredible Old Photos From the Wild West!

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1.  The American Civil War was the defining event of the Old West.  From the early days of increasing agitation between slave and free, to the era after the war when well-armed and well-trained veterans traveled the plains, the vast majority of people in the Wild West had some sort of connection to the Blue or the Grey.

2.  The American West was mostly unpopulated at the end of the Civil War, and the men and women who would come to live there often came from the war-torn cities of the East. Here is a group of soldiers who may very well have found their way out West, carrying their unique style and skills with them.

3.  The place built up fast, though.  There was practically nobody living in Comanche, Texas, before 1860.  By the 1880s they were building mansions.  This is a mansion called Oaklawn Heights, built at the highest point in town.  Cowboys and horses on the streets below didn’t stop their bosses from living the high life.

4.  Here is the fabled Wild West town of Deadwood, in the magical and mineral-rich Black Hills of South Dakota. Keep in mind that this valley was utterly empty and pristine only fourteen years before, but then General Custer discovered gold, and this is all that came with it.  “Civilization” can spread quickly, as quickly as trees can be turned into boards.

5.  Speaking of Custer, here is the man himself, reclining on the ground with his dog. This picture was taken when he was a young soldier in the Civil War, working for General Fitz-Joseph. His actions in the West, terminating in the deaths of him and his entire command, were still years in the future.  It was here that he was learning the skills that would carry him to disaster.

6.  Speaking of the Lakota , here they are doing a traditional powow in the year 1901.  First Nation tribes were an integral part of the Old West, though their story is one of illness, betrayal, and decline. However, the Lakota still hold the rights to the Black Hills, and some day their stewardship of the land will be restored.

7.  Here is a picture of a young Lakota man, probably a cowboy or rancher judging from his attire, smoking a cigarette and thinking hard. The synthesis of American, Mexican, and Lakotan cultures was so complete in this area that it’s impossible to know where one culture ends and another begins.

8.  Living in the Old Wild West was hard work. Here are a couple of cowhands getting ready to hit the trail in Nebraska around 1889.  As you can see, they’re expecting to be gone for a long time.  Everything they had to live on for weeks was packed on those horses.

9.  They had a lot of ground to cover!  This is the R. P. Bean reach, in Van Horn, Texas. This was the sparsest and most desolate part of the state, so they had to ride their horses a long way to keep those cattle in check.

10.  Here are some cowboys relaxing and taking a meal. The chuck wagon behind them contained food and helpful supplies, including needles, thread, and laundry soap. People really did dress like that, even when working outside in the full sun. The protection afforded by full clothing was more than worth in it a world full of brambles, thorns, barbed wire, excited livestock, cold wind, sudden rain, and blistering sun.

11.  When cowboys wanted to relax, they went to the big city. In those days, that meant the Big Easy. Easily accessible by riverboat from anywhere on the right side of the Rockies, New Orleans was the biggest cities most people in the Old West ever saw or ever wanted to see.

12.  It was a young world then, and people went into business at a very early age. This was especially true during the war. Here is a young man, a child by modern standards, and the cannon he helped to fire during the War Between the States.  Maybe 12 years old when this picture was taken, no more than sixteen by the time the war ended, he was quite likely one of the millions who sought their fortunes to the West after the close of hostilites.

13.  The world to the East, the world they left behind, was a world of ruin and pain. Here is Harper’s Ferry, one  of the most important cities in Virginia, after the war was done with it. Scenes like this were what people went West to try to escape.

14.  Their world was a world very much in progress.  Here is the Washington Monument in the age of the cowboys.  America took a long time to get around to finishing it.

15.  It wasn’t all blood and sweat, though. Here are two brothers in 1860, getting ready to depart on the Oregon Trail and bringing their music with them.

16.  They had a big world to look forward to. Here is a cowboy overlooking his natural terrain. Although this picture was taken in 1939, it is truly a timeless moment.

17.  Here is a mess hall, or cafeteria, on a ranch in Montana. Again, this picture was taken in 1939, but nothing had changed from the Wild West days. If one went back today, perhaps it would still be much the same.

18.  The lack of trees in the Old West led to a lack of lumber, and that led people to look elsewhere to keep themselves warm in the winter and cool in the summer. An easy expedient, especially in the sere climate of the American West, was to build the house half underground. These dugout houses were comfortable, safe, and easy to build. Both the rich and the poor lived in such habitations.

19.  Horses were an everyday part of life. Here is a magnificent stable all the way back in Washington D. C., an excellent example of the regard in which these beasts were held in their day. It is said that Texans refused to get off their horses.

20. The Wild West was known and beloved by all, even when it was still happening. The mythology of the West, including the fabled stagecoach hold-up, was carried nationwide by Buffalo Bill’s Flying Circus and their many imitators. They acted out all the most famous scenes of the West, carrying the news to the small tows of the East and enshrining them in our cultural memory.

21.  The land of the horse and the wide-open sky has had a powerful grip on our imaginations for a very long time now. Children have been dreaming of being cowboys since time immemorial. Here is a young man and a pony on the Jersey Shore in 1901.  No matter where he went in life, he always carried within him that child who wanted to be a cowboy.


Let’s start our list by acknowledging that you don’t start a journey on the frontier because life is going to be easy. Literally building up a country from its foundation took a lot of work. Here we see workers at the McDonald Brickyard in Round Pond, OK.

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Guns weren’t just part of American life back in the 1800s, they were the only way to make sure that you and your family stayed safe. Unfortunately, there were individuals who took it too far like Billy Brooks. Brooks was a notorious gunfighter who served as a lawman in Kansas before turning into a petty thief and criminal. He was hung in 1874.

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The fall of Custer is one of the most famous moments in frontier history, if only for the way that it disparages the Colonel Custer himself. Here we see Curly, a Crow scout that worked directly beside Custer. He was there during the final battle and he ended up as one of the only survivors. Curly fled the battle to alert other Americans what had happened but since he knew no language, he had to resort to sign language. Curly became something of a minor celebrity and lived until 1923.

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Surviving the Wild West meant that you had to get creative. Here we see a team of California workers banding together to do something known as Dragnet Fishing. This image was taken at some point in the early 1900s.

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If you liked to fight and didn’t like Native Americans, there was always a job for you. Here we see George Crook, one of the most well-known Indian-fighters in the entire United States Army. Crook was a gritty, ‘get things done’, kind of soldier.

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Death Valley is still one of the most dangerous stretches of road in the entire United States. Now, imagine trying to traverse this stretch of desert without your air conditioner. Here we see a wagon train that is being hauled by 20-mule teams. This team is angling for the nearest railroad in order to complete their shipment of borax.

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Life out West was less than sanitary at the best of times. Here we see cowboys taking a pit stop to get cleaned up during a prolonged cattle drive. Cattle drives could last up to three months at a time.

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Here we see a wagon stopped in the middle of Greenwood County in Kansas. What looks like a pleasant afternoon lunch was actually a hard-won meal after a long day of wagon riding. Nothing was easy out here, ever.

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Here we are transported back in time to Arizona, circa 1887. What we see in this old photograph is a group of men playing cards at a table in front of their brand new ranch. This is supposedly John Doyle’s Ranch and we can see that frontier life was notoriously difficult, even when you had friends at your side.

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Ned Christie wasn’t what you would typically think of when it comes to Old West outlaws. Christie wasn’t a bank robber and he wasn’t a murderer. Instead, he was a Cherokee native who ran whiskey. Christie was killed in a firefight after refusing to allow lawmen to arrest him. Here we see Christie’s body lashed to a board for a ‘trophy’ photograph which was a popular type of photo for lawmen of the time.

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What we so often forget about life in the Wild West was that everything was more or less uncharted to exploring Americans. What this meant was simple: everything was new, everything was ‘up for grabs’, and every discovery was fascinating. Here we see members of the Geological Expedition led by Clarence King. King helped to explore the Sierra Nevada.

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When fighting between Americans and Natives wasn’t bloody, it was often just sad. Here we see a group of Apache Indians being hauled to the Southern Pacific Railway for transfer. 1886.

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This photograph was discovered by Phil Spangenberger in the cabinet of an old antique shop somewhere in California. What we see are the Sierra Nevada Mountains which is being traversed by a pair of passengers with armed guards at their flank. To have armed guards back in the late 1800s meant that you were generally someone of importance.

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Is there a more famous outlaw in American history? We don’t think so. Jesse James was the most notable member of the James/Younger gang. He was murdered in 1882 by the ‘coward’ Robert Ford.

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Long before Chuck Norris was hamming up basic cable with a hat in his hand and a gun at his hip, real Texas Rangers were working to become the most famous lawmen in American history. Here we see James Thomas Bird as well as John J Haynes during a photo shoot in 1868. Rangers were famous for fighting Comanche as much as finding outlaws.

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While the Wild West was a journey of exploration for Americans, it was something quite different for Native Americans. Here we see Chief Joseph, one of the most renown orators and war chiefs in Native American history. Chief Joseph was vital during the Nez Perce War in 1877.

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This incredible photograph shows Olive Oatman in 1856. Oatman had been a captive of the Mohave for a prolonged period of time when her ransom was finally paid for. Oatman is seen sporting a tattoo that was given to her by the Mohave as an honorary sigil, hoping to afford her a positive afterlife.

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When historians say that our country was built on bloodshed, do not argue. Bill Anderson, one of the most ferocious and deadly pro-Confederate leaders of the 1800s, was a perfect emblem of all the bloodshed. This photograph shows Bill Anderson himself and it was recovered by a Union soldier from Anderson’s body.

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This fascinating photograph shows us Belle Starr, a woman from the Indian Territory who found herself increasingly ensconced in the lives of bandits. She had been in a relationship with Cole Younger and had even married, at different times, of course, the likes of Sam Starr and Jim Reed. For some people, the life of a bandit was an attractive proposition — but it was not a long-lived one.

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This incredible image was not pulled from a Clint Eastwood film. Instead, we are looking at actual Navajo riders crossing the Canyon de Chelly in Arizona circa 1904.

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