- In the Wild West, there were a lot of lands. The people who lived there were brave.
- They did their talking with guns.
- In Hollywood movies, it always ends happily. But in real life, things weren’t so good for the people living in the Wild West.
During the Old West, the history, people, and culture of life in the Western United States are all part of the American Old West. It is usually defined as any time after the Civil War up until before 1900.
The American Wild West happened in the Western United States. It happened early in the 19th century and lasted until 1920, when the Mexican Revolution ended. People were moving onto Native American land, but many conflicts erupted.
People in the West used guns a lot. They were like cowboys and outlaws. The West was dangerous, and people shot each other with guns all the time.
By the end of the century, over 30,000 miles of railway track had been laid in America. After the Civil War — and with millions of Americans released from slavery — millions of people headed West in search of a new start and riches.
The Desert Land Act
As outlined in the Homestead Act of 1862, the Desert Land Act’s primary goal was to motivate people to settle barren and semiarid regions of the West. The act allowed married couples to buy 640 acres of land for $1.25 an acre. A single male who wanted 320 acres of land could buy it for the same price as someone who was married.
These areas needed large-scale farming. People had to irrigate the land they bought within 3 years to become legitimate owners. The claimants did not have to reside on the property. Fraudulent acts were widespread.
Expansion towards the West
After the idea of America as an agrarian republic, many farms were created. This helped to settle the West. Thousands of people moved west because of this opportunity. Wagon trains helped many settlers move west too.
Others were inspired by the concept of Manifest Destiny. One 19th-century historian memorably called the new territory “the crossroads between savagery and civilization.”
Those who farmed the land did not have enough water; it would rain, be hot, or cold. They also had to kill animals for food. This was hard because they were lonely. One woman killed her chicken even though she was her only friend.
People lived along the cattle trails. Some people were bad, so they had to have their own rules. For years, scores of buffalo were slain for their hides. This led to the starvation of Native Americans.
The government spent money buying and shipping camels from Egypt in 1855. They thought that camels would do better than horses in the heat, making trips simpler. Many of the camels escaped after Civil War broke out, leaving hundreds of wild camels roaming across Texas’s wilderness.
Lewis and Clark
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark went on an expedition to the American interior in 1804. Little was known about what was out West of the Mississippi. Spanish, British, and Russian traders had explored the Pacific coast but people still heard rumors about mountains of salt, prehistoric animals, and blue-eyed Native American people who spoke Welsh.
The expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark was sent by Thomas Jefferson to explore the headwaters of the Missouri River. They trekked 8,000 miles over 21 months, discovering 300 new plant and animal species, meeting 50 Native American tribes, and returning safely. Sacagawea, the wife of a French trapper, guided them safely across the continent.
The expedition fired the nation’s imagination. They made it possible for people to build a country. The expedition turned people’s eyes to the West, and most people liked what they saw.
Outlaws in the Wild West
People came to the West because there was land and mineral wealth. They had guns. Guns were used to fight against the people who already lived there.
In the second part of the century, guns that people used were better. They never misfired. They also had new parts, like revolvers and breech-loading rifles. That is how Winchester’s famous gun became known as ‘the gun that won the West.’
Certain communities, such as Deadwood, Dodge City, Abilene, and Tombstone, had rules prohibiting the carrying of guns in town. You had to surrender your weapons to the local sheriff, who would give you a stamped paper receipt.
Jesse James was one of the most well-known outlaws in the Wild West. He worked with his brother; a man called Frank James. They began their criminal careers as Bushwhackers during the Civil War and went on to form their gang of robbers.
In 1911, Elmer McCurdy robbed a passenger train he believed was full of money. Disappointed outlaws, who had merely taken $46, were shot by lawmen shortly after. An arsenic preparation embalming the body was used by the undertaker to preserve it, which he then sold to a traveling carnival before exhibiting it as a freak show.
People who had committed crimes were in the news across the country. When they died, people wanted to know if it was real. As a result, sheriffs showed them a photograph of the dead outlaws as a warning of what would happen to them if they broke the law. This was possible thanks to the advent of photography during the 19th century.
Dead outlaws were often made to stand against a wall and take a photo before the corpse could stiffen. The photo was also required as proof of receiving a reward.
The life and adventures of Calamity Jane, a pistol-packing “wild woman” of the American West, provides a great illustration of how folklore and legend blended with historical fact in the Wild West.
Martha Jane Cannary was born in 1852 and came to Virginia City, Montana, during the mineral rush of the 1860s as an orphaned child. She worked as a freight hauling, dance hall girl, cook, and laundrywoman between forts and mining camps throughout her childhood.
Calamity Jane was a tall, muscular woman who liked to wear men’s clothes. She liked to shoot and drink whisky. She became famous on the frontier!
Calamity Jane became famous, and then she sold pictures of herself and wrote an autobiography (even though she was not able to read or write).
The Pony Express
The expanding West needed fast courier communication across the Rocky Mountains. The Pony Express was in service for 18 months, from April 1860 to October 1861 (when it ended). It was the only thread connecting the East and West.
The Pony Express trail was a long trail that had 153 stations. It used 80 riders and between 400 and 500 horses to carry mail from the Midwest to the new state of California. Riders could deliver mail in 10 days, but it would take three weeks by stagecoach. Every 10 to 15 miles, teams would change horses at the four to six relay stations on their route.
Ten months after the Pony Express began, Congress passed a bill to support a transcontinental telegraph line that would link the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean. On October 26, 1861, San Francisco was in instant touch with New York City for the first time. The Pony Express was officially shut down. On November 21, the final letters of the Pony Express traveled to their recipients.
The Wild West Show
Buffalo Bill had a long career. He was an Army scout, and he hunted bison. Bill founded a company called Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He toured all over the US and Europe with it.
In the sixteenth century, fifty Brazilian Indians were brought to Rouen for a show. They put on a show. People who visited Native Americans could watch them play games. Later, the European and American circuses used these things to make people go.
The Wild West was a successful genre. The golden age of outdoor shows started in the 1880s. Buffalo Bill already had experience in the theater, so he knew how to use posters. He was famous, and people trusted him because he was from the West.
In his shows, a group of riders with rifles on horseback rushed towards each other from opposite directions. The wagon train and an attack against the stagecoach were also recreated.
During the show, people also showed skill with guns and ropes. They showed how to catch animals. They showed how to shoot a rifle and shotgun. The show also talked about what skills people needed in the West when no police or doctors were around.
Women at first used sidesaddles, but by the 1890s, they were riding horseback as cowboys did. Lucille Mulhall appeared in her father’s program as a roper and Rough Rider. It wasn’t unusual for women like Tad Lucas to ride bucking broncos in the arena by the turn of the century. Although there were far fewer areas for women in the shows, surviving records indicate that at least Buffalo Bill paid women equally with the men.
Cowboys of the Wild West
Cowboys were a big part of the Western Expansion. People went to the Western Plains looking for meat and cows, but it was hard to find enough food.
For the average cowboy, life on the ranch was far from romantic. For the most part, Cowboys were itinerant laborers working 14-hour days at low wages under the control of the ranch owner. Most only worked for a few months at a time. Cowboys had to live a hard life. They were often malnourished, and many of them were not American. One in seven was African-American.
The cattle kingdom ended by the 1880s when barbed wire was invented, harsh winters happened, and there were too many cows. Cowboys weren’t forgotten, though—they became important as “American heroes.”