In the days of the Wild West, things were, well, wild. People had guns attached to their hips, shootouts happened outside of saloons, horses were the primary mode of transportation, and America was far less developed than it is now. It’s hard to imagine what the West may have looked like all those years ago, which is why it’s so great that we found these photos of what life was really like back then.
Through these photos, we can get a better idea of what it was like to be a gunslinging cowboy, or a farmer’s daughter, or just a normal person trying to make an honest day’s wage.
Ladies Drink Whisky Too
The women in this photo aren’t displaying the most ladylike behavior. Heck, the woman on the right has a belt of bullets around her hips. In the days of the Wild West, women weren’t allowed to drink in bard. The only women allowed to go into bars were there for male entertainment. If women wanted to drink, they had to drink outside.
It was a cruel world, but these women don’t look like the mind too much.
Bill Brazen, The Masked Robber
This is a photo for William Whitney Brazelton, a famous outlaw in the late 19th Century. Known as Bill Brazen, he often wore a mask to hide his identity from his victims. This particular photo was taken just after Brazen was shot dead by Sheriff Charles A. Shibell and five of his men in 1878.
Let this serve as proof the even in the Wild West crime didn’t pay and outlaws didn’t always live happy lives.
Goldie Griffith Made Her Mark
Goldie Griffith wasn’t just another pretty face. She made her living as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. People traveled from all over to watch her show off her boxing and wrestling skills.
Goldie was more masculine than feminine, at least by Wild West standards. In today’s world, she probably would have made a living as a WWE superstar or a UFC stalwart. At the time, she did her best as Wild West Show attraction.
A Look Into The Mines
Mining was the reason that so many settlers traveled to the Wild West in the first place. It was a huge part of the economy and it was the way many people earned a living. The mine pictured in this photo is located in Virginia City, Nevada. The population of a city was relative to how much resources were available in the mine.
Once the mine had been mined to completion, the people who lived in the mining town would move on to a more fruitful location.
The Very Manly Doc Holliday
Doc Holliday was a friend of Wyatt Earp who was also well known for his gunfighting abilities. When he wasn’t shooting bullets in the direction of stunned cowboys, Holliday made a living by gambling and working as a dentist. He only really started gambling after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, though.
Gambling was all the rage back when America was at it’s wildest. It wasn’t unusual for a dentist to give it all up to pull the lever on a slot machine a few times.
Don’t Mess With Wyatt Earp
This is a photo of Wyatt Earp in all of his glory Earp was a gambler, a brothel owner, and a miner. He may have been a sheriff, but sometimes he acted like he was above the law. He rose to fame after participating in a gunfight in which he singlehandedly killed three cowboys.
He also might have been one of the country’s first true entrepreneurs. He seemed to own a lot of business, even if most of those businesses were brothels.
Women Were Gunslingers Too
Women may not have been able to drink in bars, but they could carry guns if they wanted (and most of them wanted). There were some pretty famous female gunslingers back in the day including Big Nose Kate, Calamity Jane, and Lillian Smith.
Back then, if you could wield a gun, you earned yourself some respect. A girl who knew her way around a gun wasn’t going to put up with any kind of trouble.
The Original Mission Church
This is a picture of the Mission Church which was built in 1630 in what today is considered New Mexico. This church is one of the earliest signs of the Spanish Colonial era. This structure is still standing today, and you can even visit it the next time you’re in New Mexico.
This photo gives us a unique glimpse at what this church looked like when it was first built. It was a working religious center and it was essential to the town.
Burlesque In The Wild West
We can’t imagine the Wild West without burlesque dancers. These women would dress in revealing clothes (for the time) and perform in front of men from all over the area. Some of these women became very wealthy. Men valued the service they provided, and they were willing to pay them handsomely for it.
Burlesque dancers were called different names based on where they were located. For example, the California-based women were called “soiled doves” by the cowboys.
Sharpshooter Annie Oakley
One of the most famous Wild West characters, Annie Oakley rose to fame at a young age. She trapped and hunted by the age of eight, and became a great sharpshooter when she was 15.
She did all of this to support her family after her father had passed away. Her intentions may have been noble, but that doesn’t mean she always did the right thing. Then again, morals weren’t exactly the law of the land back then.
The One And Only Billy The Kid
This is a photo of Billy the Kid, who is probably the most famous outlaw ever to have lived. Billy was a dangerous and skilled gunfighter who took out at least eight full-grown men when he was just a boy. That’s how he got his rather juvenile nickname.
Billy’s reign eventually came to an end when he was killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett. Billy was caught off-guard in the dark at a friend’s home. It wasn’t the most glorious way Billy could have gone out, but the Wild West wasn’t known for being glorious.
General Custer’s Last Stand
This is a photo of cavalry, artillery, and wagons commanded by General George A. Custer. They were crossing the Dakota territory on their fateful journey west. This was likely before Custer’s Last Stand during the Battle of Little Bighorn, which took place in modern-day Montana.
Custer and his men were used during this journey to help protect the caravan from Native Americans. Long journeys like this tended to be very dangerous and fraught with peril.
Jesse James Wasn’t A Good Person
Jesse James was a bad man. He was more than just an outlaw. James was a gang leader, a murderer, robber, and guerrilla fighter. He and his brother formed the Younger Gang together. The two were Confederate bushwhackers during the Civil War. That’s quite a sibling bond right there.
James is one of the most famous gunslingers from the Wild West and has been depicted on the silver screen multiple times.
The Brothels Of The Gold Rush
Young men flooded the American Frontier with dreams of the gold rush, which meant there weren’t a lot of women around. For the women who were already in the West, this meant big business.
Savvy women opened up brothels and hired other women who came to the West as well (if they weren’t there to pan for gold themselves). When one opportunity proves fruitful, another opportunity is always around the corner waiting to present itself.
Gambling Was Everywhere
Many cowboys and other men of the Old West often found themselves making wagers in gambling halls. In fact, many structures built in the West were built as gambling halls, which shows what people back then really valued.
Back then, this was such a popular sport that it was considered a profession. Today you can still be a professional gambler, but it is much less respected as a livelihood then it was back then.
Charging Thunder In The Flesh
Meet Charging Thunder. He joined the Wild West Show when he was 26 and eventually married one of the horse trainers. Once he was done with the show, he became a British citizen and worked at the circus in Manchester.
He later changed his name to George Edward Williams and found a factory job. It’s safe to say he changed a lot from his humble beginnings. Now we just need to know what the dog’s name was.
Rose Dunn Was Ruthless
In what could be an entertaining movie storyline, Rose Dunn became romantically involved with gang member George “Bittercreek” Newcomb when she was only 15. Newcomb’s gang got into a shootout and went into hiding. When Newcomb came back to visit Dunn, her brothers shot him and collected his bounty of $5,000.
Some say Dunn set him up, but we’ll never know. It would have been a great plot twist though if we didn’t just spoil the ending.
A Brutal Attack
This young woman’s family was attacked and murdered when she was only 14. Olive Oatman was kidnapped, along with her sister, and enslaved by their captors. Later, they were sold to the Mohave people.
Both girls received distinctive tattoos on their chins, which signified that they were members of the tribe. Some people believe the tattoos were meant to mark the girls as slaves, but this doesn’t align with Mohave tradition. In the Wild West, Native American tribes were often referred to as “Savages,” a term which brutalizes their history. While it’s true they were responsible for some horrible crimes, so were the Cowboys forcing them out of their homeland.
A Real Buffalo Soldier
This is a Buffalo Soldier in the 9th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army in 1890. The name was given to African-American members of the cavalry by Native American tribes during the Indian Wars.
The Buffalo Soldiers were established by Congress as all-black regiments in the Army back then. These soldiers became some of the most important and decorated men of the American armed forces. Like we said, if you handle a weapon and ride a horse, people looked at your differently back then.
The Teepees Of Sioux Nation
Before settlers totally took over the West, The Sioux Nation lived in the Great Plains in teepees like the ones pictured above. The Sioux Nation is made up of three different tribes: Lakota tribes, Western Dakota and Eastern Dakota. This picture was taken in the Dakota Territory.
Teepees may look simple, but don’t be fooled by their outward appearance. These structures had to be sturdy, yet mobile. A lot of careful engineering went into making these homes safe, comfortable, and portable.
Charley Nebo And His Friend
Charley Nebo was a well-known cowboy out in New Mexico, Nebraska, and Texas. While serving in the Union Army during the Civil War, he sustained an injury which handicapped him. He then became a stockman. He was friends with Billy the Kid.
You’re only as safe as the people you keep company with. In this case, Nebo clearly wasn’t that safe. Regardless, it was the lifestyle he chose for himself.
The Standard Cowboy
The word “cowboy” stems from the Spanish term “vaquero.” The word means a livestock herder riding a horse. The cowboy tradition also has Spanish and European roots. You needed skills and a lot of strength from an early age to be able to be a cowboy.
The standard attire for a cowboy was a pair of jeans, leather gloves, a bandana, boots, and a wide-brimmed cowboy hat. Some country singers still rock this outfit today.
John Wilson “Shoot-Your-Eye-Out” Vermillion
His parents named him John Wilson Vermillion but people in the Wild West called him Texas Jack. He was an amazing gunfighter who worked with the Earps (who we’ll talk more about later) while on the hunt for outlaw cowboys.
His other nickname was “Shoot-Your-Eye-Out Vermillion” because he once shot someone’s eye out. That’s pretty violent even for the Wild West. Hopefully, he ended paying the price for his incredibly misguided behavior!
Cowboys Controlled The West
It is from the Wild West where the quintessential cowboy look was born. They rode their horses complete with a bandana, leather gloves, chaps, boots, and a cowboy hat. While cowboys were often depicted as being white men, in reality many cowboys were also freed African-Americans, Mexicans, and Native Americans.
Remember, the roots for cowboy, “vaquero,” is not an English word. As long as you could prove yourself with a gun and a horse, you were a cowboy.
Maiman Had The Answers
Maiman was a Native American from the Mojave tribe. He was often a guide and an interpreter, especially for photographer Timothy O’Sullivan, who took this picture. Maiman was crucial in helping to scout out locations for photographs.
O’Sullivan chose rather to capture his Native American subjects in a natural setting, as opposed to a studio. This is really helpful for historians looking to see how Native Americans candidly lived their lives back then.
Mining Wasn’t Easy
This miner was captured hard at work in Virginia City, Nevada. After silver was discovered there, many people flocked to Virginia City to work in the mines. This one in particular is 900 feet underground. After the mine was excavated clean, the city’s population died down.
Life as a miner was a dangerous life, but it could prove fruitful for anyone who found precious minerals. Sadly, dangerous conditions inside these mines didn’t allow many to live long lives and enjoy their spoils.
Mining Towns Left, Right, And Center
Little Cottonwood Canyon is located just 15 miles from Salt Lake City, Utah. Many mining towns like this popped up all over the west. Those in the Utah area were often founded by Mormon miners, who helped build Salt Lake Temple with quartz monzonite, granite, and granodiorite.
Some cities thrived after the mines closed. Salt Lake City is still one of the United States most visited tourist destinations. Others, as we’ve already mentioned, were left to the ghosts.
A Real Old-Fashioned Saloon
Saloons could be bawdy places. Some had dancing girls and dice games, and others had pastimes like bowling. Some people just went to relax and others partook in the seedier elements offered by the saloons. Bob Leavitt’s Saloon was in Jordan, Montana.
This saloon might be a little smaller than what you would expect to see thanks to Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean it was any less rowdy. One wrong movie, one poker player caught cheating, and the whole place could go crazy.
Chinese Immigrants Built The Railroads
One often forgotten fact of the Old West was that about Chinese railroad workers. They were often paid very little in comparison to their white counterparts and companies refused to provide room and board. If not for these men, the Transcontinental Railroad might cease to exist.
It wasn’t a fair trade for these workers to be forced to live these kinds of lives. Like miners, work conditions could become unruly at a moment’s notice.
An Old Fashioned Bathhouse
This is the bathhouse in Hot Springs, South Dakota. The area was hailed for its warm, natural springs and frequented by the native Sioux and Cheyenne tribes. They considered the springs to have healing properties and therefore regarded Hot Springs as a sacred space.
Today hot springs are still heavily visited attractions nationwide. People flock to hot springs to relax and refresh themselves after long weeks of work or just for fun family get aways.
Boys Will Be Boys
After traveling so much with Buffalo Bill’s troupe, it’s important to take some time aside to relax. That’s exactly what these fellows are doing. Pictured are John Nelson and John Burke with some cowboys and a Sioux Native American. He might actually be Charging Thunder.
It’s hard to tell if these men are posing in front of a saloon or a hotel, but we’re betting saloon from the look of the man staring out of the window to the right.
Standing By The Bar
In the Wild Wild West, of course, there will be! And no refreshments were better than beer, whiskey, and bourbon! Some fancy saloons also served what was called “cactus wine,” which was a mix of tequila and peyote tea. Cowboys back then knocked these back like no one’s business!
Other spirits like gin or vodka weren’t popular back then. They might have existed in some places, but if you ordered them you might need to be ready to fight.
The Whole Gang At Diamond Creek
Here’s another classic photo by Old West photographer Timothy H. O’Sullivan. Sullivan captured this boat crew at Diamond Creek, which is located along the Colorado River. Some sources say this is The Wheeler Survey Group, which embarked on an expedition to survey the Western United States.
After taking pictures of the Wild West, O’Sullivan settled down in Washington D.C. where health problems ended up ending his life at a very young 42-years-old.
Living As A Navajo
Timothy H. O’Sullivan also captured moments of Native American family life in the Old West. This is a photo of a Navajo family in Canyon de Chelle, which was located in the New Mexico Territory.
On the right, you can see a woman with her loom and on the left, a man holds a bow and arrow. This picture is much more naturalistic then a previous Timothy O’Sullivan picture featured earlier.
The Members Of The Tribe Pose For A Photo
In 1871, Timothy O’Sullivan joined a geological survey team, which enabled him to travel all over the West. While in Cedar, Utah, O’Sullivan captured this shot of members of the Pah-Ute Indian Group, also known as Paiute.
These guys were likely of the Southern Paiute people, given that they were in Utah. Thanks to O’Sullivan’s skills with his camera, we have a much better understanding of what life was like for Native American tribes back then.
The Pagosa Hot Springs
This is a photo of a man bathing in the Pagosa Hot Springs of Colorado. It must have been refreshing for this man to have the springs all to himself. It certainly would have felt better than a sponge bath, which is how people in the Old West often bathed.
That’s right, despite rumors that people weren’t able to bathe, it was much more common in the past that we like to think.
There Were Cowgirls Too
Cowgirls were prominent during the Old West as well and it seems that people are forgetting about that! These women were just as tough and wild as the men, riding broncos and shooting guns. The most famous cowgirls are perhaps Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane, and Pearl Hart.
These women help show that the Wild West was not entirely run by men. Women could be just as dangerous and weren’t afraid to take charge of dangerous situations.
A Ride Through The Desert
Timothy O’Sullivan captured this photo of a wagon crossing the sand dunes of the Carson Desert in Nevada. Much of the Western United States turned out to be desert, which might have come as a surprise to the folks who traveled out there for the first time.
The high heat and lack of resources made these journeys dangerous for any groups who didn’t bring enough supplies or were not skilled at rationing the supplies they had.
Captured In New Mexico
When Santiago McKinn was just a young lad, he and his brother were out in Mimbres Valley, New Mexico. His brother was killed and McKinn was stolen by the Chiricahua Apache people. Legend has it that General George Crook came to rescue the boy but that he didn’t want to go back to his family.
By that time, if the legend is true, he had become a part of the tribe and they felt more like family to him that white people.