Old Wild West

An Old West Traveling & Working Wagon

The Old Wild West fascinates many people today – world wide!

Events that happened when frontier personalities moved West made for exciting stories for then and now. Many news reporters wrote bits that captured the imagination. Plays were written.

People who didn’t dare venture out that way, wondered about the Western frontier, even during those days!

An Old Wild West Play runs in Bloomsburg PA in 1887 says an article in the local paper
From The Columbian – Bloomsburg PA Friday, July 1, 1887

The Years Of The Old Wild West

When were those days?

Generally, historians speak of the Old Wild 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 old, “Wild West” towns. The last cattle drive happened that same year. So that ended the last “large” job for the traditional, legendary cowboy.

Though there are some modern day cattle drives that do happen on occasion. For various reasons.

What Is Considered The Old Wild West?

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 old 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  that happened in October 1881 in Tombstone AZ History! Nevada, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico and Colorado are all associated with the Old Wild West. North Dakota and South Dakota also bring some Old Wild West connections.

Hand colored old U.S. Western states map
Old Vintage Map of the Western U.S.

But when you look at a some Old West Maps, there may be some states you’ll find there that you haven’t even thought of. For instance:

  • 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 were some “wild” elements 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 Southwest Saskatchewan. 

Other areas of Canada considered part of the old 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 three 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 In Dime Novels

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 mobile or cell phone. The prices ranged from 5 to 15 cents. That’s about the equivalent of $1.58 to $4.75 in 2021 U.S. funds.

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

People were becoming more literate. They began getting some leisure time. So they wanted something to read. They found they were exciting and affordable reading material.

These novels helped keep the interest in the old Wild West alive! They were the beginnings of the true category of Western Books.

The Dime Novel The Indian Wife of the White Hunter - c.1860
Circa 1860

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. Some by a fast mine claim – they thought they could dig in and quickly find that silver or gold!
  2. Others by underhanded methods – taking advantage of others: robbers, pickpockets, swindlers, con-artists

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 Arizona. 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 Tombstone Mining strikes!

Groups often united together when deciding to travel Westward to unknown areas. Wild West Wagons gathered into a Wagon Train to help maintain safety. Their prime worries were Item “b” above – and attacks from American Native Indians.

Towns were established. At first many had no organized law or government. Many began as a Wild West Town – but eventually grew into what pioneers regarded as a more civilized place. These organized towns were still often surrounded by unsettled, wilder areas.

An Old West Traveling & Working Wagon
Example of a Westward Traveling & Working Wagon

The edge of town, usually had its Red Light District. Madams had licensed “Houses of Ill-Repute” in which women worked as “soiled doves.” Even though some frowned on their operations, many often looked “the other way” so to speak. Recognizing they served a need on the frontier. However, life for women working in these businesses was not ideal. It was usually a life requirement when they found no other option for themselves.

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, wooden 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.

Gunfights In The Old West

The new type of American outlaw roamed areas where the law wasn’t yet well-established. In the Old West, Gambling was a regular pursuit, mostly for men, in Saloons. When putting together the two activities – gambling and drinking alcohol – gunfights could arise. Some are quite famous, having made headlines throughout the United States. Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona became well-publicized whenever these gun battles broke out.

Some of the well-known ones:

  • Long Branch Saloon Gunfight on April 5, 1879 – Dodge City, Kansas
  • Variety Hall Shootout on January 22, 1880 – Las Vegas, New Mexico
  • Gunfight at the OK Corral on October 26, 1881 – Right here in Tombstone, AZ!
  • Luke Short vs. Jim Courtright Showdown on February 8, 1887 – Fort Worth, Texas
  • Tunnel Saloon Shootout on May 31, 1888 – Florence, Arizona
  • Shootout on Juneau Wharf on July 8, 1898 – Skagway, Alaska
  • Brooks–McFarland Feud Shootout on September 22, 1902 – Spokogee, Oklahoma
  • Powers Cabin Shootout on February 10, 1918 – Galiuro Mountains, Graham County, Arizona

Men such as Jesse James, an Outlaw still famous today. Yet, he had a different agenda, as a result of issues from the civil war.

In Tombstone, Arizona, the OK Corral Shootout took place. There were many issues that contributed to that eventual confrontation. The groups know as the Cochise County Cowboys had continual issues with groups of lawmen. In particular they were at odds with Wyatt Earp and his brother, Virgil Earp. They also tangled with Doc Holliday.

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, she’d be the wife, daughter or mother. She’d stay together with the family. The female would take on traditional roles. At times she found her responsibility expanded because of need. She’d then take on nontraditional roles, the work that men usually performed. The travels and dangers they faced required exceptional stamina and spunk! Most were up to the task when required.

Other women met with fully 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. For survival.

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 – Planning to visit WY? It’s a must-see. An outdoor/indoor museum focusing on central Wyoming’s part in the Old West. They ask a donation to enter. It’s also a great place for kids. Open throughout warmer months, March through November. 9 am to 4 pm at 1445 West Main Street, in Lander.
  • Oklahoma:
  1. The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum – Located at 1700 NE 63rd Street in Oklahoma City, right off the interstate. Admission very reasonable, discounts available for students, children under 6 admitted free. Parking also free. Open all year except Christmas Eve & Day, New Year’s Day & Thanksgiving Day. They’ve always got super fun things going on for kids, and plenty of interesting things for their parents & grandparents, too. From history, activities, and all kinds of art forms, including “do it yourself.” Don’t miss this!
  • New Mexico: 
  1. The Hubbard Museum of the American West 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 kids are with you. They present pioneer and indigenous cultures that lived in Cache Valley UT area from 1820 to 1920. Have 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 settling 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 Old Wild West heritage in this state. The Gold Rush of 1849 brought many migrants to the West Coast. The Autry Museum of the American West at 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles, CA. Closed on Mondays.

What Ended The Old Wild West?

As the American frontier was further explored and settled, people began bringing their culture, law-abiding ethics and education into these new towns. The towns built up and became more suitable to raise and provide for families. People often complained of the “wild” reputation of the area they lived in. They wanted peaceful times, they wanted civilization.

Ranchers moved in and obtained land, and farmers did the same. They ringed areas they owned with barbed wire fencing. Native Americans were forced out of their lands, often a losing battle for them. New inventions came onto the scene.

The automobile was a wonder of the day. It began replacing the horse for transportation. Especially when Henry Ford made the Model T, which was relatively affordable for many families. The reputation of the Old Wild West faded away, as modern times began setting in. It was now the “Roaring 20s” after all!

Remembering The Old West

So many people still love to reminisce about the Old West – about the Wild West! Many cities and towns sponsor Old Wild West days. Families take vacations to visit historic old Wild West towns. They love to visit Old West Ghost Towns, too. And what about the Westerns – movies and television programs? People still watch every day!

And while doing all this – everyone loves to take Photos of Their Old West Stylin’

How About You??

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Hine, R.V. & Faragher, J.M. (2000). The American West: A new interpretive history. London: Yale University Press.

Lamar, H.R. (2000). The Far Southwest, 1846-1912. London: Yale University Press.

Agnew, J. (2011) Entertainment in the old west: Theater, music, circuses, medicine shows, prizefighting, and other popular amusements.  Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.

2 thoughts on “Old Wild West”

  1. Is there anyway I could visit Tombstone, Dodge City, Little Big Horn, Lander and Oklahoma City in the same USA holiday?
    Which is the nearest airport to all these destinations?

    1. Edward,
      those are all excellent places to visit and I’d recommend seeing them all! It’s feasible but not practical to do them all in one visit, you’d be driving for days between each one. The United States is larger than you may think. Kansas, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Arizona are large, flat states that take hours to drive through.

      The airport in Denver, Colorado would probably be equally close (or actually, far) from the places you mention.

      I’d recommend picking one or two of these instead or you’ll be spending most of your vacation on the road.

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