The Old West, also known as the Wild West or the American Frontier, was a period from the early 19th century to the early 20th century, when the western part of North America was colonized. The adventures of Western cowboys, settlers, outlaws, indigenous Americans and other luck-seekers have been romanticized by countless books and motion pictures. Much of the scenery and various elements of the ways of life depicted in Westerns can still be seen today.
|United States historical travel topics:|
Indigenous nations → Pre-Civil War → Civil War → Old West → Industrialization → Postwar
African-American history • Mexican American history • Presidents
|“||Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.||”|
—Attributed to Horace Greeley
As the first English settlers landed in New England in the 17th century, they developed the concept of the Western frontier. The British Crown tried to keep settlers east of the Appalachians, to avoid conflict with France and the Native Americans, and to prevent the colonies from becoming too powerful. As the United States became independent, settlers began to move to "the west", the land which later became states like Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio. Napoleon's France sold the Louisiana territory to the United States in 1803, and motivated the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific Coast. In the 1830s, the United States government asserted the Manifest Destiny, the idea that the USA should expand all the way to the Pacific coast, without regard to Indians or other nations.
While Christian missionaries had settled in the West since colonial times, and small parties of "mountain men" came from the 1810s, larger settler expeditions came with the Oregon Trail from the 1830s. The 1840s Mexican-American War allowed the United States to annex the southwestern territories, which saw a new wave of settlers with the 1849 gold rush in California.
Until the mid-19th century, very few settlers reached the Great Plains, partly because Southern politicians opposed settlement policies.
While many settlers went west via wagon train (and more often than not parts of their party died en route) people with more money and/or less cargo usually opted for a ship down to either Nicaragua (see Ruta del Tránsito) or Panama and a short overland trip in one of these countries before heading North on the Pacific side. Illustrious figures of the 19th century traveled these routes, among them Mark Twain (Nicaragua) and Ulysses S. Grant (Panama), who both wrote about their respective trips.
By the 1850s, railroads and telegraph lines had been drawn across the settled lands in the east and along the Pacific coast, with a gap between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi river. From 1859 to 1861, the Pony Express connected eastern and western telegraph systems.
- See also: In the footsteps of explorers
The Golden Age
The Golden Age of the West is usually held to have lasted from the American Civil War to the admission of most western states into the union around 1890.
As the Civil War began in 1861, the northern states came to control the Congress, which could pass resolutions to colonize the western territories. The southern resistance against "internal improvements" as well as wrangling over the exact route (and the potential benefits associated with it) were the main things keeping the US from building a transcontinental railroad. When the Southern Democrats left Congress, the radical and progressive Republicans took the opportunity to authorize building of a transcontinental railroad, which was completed by a "golden spike", at Promontory Summit near Corinne, Utah, in May of 1869, less than four years after the war ended.
Land held by the United States which was not yet part of any state was organized as territories. A territory or part of a territory with enough settlers and infrastructure (usually in the form of railroads, telegraph lines and livestock fences) could gain statehood, implying that the land was no longer part of the frontier. State governments were highly autonomous, with little federal involvement. The federal government however had much control of the territories of the West; deploying cavalry regiments to protect settlers against the natives, subsidizing railroads, and surveying and selling land (with little respect to the natives). The Federal government still owns most of the land in some western states.
While most early settlers were young men, the female minority in the West had a wide range of professions, including prostitutes, teachers, entertainers, saloon owners, and in a few cases outlaws. Many found more freedom and fortune than in the east and south, usually marrying well. At least since 1900, rodeos featured both cowboys and cowgirls, and the western territories and states allowed women to vote decades before the 19th amendment of the Constitution ensured female suffrage across the United States in 1919 – approved in Congress with the vote of Jeannette Rankin of Montana. Today, the Western equestrian tradition is increasingly carried on by women.
- See also: Mexican American history
The Spanish Empire claimed most of western North America. Today's Mexico, California and New Mexico were among the first parts of mainland North America to be settled by Europeans. Spanish Mexico also included Texas and today's southwestern United States, but few Hispanics settled in most of those territories.
The 1810s Napoleonic Wars set off an independence movement in Spanish colonies, in 1821 creating an independent Mexican state. For the first half of the 19th century, the Catholic Church, strongmen called caudillos, and landowners descending from the Spanish conquistadors held most of the land and power in the country, with the majority being poor.
As the Mexican government had little authority in Texas, many slave owning English-speakers settled there in blatant violation of Mexican laws, and the 1836 Texas Revolution led to an independent Republic of Texas. The United States annexation of Texas in 1845 sparked the 1846–48 Mexican-American War, after which the United States established claims on Texas, and annexed the southwestern territories. In the end, Mexico lost nearly half of its land area. Settlers arrived from Europe and the eastern US, acquiring their own farmstead, usually at the expense of the Hispanic and indigenous population. As the policy towards the Indians had become slightly more humane, and the southwestern lands were of less use for farming, the Southwest has the highest proportion of Indian reservations in the United States.
Mexico south of the Rio Grande was not as much of a frontier, as most arable land was already settled. From the 1850s, Mexico saw the rise of modern institutions, with religious freedom, public education and health initiatives; especially during the rule of President Porfirio Díaz, from 1876 to 1911, in a period known as the Porfiriato. Most of the population remained poor, and the desire for land and wealth redistribution was a background to the 1910 Revolution, against yet another attempt by Díaz to get reelected. The Revolution, which went on for ten years, became entangled with World War I, and formed the background to some Western movies, particularly "Spaghetti Westerns" which are often cynical and morally grey. Some participants in the Mexican Revolution such as Pancho Villa cultivated their own "Western movie star" image and even starred in movies ("as themselves") to raise funds for their revolutionary exploits. Villa would lead the last military attack on the mainland U.S. to date in 1916 when he attacked Columbus, New Mexico.
Western Canada was the last part of North America to be charted and settled by European colonists. From the 17th century, the Canadian Prairies were dominated by the Métis people, who are of mixed European and First Nations descent. While the prairies of the United States are connected to the Mississippi river system, the Canadian Prairies' rivers drain to the Arctic Ocean, and were therefore less useful for transportation. Also, the soil was heavy and required machinery to be farmed.
British Columbia could not be reached overland until the construction of a railroad. The Fraser Canyon Gold Rush of 1857 was the first major wave of settlement. The Colony of British Columbia was founded the following year.
The Dominion Lands Act was made in 1872 to encourage settlement, and the North-West Mounted Police was formed in 1873. The Canadian government was concerned that too many settlers from the United States would claim land, and lead a secession from Canada. Unrest in the West culminated with the 1885 Northwest Rebellion. The same year, the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed, and settlement of the Prairies began in earnest.
White settlers were even fewer in northern Canada; most of them being trappers, traders, and naturalists. The Klondike Gold Rush, which began in 1896, was the first major immigration wave, with around 100,000 people attempting to reach the Yukon territory; around the same number as northern Canada's total population today. 30,000 of these settled in Dawson City. The Gold Rush also made the necessity of actually drawing the exact boundaries more apparent as prior to that the U.S. and the British/Canadians had often left borders in the inhospitable wilderness deliberately ambiguous to avoid conflict.
The First Nations and Métis remain as a significant part of the population of western and northern Canada.
Ethnic history of the West
A big part of the process of "taming" the West involved invading Indian territory, massacring Indians and corralling the remainder into reservations. However, many Indians were not murdered or killed in wars, so the West to this day is the area of the United States with the largest Native American population. Many Native Americans (a term used interchangeably with "American Indians"), like the cowboys, are ranchers, and there are quite a few reservations that can be visited today, especially in Western and Rocky Mountain states. See also Trail of Tears.
While most settlers were of European descent, Germans were the largest ethnic group; however, much of their heritage faded away due to the anti-German sentiment of the World Wars. Many African-American freedmen moved West to escape racism in the South. There was also a small population of Latinos present in those territories that were previously part of Mexico, as well as a number of Native American tribes, of which the Navajo are today the most numerous. East Asian immigrants, most of them Chinese, took part in construction and mining, often under harsh conditions. Although Chinese laborers played a significant role in building the transcontinental railroad, their presence caused a lot of resentment among the white majority. This resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act being passed in 1882, which prohibited all ethnic Chinese from entering the U.S., and forbade those already present in the U.S. from ever obtaining U.S. citizenship. The restrictions on Chinese immigration would only be relaxed in 1943, and would only be completely abolished with the 1965 reform of immigration law that abolished racist policies in one of the moves to guarantee civil rights in the U.S.
The end of an era
By 1890, most of the Western territories had gained statehood. The free-range livestock ranging which was iconic to the Wild West and cowboy lifestyle, became marginalized as most farmland was enclosed by barbed-wire fences. Cattle drives from the plains to market towns remained into the early 20th century, and was replaced by livestock trains, and later on, a more localized meatpacking industry. The last contiguous territories to gain statehood were Oklahoma in 1907 and New Mexico and Arizona in 1912, marking the end of the Old West era. The West remained difficult to traverse on a car well into the 20th century, as paved roads such as the Lincoln Highway and Route 66 were built.
The West provided the country with raw materials for the industrialization of the United States, and extensive farming and ranching which made American fast food possible. Colonization hit North American wildlife hard; hunters killed tens of millions of wild buffalo that were sacred to many Indian tribes and served as sources of meat, skins and other products; taking their number down to a few hundred. Carnivores such as cougars and wolves were exterminated from many parts of the countries. From the 1880s, the government set up national parks and natural reserves around the West. President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act of 1906, and is credited to have created the National Forest Service, and several national parks (one of them bearing his name) and monuments. The environmentalist movement gained strength in the 1960s (with the Environmental Protection Agency and Earth Day established in 1970), and has helped many animal and plant species to recover. The buffalo in particular also owes its survival to the initiative of private citizens in addition to government efforts.
Alaska is nicknamed The Last Frontier; the territory was purchased from the Russian Empire in 1867, and became a state only in 1959. With much of the state remaining as seemingly untouched wilderness, America's westernmost state still keeps the Western spirit alive. Others might say that the American space program is the new frontier. Curiously enough, the (very dubious) legal basis of "lunar real estate" which is sold as a novelty item rests on the "Homestead Act" which the U.S. enacted to encourage settlement of the Old West.
Western fiction and legacy
The late 19th century is the setting of most Western fiction, a genre as old as the West itself. From dime novels to more modern media, Western adventure stories have shaped the national identity of the United States, with the cowboy as an iconic hero character; with feedback into the real world, as settlers and tourists got inspired by the stories. While many Westerners were indeed cowboys, their lives were hardly as glamorous as in the novels or movies. The iconic "Boss of the Plains" hat by Stetson was designed in 1865, and did not see widespread use until the end of the 19th century. As enclosures and railroads replaced the cowboys, some of them turned to entertainment. Rodeos and roadshows such as Buffalo Bill's Wild West romanticized the Western lifestyle while it still existed in real life, and The Great Train Robbery, considered the first Western film (and arguably the first film ever with a plot) was recorded in 1903. Guest ranches, also known as dude ranches, are known since the 1880s, and became an established business in the 1920s.
As the West had been tamed in the early 20th century and Hollywood came to dominate the motion picture industry, Western fiction expressed nostalgia for the older generations. Western feature films became an established genre with Stagecoach in 1939, which was the breakthrough of John Wayne, one of the genre's most iconic actors. Up to the 1950s, most major characters in these films were white English-speaking men, omitting the ethnic diversity of the real West. "Revisionist Western" fiction from the 1960s and later years gives more recognition to non-white and female Westerners.
Since the United States has had immigration from most of the world's nations, with a peak in the late 19th century, the Old West is a relatable historical setting around the world. While myth making about the West is as old as the old west itself, many countries outside the US have even more far fetched myths of the old west going back to popular authors such as Karl May who is still a household name in Germany despite writing most of his work before ever setting foot in the US.
Euro-Western films, wholly or partially recorded in Europe, have been successful, especially the Italian "Spaghetti Westerns" with classics such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. The "Kraut Western" started with movies based on Karl May's work (shot – fittingly – in what is now Croatia, mostly in Plitvice Lakes National Park) made by West Germany and later the "DEFA Indianerfilm" made by East Germany with a much more positive portrayal of Native Americans than otherwise common in Westerns – in part with the Cold War intention of subtly or not-so-subtly portraying the American ruling classes negatively. Vilhelm Moberg's Emigrants series, written in 1949 to 1959 about Swedish settlers in 19th century Minnesota, is a cornerstone in Swedish literary canon. The Belgian cartoon Lucky Luke, which both celebrates and lampoons Western tropes, has been published since 1949, and is one of the best-selling European cartoons ever.
The Western genre has been marginal since the 1970s. The last generation who grew up in the Old West had past away, and the "Frontier Myth" which some see as the conditio sine qua non for "straight" Westerns broke down in the 1970s as a widely held societal narrative. Ever since, the Western genre has been on a soul-searching quest with some arguing that science fiction has supplanted the place the Western once had in American narrative culture. Certainly many science fiction works have a Western "feel" to them (such as Star Wars) or are outright crossovers like Firefly or Westworld.
In any case, many works set in the contemporary West (such as Easy Rider, Breaking Bad and Kill Bill), use typical Western tropes, and 21st century Western films can either celebrate the classic Hollywoodian legacy, such as in The Hateful Eight, or challenge its norms, as in Brokeback Mountain.
Posterity's image of the West as a place of adventure and freedom makes it a gratifying setting for video games. Oregon Trail is an educational classic, and some well-known 21st century game titles are Gun, Red Dead Redemption, Hard West and the Fallout series.
- See also: Living history museums#United States
There are many art museums in the Western and Mountain States that show a large number of Western paintings and sculptures. This is a particular style of Romantic art that developed in the 19th century and tends to emphasize the wide open spaces and long vistas typical of the terrain, along with heroic portrayals of white and sometimes Indian men. In the 20th century, probably the most famous painter associated with the West is Georgia O'Keefe, who spent a lot of time in Taos and Abiquiu, New Mexico and worked in a new modernist style distinct from the Romantic style described above but also showcasing the endless mesas of New Mexico in her landscapes (she was also known for flower paintings, etc.). Ansel Adams is one of the most famous Western photographers.
The Denver Art Museum has an entire wing of Western paintings.
The West has many ghost towns, abandoned due to disasters, or depletion of natural resources.
- 1 Astoria, Oregon. Fort Clatsop, at the end of Lewis and Clark's trail and the Oregon Trail.
- 2 Sacramento, California. Founded during the 1849 gold rush. Old Sacramento is well preserved.
- 3 San Antonio, Texas. This metropolis was once a town where Texan liberty was born, at the Alamo.
- 4Lindstrom, Minnesota: Karl Oskar Days (Lindström, MN). Lindstrom is known as "America's Little Sweden", northeast on 35E from Minneapolis. The Karl Oskar Days are a celebration of Swedish writer Vilhelm Moberg's Emigrants series, about Swedish settlers in Minnesota.
- 1 Harold Warp Pioneer Village, 138 E US Highway 6, Minden (Nebraska). 28 buildings on 12 acres (4.9 hectares), with 12 of those around a green
- 2 Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village, 3200 Indian Village Rd, Mitchell (South Dakota). An archeological site with reconstructed native lodge.
- 5 Santa Fe (New Mexico). A Spanish colony founded in 1607, at the end of the Santa Fe Trail.
Golden Age (from Civil War to 1890)
- 3 Golden Spike National Historic Site, Promontory Summit (Near Brigham City, Utah), ☏ . Daily 9AM– 5PM. A May 10, 1869 last spike joined the Union and Central Pacific railroads here, uniting a nation by rail from coast to coast. Vehicle: $7 (summer), $5 (winter).
- 6 Tombstone, Arizona. A legendary Western town.
- 7 Deadwood, South Dakota. A legendary Western town in the Badlands and Black Hills.
- 8 Fort Worth Stockyards.
- 9 Dodge City, Kansas. Fort Dodge was built in 1865. Known from the Gunsmoke series.
- 10 Virginia City, Nevada. A mining town, today a National Historic Landmark.
- 11 Cripple Creek, Colorado. A gold mining town. Has a casino today.
- 12 Little Bighorn National Monument, Montana. Commemorates the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, where the US Army suffered a remarkable defeat against Lakota, Dakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors, famously known as Custer's Last Stand.
- 4 Wounded Knee Battlefield (just east of the town of Wounded Knee, northeast of Pine Ridge). The site of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890.
- 5 Custer Battlefield Museum (Billings).
- 13 Toppenish, Washington. A town known for Western-themed wall paintings.
- 14 Yuma, Arizona. At the border to California and Mexico, Yuma has been a transfer point for settlers, gold-diggers and Civil War soldiers, among others.
- 15 Hot Springs (Arkansas). A spa resort which had its heyday during the 19th century.
- 16 Salt Lake City, Utah. Settled in 1847 by the Mormons, and an important rest area in the hostile Utah landscape.
- 17 Rapid City, South Dakota. A convenient base for travel on to the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, the Crazy Horse Memorial, the Badlands, and the Black Hills National Forest. The Journey Museum and the Dances with Wolves film set can be found here.
- 18 Denver, Colorado. One of the largest cities of the West, and a center of the service sector.
- 19 Cheyenne, Wyoming. Founded in 1867 at the Union Pacific Railroad.
- 20 Custer Ghost Town, Idaho. A ghost town, founded in 1879 for gold mining, abandoned in 1910.
- 6 Oatman, Arizona. A gold mining town which had 23,000 inhabitants in the early 1900s; today around 150 people live here.
- 21 Monument Valley, Arizona. An iconic scenery, used in countless Western films.
- 7 Grant-Kohrs Ranch, ☏ (ext. 250).
- 8 Brigham City ghost town. Founded by Latter-day Saints in 1876, the town was abandoned in 1881 due to flash flooding. It is now on the register of National Historic Places, and 37 buildings have been partially restored. Free.
- 9 Bar U Ranch, Longview, Alberta, [email protected]. National Historic Site run by Parks Canada. This ranch, situated between the Porcupine Hills and the Rocky Mountains, is preserved as life was during the time period 1882–1950. During this time, the Bar U was one of the foremost ranching operations in Canada. Over 35 buildings and structures, as well as the staff in period costume and character, allow the visitor to experience and understand life on the historical ranch. The ranch opens in mid to end May and closes in mid to end September.
- 10 Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, near Fort Macleod, Alberta (From the major intersection of Highways 2 and 3, go about 1km north on Highway 2, turn left (west) onto Highway 785 West, follow signs for about 15km), [email protected]. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has been in use for 5,500 years as a place where the aboriginal people of the plains killed buffalo by stampeding them over a cliff. An interpretive center built into a cliff has exhibits on the buffalo hunt.
- 22 Barkerville (Barkerville, British Columbia). An 1861 gold rush town, once with a population as high as 5,000, was abandoned by the turn of the century.
- 23Dawson City (Yukon). Together with port of entry Skagway in Alaska, were the busiest towns of the Klondike Gold Rush.
Ghost Town Trail
- Begin in Tombstone on Gleeson Rd, which becomes a graded dirt road. The 11 Gleeson Cemetery will be on your left, a short distance before the townsite. Remains of 12 Gleeson. include a saloon, schoolhouse, hospital, and newly restored jail.
- Head north to 13 Courtland on N Gleeson-Pearce Rd, aka Ghost Town Trail, which has just a couple of ruined structures remaining.
- Go further on to 14 Pearce with two structures on the National Register of Historic Places: the Old Pearce General Store and Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church.
- From here continue on Hwy 191 to see Cochise and the historic 15 Cochise Hotel.
- Lewis and Clark Trail
- Trail Of Tears National Historic Trail
- Oregon Trail
- Pony Express National Historic Trail
- Santa Fe Trail
- Ruta del Tránsito one of the two alternatives to an arduous overland crossing of the Great Plains, prior to the transcontinental railroad
- Route 66 (1926–1985) follows earlier routes (such as the National Old Trails Road from New Mexico westward) which follow the trails which opened the West for travellers.
- Fiction tourism
- Emigrants tour
- Early United States history
- Horse riding
- New Mexico Pueblos
- Russian Empire — the westward expansion of the United States is often compared to the eastward expansion of Russia; both involved decimating the indigenous populations and settling the lands with white people who now form the majority, with both empires facing off in Alaska