Wild West Pictures You Have to See to Believe
One of the most romanticized time periods in American history is the Wild West, an era between the late 17th Century and the early 20th Century. It is the source of epic folklore and countless legends surrounding the conquest and settlement of native lands west of the Mississippi River. The massive migration took place after the Louisiana Purchase and is commonly associated with Manifest Destiny, the belief that the expansion of the U.S. was both justified and inevitable. It has since become the subject of various forms of media like books, movies, television, toys, games and costumes.
Thankfully, we have actual photographic evidence of this time period. Cowboys, Native Americans, saloons, outlaws, feuds, gold and oil, soldiers and politicians aren’t just elements of stories told attempting to imagine what it was like. They’re all real life people, places and things that can be observed and studied today and well into the future. This article will explore multiple aspects of the Wild West. From a general overview of everyday life to a collection of its most notorious groups and interesting individuals, we’ll see some truly incredible images. Once completed, readers will have a fully realized idea of what life was like way back when…
The Cow Boy
John C. H. Grabill is not the man in the photo above, titled THE COW BOY, but he was the one behind the camera. While he worked in mining and prospecting as the owner of the Mammoth and Vallejo mines, he’s most known for his historical photographs. For fifteen years in the late 19th Century, between 1887 and 1892, he submitted almost 200 pictures to the Library of Congress. It’s appropriate to start this article with John and one of his photographs, seeing as he is arguably the most famous photographer from the era we’ll be covering.
He was born in Ohio, grew up in Illinois, and started his career in Colorado. He had photography studios there, specifically in Buena Vista, as well as South Dakota and Chicago. He eventually set out on an expedition to take picture all across the Northwest, but ended up becoming ill. This didn’t stop him from continuing to travel and photograph his journeys all over the country. He spent his later years dealing with multiple legal issues. While the pictures featured here aren’t all his, he definitely played a huge role in preserving this part of the past.
The Hatfields vs The McCoys
In one of the most notorious and well known feuds in history, these two warring clans fought for generations. It all started with the murder of Asa Harmon McCoy by a local militia called the Logan Wildcats, which contained members of the Hatfields. Historians debate whether this was actually a standalone event, but either way, bad blood existed between these two families. At one point, a dispute over a single stolen pig resulted in a trial where Floyd Hatfield was found innocent, which infuriated the McCoys. This led to the murder of Bill Staton, a Hatfield relative.
At one point, there was actually a Shakespearean romance between two of the opposing family members. But the feud reached its most heated during a local election that erupted in chaotic violence and multiple deaths on both sides. The law got involved, which brought on lawsuits and more motivation for revenge, and soon the media started reporting on it, adding fuel to the fire. More and more died throughout the decades and eventually the feud faded, but the legends around these two families never will.
The Gold Rush
One of the main reasons people initially settled out west was for gold. The California gold rush brought around 300,000 people between 1848 and 1855. Despite gold rushes that followed in Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and all across the country and the world, none have more historical significance or popularity than the one in California. It reinvigorated the American economy, but wasn’t the only thing people wanted from below the surface…
The Oil Boom
During and after the gold rush, California’s demand for oil increased significantly. By the early 1900s, it was the leading state in the country for oil production. Above is an incredible image of dozens of derricks rising out of the Pacific Ocean in the Summerland oil wells. One of the most accurate depictions of this part of history is the award winning 2007 film There Will Be Blood, which is based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!.
Terry’s Texas Rangers
The Texas Brigade, also known as the 8th Texas Cavalry, was a volunteer army regiment active between 1861 and 1865. They’re most known for the Battle of Gettysburg and others during the Civil War, fighting in almost 300 engagements across seven states. Member included Ephraim Shelby Dodd, George Harrison Grosvenor May, John Goodwin Haynie, Thomas McKinney Jack, Oswald Tilghman and William Andrew Fletcher.
This nickname was given to African American members of the United States Army by Native American tribes. It is associated with the 9th, 10th, 24th, and 25th Cavalry and Infantry Regiments, respectively. The final of which is seen above. They were eventually established by Congress as the first peacetime regiments consisting entire of African American soldiers.
The Wild Bunch
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were part of a loosely organized outlaw group who were the most successful train robbers in history. They were named after the original Wild Bunch, or the Doolin-Dalton Gang, from the 1890s who wore long dusters, robbed banks, held up trains and killed lawmen. Unlike the originals, the 20th Century gang claimed to have never killed anyone, but like the originals, this was completely untrue.
While African American cowboys accounted for a quarter of the cattle workers in the American west, they are rarely included in the country’s historical memory. As former slaves, they were skilled in the industry and achieved some level of equality in regard to pay and responsibilities, but of course still struggled with professional and social discrimination.
Rufus Buck Gang
This was a multiracial outlaw group whose members were part African American and part Muscogee Native American. They used their stockpile of weapons to hold up stores and ranches over a couple years in the final decade of the 19th Century. They committed some horrible acts but were eventually caught and punished for their crimes.
Seen above on the far right, “the one who yawns” was a leader of the Bedonkohe band of the Chiricahua Apache tribe. He was a medicine man who also committed numerous raids. While he’s often referred to as a chief, he never actually reached that rank within the tribes. He’s very well known and is still directly associated with this era of American history.
He, above on the left, was a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, or Sioux, who witnessed the Battle of Little Big Horn. After Wounded Knee, he attempted to retaliate but was forced to surrender. He eventually shared his life story with a writer in what would become one of highest selling books in history by a Native American.
George Armstrong Custer, on the left with Alexei Alexandrovich in Topeka, is one of the most well known Unites States Army officers from the Wild West. He fought in numerous battles in the Civil War and steadily rose in rank throughout his career. After the Civil War he fought in the American Indian Wars, most notably the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which is also known as Custer’s Last Stand.
Phoebe Ann Moses was a folk hero who went by the stage name Annie Oakley. She was a skilled sharpshooter who won numerous medals for marksmanship. Part of her legacy is the Irving Berlin musical Annie Get Your Gun, which is about her life. She starred in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which is featured prominently and discussed at the end of this article.
James Butler Hickok was another folk hero with an impressive resume. He was know across the frontier for being a drover, wagon master, soldier, spy, scout, lawman, gunfighter, gambler, showman and actor. This long list of credits speaks more to his outlandish reputation than who he actually was. While he certainly lived an exciting life, the real details will never fully be clear.
She was an Old West outlaw in the mid 19th Century, seen above in Fort Smith, Arkansas in 1886. Similar to the previous entry, historians believe her reputation might surpass her actual criminal activity. She consorted with other outlaws and many of her crimes are theorized to be attributed to the men she associated with, like Jesse James. She was arrested multiple times and was eventually killed by an unknown assailant.
One of the most well known Mexican revolutionaries started out as a bandit. He was later inspired to form his own army and start an uprising. He gained enough notoriety to be photographed, filmed and written about to the point of actually becoming a celebrity. He was assassinated in 1923 in Parral, Mexico.
Rose of the Cimarron
Rose Elizabeth Dunn was the significant other of outlaw George “Bittercreek” Newcomb and was eventually accused of setting him up when her brothers took him out for the $5,000 bounty on his head. She denies this, and her brothers even confirmed that she had no knowledge of their plans.
Christopher Houston Carson was an explorer, folk hero and military leader throughout he better part of the 19th Century. He played a major role in the westward expansion of the U.S. as a frontiersman, fur trapper, wilderness guide, Army officer and Native American agent. He became a legend when people started writing about his life while he was still alive and well after his death.
The Lady Bandit of Arizona
Pearl Hart was one of the only female stagecoach robbers in the Old West. After a respectable upbringing she turned to a life of crime when she fell for the gambler Frederick Hart. She was enamored with performers like Annie Oakley, discussed earlier, and became an outlaw late in life.
Muir and Roosevelt
Above is an amazing picture of John Muir, a farmer, inventor, sheepherder, naturalist, explorer, writer and conservationist, with Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States. They were both in love with nature a played a large role in the development of national parks and preservation.
Before the legend of Sasquatch, William Alexander Anderson Wallace was a member of the aforementioned Texas Rangers. He vowed to fight the Mexicans to avenge the death of his brother but was eventually captured and held for two years in the notoriously brutal Perote Prison. Once out, he had many adventures as a frontiersman.
After her family was killed in Arizona by Native Americans, she was captured and enslaved with her sister. She was later adopted by a Mojave tribe but eventually returned to white society. In the image she has Mojave cactus ink on her chin. Her story has been told and often embellished throughout history.
Wyatt Earp is one of the most well known figures from the American West. He was a saloonkeeper, gunslinger, gambler, miner and lawman who has been the focus of numerous books and movies. Above is an image of Earp, seen seated second from the left, along with the Dodge City Peace Commission. He is famously associated with the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
William Anderson was a notorious guerrilla leader who trafficked stolen horses and escorted wagon trains. He switched sides during the Civil War, going from the Union Jaywalkers to the Confederate Bushwhackers, who were known for robbery and looting. He became one of the most violent individuals of the Wild West.
The Crystal Palace Saloon
Above is the inside of the Crystal Palace Saloon, which was established in 1879. It was originally known as the Golden Eagle Brewing Company. It housed such notables as U.S. Deputy Marshal Virgil Earp, attorney George W. Berry, and Dr. George E. Goodfellow. This is just one of many famous photos depicting Wild West saloons. Read on to see more…
Nothing exemplifies the Wild West quite like gambling. This picture was taken at the turn of the century and shows gamblers playing a French card game named Faro at a saloon in Bisbee, Arizona. The game was a derivation of Bassett. It was originally known as Pharaoh and was associated with the phrase “Bucking the Tiger.”
Klondyke Dance Hall
The photo above, from 1909, was taken in Seattle, Washington outside of the Klondyke Dance Hall and Saloon along the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition. It features a group of women in traditional formal wear during a fair.
With a saloon in the background, this image shows people in Ehrenberg, Arizona greeting a stranger in an early automobile in 1911. The man was more than likely on a cross country tour.
The aforementioned Wyatt Earp was an investor and regular at this saloon in Tonopah, Nevada. Established in 1894 during the city’s silver revival, it changed hands and even locations over the next several decades.
The Bob Saloon
The Bob was located in Miles City, Montana. This photograph is from around 1880 and shows men taking a break from the often difficult frontier life to drink golden grain belt beers and let loose on the porch of the establishment.
While saloons were certainly a big part of the Old West, there were other establishments that were equally as important. Above is an image from 1900 of a horse and carriage outside of Butterworth and Sons, Undertakers, a funeral home in Seattle, Washington.
Arcade Train Station
Beyond saloons and funeral homes, train stations were a crucial part of life in the Old West. Above is a photograph of a Southern Pacific steam engine at the Arcade State at Alameda in 1891. Check out the next entry for an amazing picture from this part of American History.
The Golden Spike
This photo is from the ceremony for the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah in 1869. It marked the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad and features members of the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad.
The Wawona Tree Tunnel
Above is an image from 1918 of an automobile driving through the Wawona Tree, a giant sequoia in Yosemite National Park, California, U.S.A. It’s located in Mariposa Grove and stood 227 feet tall with a 26 foot diameter.
San Francisco Harbor
The San Francisco Harbor at Yerba Buena Cove was a hub for travel and trading. This photo was taken in 1850 or 1851 and features multiple merchant ships with a view of Alcatraz Island in the background.
McKinley’s Last Address
Above is an image from the final address of the 25th President of the United States. It was taken during the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York the day before his assassination. The picture is from the crowd looking at the presidential gazebo.
Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill
This man and his famous show has been discussed multiple times in this article. William Frederick Cody, seen above with Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull, was an American scout, bison hunter and showman. Read ahead to learn about his Wild West show…
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show
This, along with other similar productions, was a traveling vaudeville performance showcase. They featured theatrical depictions of cowboys, Native Americans, army scouts, outlaws and wild animals. Buffalo Bill’s was arguably the most popular, as it not only toured across the country, but also around the globe.
Buffalo Bill’s Native American Performers
One of its biggest performances was for 18,000 people at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Above is an iconic image of some of his performers standing in front of tepees. This show helped establish the myth of the Wild West as what people thought frontier life was like and influenced the appearance of the Wild West in popular culture.