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The American Old West was a period of history of western North America (usually the Western United States, though many times including the Canadian prairies, northern Mexico, the South and sometimes even the Midwest). Most often the term refers to the late 19th century, between the American Civil War and the 1890 closing of the frontier. Terms Old West and Wild West refer to life beyond the settled frontier. While this terminology could logically place the setting as far back as the American colonial period, it is usually meant to signify, the late 19th century, the area from the "Frontier Strip" (i.e., the six U.S. states from North Dakota south to Texas) west to the Pacific Ocean. Sometimes the tier of states east of the Frontier strip (Minnesota to Louisiana) is also seen as the "Wild West" because of their stance as gateways.

As a setting for works of fiction, the period quickly became so popular as to define its own genre, the "Western." Although such works often put forth a highly romanticized conception of the era, they also promoted great interest in its true history.


The Real Old West[]

Certain events, locations, and characters existed that are part of the fabric of American history and its folklore.

Events and People[]

The Frontier[]

Pre-1800s and the Louisiana Purchase

The numerous native tribes of North America stretched from coast to coast and from Mexico to the Arctic Regions of Canada and Alaska. In the Great Plains of the United States and Canada, the Blackfeet, Lakota, Sioux, Fox, Sauk, and Comanche lived nomadic lives of hunting and gathering. The Paiute, Nez Perce, Crow, and Flathead lived in the Rocky Mountains of Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. In the southwest, the Apache and Navajo dominated the stark, unforgiving landscapes for many years. Both tribes incorporated similar methods of survival, including farming. The Navajo were known for being peaceful. The Apache were more war-like, especially when forced into grim situations by the U.S. military. They fought fiercely for their freedom during the mid-late 1800s. The Apaches hold the distinction of being among the last of the Native American tribes to surrender to U.S. expansion. This occurred in 1886, with the surrender of Geronimo.

The first Europeans to visit the American Interior were probably the Spanish. Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado crossed the Arkansas River in 1541 and visited the central part of what is now the United States.

In 1598. Captain General Juan de Oñate brought a group of about 400 soldier-settlers and their families from New Spain (present-day Mexico) across the Rio Bravo del Norte (Rio Grande) north into what is now the state of New Mexico and established a temporary settlement near present day Española, New Mexico. In 1610, these Spanish settlers established the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico, the second oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in what is now the United States.

In 1776, in search of a better way of life, Juan Bautista de Anza led a group of almost 300 settlers, soldiers, and their families on an expedition across the Sonoran and Colorado Deserts along the edge of the Spanish Empire. The path they took is now referred to as the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail.

Another large influence in the "early" west were the French. It was from the French that the United States acquired the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. This significantly expanded the country's borders. The explorations of Lewis and Clark, from 1804-1806, opened the door to new discoveries, but it also brought about conflict with the Spanish, as well as Native Americans.

The West explored[]

Early 1800s
Early Explorers and Trappers[]

The Lewis and Clark expedition (1804 – 1806) was the first United States overland expedition across the west frontier, to the Pacific coast, and then back, led by Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark. The expedition followed the Missouri through what is now Kansas City, Missouri and Omaha, Nebraska, crossed the Rocky Mountains and descended by the Clearwater River, the Snake River, and the Columbia River, past Celilo Falls and through what is now Portland, Oregon until it reached the Pacific Ocean in December 1805.

Mike Fink, a semi-legendary brawler and river-boatman, was an early frontiersman who travelled into the Old West. He supposedly died around 1823 in the Rocky Mountains on a trip scouting, rafting, and trapping. The nature of his death involved an argument over a "cher ami" (sic).

John Charles Frémont assisted and led multiple surveying expeditions through the western territory of the United States from 1838 to 1846.

Pleasant Tackitt (April 22, 1803February 7, 1886) was a 19th century politician, pioneer minister, stockman, teacher, farmer, Indian fighter and Confederate Officer. He was a key figure in the history of Arkansas and north Texas, including a state representative of the Arkansas General Assembly. Because of his battles with Indians, Tackitt became known as the "fighting parson."

Trails, roads, and routes[]

The 1821 opening of the Santa Fe Trail ("Santa Fe Road") by William Becknell allowed commercial trade between Independence, Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico, until 1880. Bent's Fort, in Bent County, Colorado, was established by William and Charles Bent, along with Ceran St. Vrain. The fort was built in 1833 to trade with plains Indians and trappers. The primary trade was with the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians for buffalo robes. The fort was the only major permanent white settlement on the Santa Fe Trail between Missouri and the Mexican settlements. Emigrants travelling farther on to California may have used the Old Spanish Trail (which ran from Santa Fe to the pueblo de los Angelos). The Southwest Trail was another pioneer route that was the primary route for American settlers bound for Texas. The Mormon Trail was the overland route the Mormon pioneers followed west from Nauvoo, Illinois to Salt Lake Valley, establishing Salt Lake City, Utah in 1846.

The Oregon Trail was a key overland migration route on which pioneers traveled across the North American continent in wagons. This trail helped the United States implement its cultural goal of Manifest Destiny, that is to build a great nation spanning the North American continent. The Oregon Trail spanned over half the continent as the wagon trail proceeded over 2,000 miles west through territories and land later to become six U.S. states (Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon). Between 1841 and 1869, the Oregon Trail was used by settlers to the Northwest and West Coast areas of what is now the United States. The California Trail, sharing a portion of the Oregon Trails route, was another major overland emigrant route across the American West from Missouri to California in the middle 19th century. It was used by 250,000 farmers and gold-seekers to reach the California gold fields and farm homesteads in California beginning in the late 1840s.

Indian Territory[]

Indian country was the land set aside within the United States for the use of American Indians. The general borders were set by the Indian Intercourse Act of 1834. It was more properly "Indian territory" (lower-case T) than "Indian Territory" (capital T) because the name referred to the unorganized lands set aside for Native Americans by the U.S government, as opposed to an organized territory meant for settlement by Easterners.

The Gold rush and Civil War era 1849-1865[]

The California Gold Rush was the 1848-1858 gold rush, a type of mass hysteria, sparked by the discovery of gold in the millrace at Sutter's Mill near Coloma, California, northeast of Sacramento. Ex-Mormon pioneer Sam Brannan delivered the news to the world. The period is marked by mass migrations across the old west into Northern California. It was among the most important eras of migration in American history, and led to statehood for California. The peak of the rush was 1849, and immigrants of this period became known as '49ers. His Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I, was a celebrated citizen of San Francisco who famously proclaimed himself "Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico" in 1859. Although he had no political power, and his influence extended only so far as he was humored by those around him, he was treated deferentially in San Francisco, and currency issued in his name was honored in the establishments he frequented.

Wild Bill Hickok, in 1855, was a stagecoach driver on the Santa Fe route and Oregon Trail. His gunfighting skills led to his nickname. He lived a while in Johnson County, Kansas and later was a town constable in Nebraska. He became well-known for single-handedly capturing the McCanles gang, through the use of a ruse. On several other occasions, Hickok confronted and killed several men while fighting alone. The Pony Express Trail from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, was also in use around this time. It was 1840 miles in length. The Pony Express Trail traversed the states of Missouri and California and the intrevening Utah Territory, Nebraska Territory, and Kansas Territory lands (the present day states include: Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California). It only stayed in operation for 18 months, between April 1860 and October 1861, being replaced by the telegraph..

When the Civil War erupted in April of 1861, Kit Carson resigned his post as federal Indian agent for northern New Mexico Territory and offered to help organize the New Mexico volunteer infantry. Although New Mexico Territory officially allowed slavery, geography and economics made the institution so impractical that there were only a handful of slaves within its boundaries. The territorial government and the leaders of opinion all threw their support to the the Union. Carson participated in the Battle of Valverde (February 20 – 21, 1862), fought in and around the town of Valverde in the New Mexico Territory. It was a major Confederate success in the New Mexico Campaign of the American Civil War, despite having to leave later after the Battle of Glorieta Pass, which was a major Union victory. In the 1850s, Henry Hopkins Sibley invented the "Sibley tent", which was later widely used in the frontier.

In 1862, Cochise and Mangas Coloradas, with 500 fighters, fought against a force of 3000 California volunteers under Carleton until howitzer artillery fire was brought to bear on their position. This was part of a series of conflicts between the encroaching Americans and the Apache. Cochise and the Apache continued their raids against American and Mexican settlements and military positions throughout the 1860s. The Colorado War (1864 – 1865) were clashes centered on the Colorado Eastern Plains between the U.S. Army and an alliance consisting largely of the Cheyenne and Arapaho. The Sioux Uprising (1862) unleashed a series of skirmishes in the southwestern quadrant of Minnesota which resulted in hundreds of dead. In the largest mass execution in U.S. history, 38 Lakota were hanged. About 1,600 others were soon sent to a reservation in present-day South Dakota.

The Wild West 1865-1889[]

While the Eastern United States was beginning to experience the Second Industrial Revolution (which started around 1871), the frontier was beginning to fill up. In the early days of the wild west, a great deal of the land was in the public domain, open both to livestock raising as open range and to homesteading. Throughout much of the Old West during this time, there was little to no local law enforcement and the military had only concentrated presence in the area at specific locations. Buffalo hunters, railroad workers, drifters and soldiers scrapped and fought, leading to the shootings where men died "with their boots on."

In the cities, business houses, dance halls and saloons catered to the Texas cattle drive trade. The historic Chisholm Trail was used for cattle drives. The trail ran for 800 miles from South Texas to Abilene, Kansas and was used from 1867 to 1887 to drive cattle northward to the railhead of the Kansas Pacific Railway, where they were shipped eastward. The trail was named after Jesse Chisholm who had built a number of trading posts. Cattle rustling was a sometimes serious offense and was always a hazard for the expeditions. It could result in the rustler's lynching by vigilantes (but most stories of this type are fictional). Mexican rustlers were a major issue during the American Civil War, with the Mexican government being accused of supporting the habit. Texans likewise stole cattle from Mexico, swimming them across the Rio Grande.

Dodge City[]

Fort Dodge, Kansas, was established in 1859 and opened in 1865 on the Santa Fe Trail near the present site of Dodge City, Kansas (which was established in June 1872). The fort offered some protection to wagon trains and the U.S. mail service, and served as a supply base for troops engaged in the Indian Wars. At the end of 1872, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad was crossing Kansas. During this time, Dodge City acquired its infamous stamp of lawlessness and gun-slinging and its infamous burial place — Boot Hill Cemetery. It was used until 1878. Dodge City was the buffalo capital until mass slaughter destroyed the huge herds and left the prairie littered with decaying carcasses. Law and order came riding into Dodge City with such respectable law officers as W. B. 'Bat' Masterson, Ed Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Bill Tilghman, H. B. 'Ham' Bell and Charlie Bassett. The city passed an ordinance that guns could not be worn or carried north of the "deadline" which was the railroad tracks. The south side where "anything went" was wide open. Fort Dodge was closed in 1882 and due to a January 1886 blizzard, the cattle drives ended.

Wild Bill and Calamity Jane[]

After the American Civil War, Wild Bill Hickok became an army scout and a professional gambler. Hickok's killing of Whistler the Peacemaker with a long range rifle shot had influence in preventing the Sioux from uniting to resist the settler incursions into the Black Hills. In 1876, Calamity Jane settled in the area of Deadwood, South Dakota, in the Black Hills region where she was close friends with Wild Bill Hickok and Charlie Utter, all having traveled in Utter's wagon train. Jane later claimed to have been married to Hickok, and that Hickok was the father of her child; however, this story is viewed with skepticism. On August 2, 1876, while playing poker in Deadwood (then part of the Dakota Territory but on Indian land), Hickok could not find an empty seat in the corner, where he always sat in order to protect himself against sneak attacks from behind, and instead sat with his back to the door; unfortunately, his previous caution proved wise, as he was shot in the back of the head with a double-action .45 caliber revolver by Jack McCall. The motive for the killing is still debated. It is claimed that, at the time of his death, Hickok held a pair of aces and a pair of eights, with all cards black, and a queen of hearts — this has since been called a "dead man's hand". In 1876, Jane nursed the victims of a smallpox epidemic in the Deadwood area. She married Clinton Burke in 1891 after the couple had been living together several years.

Lincoln County War[]

The Lincoln County War (1877) was a conflict between two entrenched factions in the Old West. The "war" was between a faction led by wealthy ranchers and another faction led by the wealthy owners of the monopolistic general store in Lincoln County, New Mexico. A notable combatant on the side of the ranchers was Billy the Kid, the infamous 19th century American frontier outlaw and murderer. The Kid is reputed to have killed 21 men, one for each year of his life, but the figure is probably closer to nine (four on his own and five with the help of others).

The James gang[]

The criminal Jesse James was infamous for his activities in the Old West, though he was often cast by the sensationalist media of the time as a contemporary Robin Hood. James and his compatriots robbed their way across the Western frontier targeting banks, trains, stagecoaches, and stores from Iowa to Texas. Eluding even the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, the gang took thousands of dollars. James is believed to have carried out the first daylight bank robbery in peacetime, stealing $60,000 from a bank in Liberty, Missouri. While James did harass railroad executives who unjustly seized private land for the railways, modern biographers note that he did so for personal gain — his humanitarian acts were more fiction than fact.

Western Indian Wars[]

The Apache and Navajo Wars (1861 – 1886) had Col. Christopher "Kit" Carson fighting the Apache around the reservations in 1862. Skirmishes between the U.S. and Apaches continue until 1886, when Geronimo surrenders to U.S. forces. Kit Carson used a scorched earth policy in the Navajo campaign, burning Navajo fields and homes, and stealing or killing their livestock. He was aided by other Indian tribes with long-standing enmity toward the Navajos, chiefly the Utes. He later fought a combined force of Kiowa, Comanche and Cheyenne to a draw at the First Battle of Adobe Walls, but managed to destroy the Indian village and winter supplies. On June 27 1874 'Bat' Masterson and a small group of buffalo hunters fought much larger Indian force at the Second Battle of Adobe Walls.

Red Cloud's War (1866 – 1868) was lead by the Lakota chief Makhpyia luta (Red Cloud) and was the most successful war against the U.S. during the Indian Wars. By the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868), the U.S. granted a large reservation to the Lakota, without military presence or oversight, no settlements, and no reserved road building rights. The reservation included the entire Black Hills.

Captain Jack, was a chief of the Native American Modoc tribe of California and Oregon, and was their leader during the Modoc War (1872 – 1873). With 53 Modoc warriors, under Captain Jack held off 1000 men of the U.S. Army for 7 months. Captain Jack killed Edward Canby, who was the only general killed during the Indian Wars (contrary to the occasional impression that Custer ranked higher than lieutenant colonel).

The Black Hills War (1876 – 1877) was conducted by the Lakota under Tatanka Iyotake (Sitting Bull) and Tasunka witko (Crazy Horse). The conflict began after repeated violations of the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868). One of its famous battles was the Battle of the Little Bighorn (1876) – Sioux and Cheyenne under the leadership of Tatanka Iyotake (Sitting Bull) and Tasunka witko (Crazy Horse) defeat the 7th Cavalry under George Armstrong Custer.

The end of the Indian Wars came at the Massacre of Wounded Knee (December 28, 1890) where Tatanka Iyotake's half-brother, Big Foot, and some 200 Sioux are killed by the U.S. 7th Cavalry. (Only thirteen days before, Tatanka Iyotake had been killed with his son Crow Foot in a gun battle with a group of Indian police that had been sent by the American government to arrest him.)

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral[]

The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was an event of legendary proportion in the Wild West. 'Bat' Masterson visited Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, Arizona, leaving shortly before the famous event. The gunfight occurred on Wednesday morning, October 26, 1881, in a vacant lot, known as lot 2, in block 17, behind the corral, in Tombstone, Arizona. Thirty shots were fired in thirty seconds. Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Virgil Earp, and Morgan Earp fought against Billy Claiborne, Frank McLaury, Tom McLaury, Billy Clanton, and Ike Clanton. Both McLaurys were killed, as was Billy Clanton.

Buffalo Bill Wild West Show[]

The frontiersman and showman, Buffalo Bill (William Cody), toured the United States starring in plays based loosely on his Western adventures. His part typically included an 1876 incident at the Warbonnet Creek where he scalped a Cheyenne warrior, purportedly in revenge for the death of George Armstrong Custer. In Omaha, Nebraska in 1883, Cody founded the "Buffalo Bill Wild West Show," a circus-like attraction that toured annually: Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull both appeared in the show. In 1887 he performed in London in celebration of the Jubilee year of Queen Victoria, and toured Europe in 1889.

The Frisco Shootout[]

Elfego Baca became a legendary lawman in the closing days of the American wild west. On December 1, 1884, in the town of Frisco (now Reserve), Baca arrested one of a group of cowboys who had been shooting up the town and had taken pot shots at Baca. After threats from the cowboy's friends, Baca took refuge in the house of Geronimo Armijo. A standoff with the cowboys ensued and a gang of 80 cowhands attacked the house. The story has it that the cowboys fired more than 4,000 rounds into the house until the house looked like Swiss cheese. Incrediby, not one of the rounds hit Baca. During the siege Baca killed four of the attackers and wounded eight others. After 36 hours, the attack ended when the cowboys ran out of ammunition. Baca walked out of the house unharmed. In May 1885 Baca was charged with the murder of one of the cowboys who had attacked the cabin and he was jailed until his trial for murder. In August 1885 he was acquitted after the door of Armijo’s house was entered as evidence. It had over 400 bullet holes in it.

1890 and beyond[]

Closing of the frontier[]

The eleventh U.S. Census was taken June 1, 1890, though original data is no longer available. After the 1890 census, it was announced that the frontier region of the United States no longer existed. The tracking of westward migration was no longer tabulated in the census. This trend prompted Frederick Jackson Turner to develop his milestone Frontier Thesis. Ironically, the Great Plains began losing population during Turner's lifetime and has continued to do so for the last century, with more and more counties falling into a "frontier" status (using Turner's definition) since 1900. [1] With the discovery of gold in the Klondike in 1896, a new frontier was opened up in this vast northern territory. Alaska became known as "the last frontier."

Cross-border raids[]

Pancho Villa, after leaving his father's employ, took up the life of a banditry and outlawishness in Durango and later in the state of Chihuahua, whence he immigrated. He was caught several times for crimes ranging from banditry to horse thievery and cattle rustling but, through influential connections, was always able to secure his release. Villa later would become a controversial revolutionary folk hero, leading a band of Mexican raiders in attacks against various regimes and was sought after by the U.S. government.

War of Incorporation[]

The Johnson County War was a range war which took place in Johnson County, Wyoming, in the Powder River Country, in April, 1892. The dramatic events of 1892 took place against a background of violent conflict over land use that stretched from 1889 to 1909. Historian Richard Maxwell Brown refers to the events in Wyoming as part of a wider "Western Civil War of Incorporation". The large ranches were organized as the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (the WSGA) and hired killers from Texas; an expedition of 50 men was organized, which proceeded by train from Cheyenne to Casper, Wyoming, then toward Johnson County, intending to eliminate alleged rustlers and also, apparently, to replace the government in Johnson County. After initial hostilities, the sheriff of Johnson County raised a posse of 200 men and set out for the ruffians' location. The posse led by the sheriff besieged the invading force at the TA Ranch on Crazy Woman Creek. After two days, one of the invaders escaped and was able to contact the acting Governor of Wyoming. Frantic efforts to save the besieged invaders ensued, and telegraphs to Washington resulted in intervention by the President of the United States, Benjamin Harrison. The Sixth Cavalry from Fort McKinney was ordered to proceed to the TA ranch and take custody of the invaders and save them from the posse. In the end the invaders went free after the court venue was changed and the charges dropped.

Industrialization and science[]

At the end of the century, the advancement of science and industry involved significant developments for society in the American West. Several developments (mostly in the East) within the chemical, electrical, petroleum, and steel industries took place that let individual in the West enjoy a better life. Consumer goods from mass production were available. Electrification of towns was also established in certain frontier areas.

In 1899, Nikola Tesla moved and began research with his "Magnifying transmitter" in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he could have room for his high-voltage high-frequency experiments. Upon his arrival he told reporters that he was conducting wireless telegraphy experiments transmitting signals from Pikes Peak to Paris. Tesla's diary contains explanations of his experiments concerning the ionosphere and the ground's telluric currents via transverse waves and longitudinal waves.

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