What (and Where) Was the Wild West?

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Infamous for lawlessness and disorderly behavior across windswept desert and mountain country, the Wild West (or Old West) still conjures an indelible image of a much-mythologized American culture — a landscape defined by cowboys, Native Americans, pioneers, and prospectors. But what exactly happened in the Wild West and where did it take place? Saddle up to learn more about an era that has captured our imaginations and provided endless inspiration for literature, music, television, and film.

A New Frontier

Person sitting on a horse on a cliff side with a view of the desert
Credit: Stefano Borsa/ Shutterstock

The Wild West began in the early 17th century with the discovery of the American Frontier. European settlers living on the East Coast advanced westward into uncharted wilderness in search of opportunity. They became the first to cross what is now the continental United States, and they traveled along trails and waterways that later became legendary routes such as the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails, and eventually railroads.

The end of the American Civil War in 1865 coincided with the Golden Age of the American Frontier, which  lasted for roughly 30 years. It was an age of encounters and confrontations with Native Americans, cattle drives, prairie wagons, saloons, and gunfights. It’s synonymous with expansion and reinvention, entrepreneurialism and greed, anarchy, and chaos.  

Way Out West

Colorado ranch at sunset
Credit: grandriver/ iStock

As part of the New Frontier advance, the Wild West brought hordes of pioneers across the Mississippi River and into untamed lands that stretched to the Pacific Ocean. The New Frontier included the territories of Arizona, California, Colorado, Dakota, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, and Utah. Those that arrived discovered sprawling plains, green prairies, rugged mountain ranges, and arid deserts.

Urbanization came with the development of towns, where life revolved around a main street lined with saloons, hotels, fraternal buildings, and general stores. Buildings were typically wooden, flimsy and built in a hurry by gold prospectors— necessitating much building and rebuilding.  Towns often burned down, and only became substantial once the location was deemed to have permanence.

Famous Locations and Outlaws

Tombstone, Arizona at night
Credit: Sean Pavone/ iStock 

Some Wild West towns flourished more than others and remain today as lasting reminders of the era. The majority of these settlements were peaceful, but a few gained notoriety as the stomping grounds of bandits, lawmen, and outlaws.

Tombstone, Arizona, which was also known as the “Town Too Tough to Die,” was one of the most well-known such towns. Lawmen brothers Virgil and Wyatt Earp tried to maintain order on the drinking, gambling, and prostitution here. They wound up in an 1881 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, a 30-second shootout against a team of outlaws nicknamed The Cowboys. Wyatt Earp, alongside Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday, also patrolled Dodge City, Kansas. This was the once rough-and-tough town that inspired the phrase “Get the hell out of Dodge.” Then there's Deadwood, South Dakota. The small gold camp boomed overnight into a raucous town of drinking and gambling where, in 1876, Wild Bill Hickok was gunned down over a dubious poker hand.

It wasn’t just the men who earned fame. At 15, impoverished Annie Oakley beat Frank E. Butler (who she later married) in a shootout and went on to perform at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Calamity Jane was an ally of Wild Bill Hickok, and Belle Starr mingled with Jesse James and the Younger brothers.  Eleanor Dumont was one of the Wild West’s most ruthless gamblers and card players.

Myths of the Wild West

Cattleman on horse with groups of cattle all around
Credit: johnrandallalves/ iStock

Real-life cowboys weren't precisely as they are portrayed in pop culture. Instead, they were known as cattlemen — hard-working men that worked dirty jobs for long hours. They wore the same clothes until they turned into rags, rarely washed, and hardly ever brushed their teeth.

The ubiquity of the wide-brimmed cowboy hat is also something of a Hollywood invention. While such hats were popular, the headgear of choice was the “derby” or bowler hat. Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, Bat Masterson, and other members of the Wild Bunch were notable advocates of the derby. Meanwhile, Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, and Wyatt Earp favored low-crowned hats.

Violence wasn’t as prevalent in the Wild West as classic movies would suggest. Settlers and explorers interacted and overcame problems together. Rules were established and followed, and land ownership rights were issued. Homicide was surprisingly low, and gunfights were  infrequent. Yet, it’s the image of Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper, and John Wayne riding into town on horseback, tipping their hats, and drawing their guns that remains ingrained in the popular imagination

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