Old West

An Old West playFrom The Columbian - Bloomsburg PA Friday, July 1, 1887

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The Old West fascinates many people - world wide!

Events that happened when frontier personalities moved West made for exciting stories. Many news reporters wrote bits that captured the imagination. Plays were written. People wondered about the West, even during those days!

When were those days?

Generally, historians speak of the Old West as the time between 1803 and 1917. In 1803 the Louisiana Purchase gave adventurous people reason to move West.

Some believe it ended in 1917 when young men from small communities in the U.S. entered WWI. That included many rough "Wild West" towns. The last cattle drive happened that same year.

Old West America

What part of the American Wild West are we talking about? 

Mainly, it involves areas West of the Mississippi River. Some states are thought of as in the Wild West, more than are others - right?

You might relate Kansas History to the Old West. The Texas Wild West action you've heard about may put you right in the spirit! You might have heard of the wild times in Oklahoma, and the Oklahoma Outlaws that ran rampant! 

You know of the Gunfight at the OK Corral  in Tombstone AZ History! Nevada, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico and Colorado are all associated with the Old West. North Dakota and South Dakota also bring some Wild West connections.

But when you look at an Old West Map. there may be some states you'll find there that you haven't even thought of...


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  • Minnesota
  • Iowa
  • Missouri
  • Arkansas
  • Louisiana
  • Nebraska
  • California

And because they're somewhat far to the North/Northwest - these may not have crossed your mind...

  • Idaho
  • Montana
  • Wyoming
  • Oregon
  • Washington

Canadian Old West

Canada also was involved in the "Old West" migration. There was some "wild" element involved. Sam Kelly was a cowboy who came West from Nova Scotia. He had an alias: Red Nelson. He ran a gang called the Nelson Jones Gang, along with Frank Jones. The legend surrounding them says their gang hid out in the caves of the Big Muddy Valley in SW Saskatchewan. 

Other areas of Canada considered part of the Wild West are British Columbia and the Yukon. In 1896 Canada placed ads to attract people into their Western territories.

Canada has a connection to some famous names. Bat Masterson was born in Canada. Buffalo Bill Cody's father was Canadian-born.

A memorable Wild Bunch lieutenant, Harry Longabaugh, hung around Calgary, Alberta for at least 3 years. Records show he worked at the Bar-U Ranch during that time. The Bar-U is now a National Historic Site.

Ned McGowan was an interesting character who spent some time in Tombstone Arizona. He created quite a disturbance when he went to what's now British Columbia.

Old West Lore

Old WestOriginal Dime Novel Cover

Around 1860 publishers saw a need, and began to put out small paper-back stories. They were in books or booklets that people called Dime Novels.

They were short - about 32 to 200 pages. The books were small - about the size of a large cell phone. The prices ranged from 5 to 15 cents.

When first published, they focused on stories of pioneers in their adventures out West. Through the next decades they moved into love stories and other types of exploits.

People were more literate. They had leisure time, and wanted something to read. These novels helped keep the interest in the old Wild West alive! They were the beginnings of the true category of Western Books.

The Notorious Old West 

Pioneers migrated West from the original 13 colonies of the United States. They looked for land to farm or ranch. They looked for opportunity away from the crowded and dirty cities on the East coast.

Some also looked for quick or easy riches.

  1. A number by a fast mine claim - dig in & quickly find that silver or gold!
  2. Others by underhanded methods - taking advantage of others: robbers, pickpockets, swindlers

But typically mining was not fast or easy. Mining was a reason many people came to the Old West. They were hoping to strike it rich. An example is Ed Schieffelin, known as the founder of Tombstone AZ. When he was roaming the territory, someone said to him that he wasn't going to find anything but his own tombstone! Yet, he was instrumental in getting our town here a start! He found his mining strikes!

Wild West WagonExample of a Westward Traveling Wagon

Groups often united together to travel to unknown areas. Wild West Wagons gathered into a Wagon Train to help maintain safety. Their prime worries were Number "ii" above - and attacks from American Indians.

Towns were established. At first many had no organized law or government. Many began as a Wild West Town - but eventually grew into a more civilized place. These organized towns were often surrounded by wild areas. The new type of American outlaw roamed these areas. Men such as Jesse James, an Outlaw still famous today. He had a different agenda - as a result of issues from the civil war.

The edge of town, usually had its Red Light District. Madams had licensed "Houses of Ill-Repute." In the Old West, Gambling was a regular pursuit in Saloons.

A regular occurrence in these Old West towns were Fire Disasters. Most buildings were made of wood framing. They were often built quickly and haphazardly. Tent structures intermixed with new clapboard homes. A lot of canvas was used for roofing, and even walls.

With candles used for lighting, and careless actions - fires were a result. The Western environment is dry, especially in the Spring and Autumn. Altogether this encouraged quick blazes! Which spread fast - often destroying a good portion of a town.

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Women in the Old West

Women came West during the Old West era. Women of the American West had specific roles. They didn't have many options.

In a family group, they would be the wife, daughter or mother. They'd stay together with the family. The female would take on traditional roles. At times she found her responsibility expanded because of need. The travels and dangers they faced required exceptional stamina and spunk!

Other women met with disastrous events that forced them into survival situations. It could be the loss of their family through illness or violent death. They turned to methods that kept them alive. 

Methods women of the Wild West used to make it on their own:

  • Outlaw Women
  • Soiled Doves
  • Wild West Show Gunslingers
  • Authors
  • Activist Leaders in Causes
  • Gambling
  • Teachers
  • Seamstress
  • Posing as Men to Gain Men's Privileges
  • Law Officers
  • Frontier Medicine

Places to Investigate the Old West

Making a trip out West? Museums are available to get an over-all view of the Old Wild West. If you are visiting an area near these sites, we recommend a visit!

  • Wyoming: 
  1. Museum of the American West - If you plan to visit WY, this is a must-see. It's an outdoor/indoor museum which focuses on central Wyoming's part in the Old West. They only ask a donation to enter. It's also a great place for kids. Open throughout the warmer months, March through November. 9 am  to 4 pm at 1445 West Main Street, in Lander.
  • New Mexico: 
  1. The Hubbard Museum of the American West is in Ruidoso Downs, New Mexico. It displays R.D. & Joan Dale Hubbard's artwork collection, along with Anne Stradling's American West heritage collection. Closed Tuesdays & Wednesdays.
  • Utah: 
  1. A different take is the American West Heritage Center. Especially if the kids are along with you. They present the pioneer and indigenous cultures that lived in the area of Cache Valley UT from 1820 to 1920. They get many great reviews as a place for families. It's a fun hands-on, teaching experience.
  • Colorado: 
  1. Not everyone is aware of the influence African Americans had in the settling of the Old West. The Black American West Museum is a great place to educate yourself on the subject. Located at 3091 California Street in Denver, CO. Open Fridays & Saturdays, 10 am to 2 pm.
  • California:
  1. It's not only Hollywood! There's also an Old West heritage in this state. The Gold Rush of 1849 brought many migrants to the West Coast. The Autry Museum of the American West is at 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles, CA. Closed on Mondays.

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