Incredible Historic Photos That Bring The Old West To Life
These are the people and events that made the West wild.
The legends of the Old West are as vast and wild as the territory itself. Pioneers began venturing farther west in the 1800s in search of land, riches and a new life. While some were successful, life in the Western frontier was far from easy. The area earned a reputation for bandits, debauchery and gunfights.
Here are a few of the people and places that made the West wild.
A Southern Belle turned “Bandit Queen,” Belle Starr was one of the most famous female outlaws in the West. Some say she participated in her husband James Reed’s criminal activities, including robbery, murder and more. In this photograph, she stands alongside Blue Duck, one of her many rumored lovers after she ended her marriage to Reed.
William Frederick Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill, brought a taste of the Wild West to the world with his touring show. This photo shows him with Lakota leader Sitting Bull in the 1880s. Sitting Bull appeared in the Wild West Shows with a band of his braves for a few months in 1885.
The town of Ogallala, Nebraska, started as a stop on the Union Pacific Railroad and became famous as the terminus of the Texas Trail, serving as the end point of cattle drives from Texas. As a result, cowboys and seasonal saloon girls flocked to Ogallala. This photo captures wagons and storefronts on Spruce Street in 1889.
Back in 1848, James Marshall kickstarted interest in California when he first discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill. Marshall was originally from New Jersey and worked as a carpenter, helping to build the mill. He and John Sutter, owner of the sawmill, tried to keep their discovery a secret, but the news spread quickly.
California Gold Rush
Panning was one of the rudimentary ways for men and women to participate in the California Gold Rush. This photograph shows a group hoping to strike it rich and get their hands on gold. California’s population spiked from 1,000 to 100,000 from 1848 to 1849.
San Francisco Harbor
This photo of San Francisco harbor from around 1850 to 1851 shows Yerba Buena Island and the Berkeley Hills in the background. At the time around 21,000 people lived in San Francisco. San Francisco residents were among the first to join Marshall and Sutter mining for gold.
Gold mining first brought prospectors to Colorado’s high country, but silver ore proved to be the real moneymaker here. Once they discovered silver, thousands of new people flocked to Leadville, Colorado, every month. This photograph from 1879 depicts cabins during the silver boom.
Dale Creek Viaduct
This 450-f00t-long bridge in Wyoming, the longest trestle on the Union Pacific’s line, is one of the engineering marvels of the Transcontinental Railroad. The original wooden bridge would sway in the wind and trains had to slow to 4 miles per hour while crossing it, making it a harrowing journey for passengers. An iron version, shown below, replaced it.
The Central Pacific and the Union Pacific Railroad Companies worked together to construct the 1,912-mile continuous railroad line between 1863 and 1869. This photo shows the moment the western and eastern lines of the transcontinental railroad connected at Promontory, Utah, during the Golden Spike ceremony (though iron spikes were ultimately hammered into the ground here). The Union Pacific, coming from the east across the plains, had nearly four times the length of track as the Central Pacific.
This photo was taken shortly after the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana. It shows some of the aftermath of the deadly clash between U.S. soldiers and Native American warriors. Sitting Bull and his fighters annihilated Lt. Col. George A. Custer and his battalion of more than 200 men.
Originally born into slavery, Mary Fields was the first African American woman to work as a mail carrier in the U.S. However, at that time, working as a star route carrier in Montana required a rifle and a revolver. She became known as Stagecoach Mary by earning a tough reputation for fiercely protecting the mail.
Dodge City Peace Commission
One thing you could be sure of in the unpredictable West was turmoil, with frequent gunfights and vigilante justice. This photo of the Dodge City Peace Commission from June 1883 includes skilled gunslingers W.H. Harris, Luke Short, Bat Masterson, Charlie Bassett, Wyatt Earp, Frank McLain and Neal Brown. They were not in the business of peace — they came to defend a friend in the Kansas town — but in the end, no shots were fired in this particular showdown.
Shootout at the O.K. Corral
This famous gunfight actually happened at the intersection of Third and Fremont streets near the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, and lasted a mere 30 seconds. The fight pitted the Earps and a few of their friends against the Clantons and McLaurys. Three men died — Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton, pictured — and three others were wounded. The Earps and their allies triumphed and were later found not guilty of the homicides.
Billy The Kid
Known later as Billy the Kid, William Bonney was born in New York City and moved to the West as a boy. Orphaned at a young age, he adapted to frontier and outlaw life naturally. Billy the Kid opted for cattle rustling in New Mexico over holding up trains and robbing banks. Still, he was involved in famous gunfights and the deaths of at least nine men.
Jesse and Frank James
This photo from 1872 shows famous outlaw Jesse James and his older brother Frank. They got their start with William “Bloody Bill” Anderson’s guerrilla unit during the Civil War. After the war, the brothers switched to robbing banks, stagecoaches and trains throughout a large swath of territory, from Texas to Iowa and Kansas to West Virginia, and expanded their gang.
This photo of Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch was taken in 1900 after they robbed a bank in Nevada. The outlaws sent a thank you note and this photo to the bank. Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank in 1889 in Telluride, Colorado, and met his end in a shootout in 1908.
This Western bandit and his brothers were members of the James brothers’ gang. He helped with train derailments and robberies across many western states. After a bank robbery gone wrong in Minnesota, he and his brothers were captured while the James brothers escaped.
General Henry Hopkins Sibley
When the Confederate general invaded New Mexico Territory from the south and headed for Colorado, Union Col. Edward R. S. Canby came to stop him. The resulting Battle of Valverde is also known as the Gettysburg of the West. It had high casualties but no decisive victor, and the Rebels marched back to Texas without the territory or gold they hoped to retrieve.
Though the bandits of the Old West may get most of the attention, Bass Reeves is one of the legendary lawmen. He wrangled outlaws as the first African-American U.S. Deputy Marshal. In fact, some believe his life inspired the Lone Ranger.
Pioneers headed west for many reasons, including a drier climate. Tuberculosis or the “White Death” was a feared and often fatal disease, but people believed dry climates could provide a cure. As a result, Colorado Springs, Boulder and Denver all built facilities for tuberculosis patients, like this sanatorium pictured in Austin Bluffs, Colorado.
Central City, Colorado
Central City was known as “the richest square mile on Earth” and credited with saving Colorado’s busted gold rush reputation. In 1859, John H. Gregory discovered the Gregory Lode, a vein of gold that transformed Central City from a small settlement into a boom town. In fact, the vein produced gold for more than a century.
The sharpshooter, whose real name was Phoebe Ann Moses, got her start hunting with her father at the age of 8. She was so accurate she fed her family and sold the extra game to help provide for them. She went on to join Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in the mid-1880s.
The Pony Express
The Pony Express was the fastest way to send messages and news from coast to coast during its 18 months in business. Lone riders sprinted between relief stations across the frontier and, on average, could deliver a message in about 10 days. The four cowboys in this photo are a good example of the young, slim riders the company employed for the speedy job.
Incredibly, this Oregon Trail pioneer made the arduous trek multiple times by wagon, train and automobile. When he first retraced his steps on the trail, he aimed to preserve the legacy of the route and share its history. Most of the rest of the 400,000 Oregon Trail migrants completed the journey only once, but his feat earned him a meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt.
This frontiersman was a fur trader, explorer, mountain man and more. He served as a guide in the West and was also an Indian agent, aiding in peaceful relations with the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. But he also waged war on the Navajo people, destroying their crops and livestock to force them onto government reservations. He was fluent in English, Spanish, Navajo, Apache, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Paiute, Shoshone and Ute.
The famous frontierswoman was born Martha Jane Canary and later took the name Calamity Jane. Orphaned at a young age, she worked a variety of jobs and eventually ended up in the Black Hills of South Dakota during the region’s gold rush. She often wore men’s clothing and drank heavily, carousing with men and boasting of her adventures.
This photo from the early 1880s shows a mule team hauling ore wagons from a Tombstone-area mine to the stamping mill. Ed Schieffelin discovered silver here in 1877 after critics told him all he’d find was his tombstone. As a result, more than 7,000 people came seeking their fortunes and silver.
Red Horse was a Minneconjou Sioux warrior and a Lakota chief. He lived from 1822 to 1907 and fought in the Battle of Little Bighorn with Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors against Custer and the U.S. cavalry. This commercial cabinet card, which was a popular portrait photography medium at the time, captures the warrior.
Famed frontier photographer Camillus Sydney Fly captured these images of Apaches in the Southwest in the 1880s. Fly and his assistant ventured out from Tombstone, Arizona, to northeastern Sonora, Mexico, to meet them. One of the standout shots includes Geronimo on horseback with his son by his side.
The legendary Apache chief was a Native American leader who was influential in defending his people against the invading U.S. settlers. Geronimo led many successful escapes from reservations in the Southwest until he finally surrendered to Gen. Nelson Miles in 1886. This photograph shows him as a U.S. prisoner near the end of his life.
Ta-sunko-witko, or Crazy Horse, was a courageous Sioux war chief of the Oglala tribe. He was allied with Sitting Bull and also participated in the Battle of Little Big Horn. Crazy Horse actively fought against the reservation system and the white soldiers and settlers moving west.