These antiquated images of the American wilderness depict the hardships and hardships of life in the Wild West. Following the American Civil War, the completion of the railroads to the West opened up vast swaths of the region for settlement and commercial growth.

According to most historians, the time that best represents the Old West was from the end of the American Civil War in 1865 until the Census Bureau closed the frontier in 1890.

A frontier is a point of interaction along a settlement line. Frederick Jackson Turner, a well-known thinker, contended that the frontier was the setting of an important development in American civilization: “The frontier,” he asserted, “promoted the formation of a composite nationality for the American people.”

“This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward…furnish[es] the forces dominating American character,” he hypothesized.

Turner’s theories have sparked the exploration of various American frontiers since 1893. Still, the popular folk frontier focuses on the settling of Native American territories west of the Mississippi River, including what is now the Midwest, Texas, the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the Southwest, and the West Coast.


Crossing Gila River in buckboard wagons near San Carlos, Arizona, 1885.

As defined by Hine and Faragher, “frontier history tells the story of the creation and defense of communities, the use of the land, the development of crops and hotels, and the formation of states.”

They explain, “It is a tale of conquest, but also one of survival, persistence, and the merging of peoples and cultures that gave birth and continuing life to America.”

Turner repeatedly stressed how free land to establish new farms attracted early American settlers, saying, “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development.”

The United States grew from coast to coast thanks to treaties with other countries and indigenous tribes, political compromise, military conquest, the establishment of law and order, the construction of farms, ranches, and towns, the marking of trails, and the digging of mines, and the bringing in of large migrations of foreigners.

Turner proposed in his “Frontier Thesis” (1893) that the frontier was a process that changed Europeans into a new people, the Americans, who valued individualism, self-reliance, and even brutality along with equality, democracy, and optimism.

A rider fills his keg from a desert well 30 miles north of Palomas, Arizona. His horse refreshes himself nearby. 1907.

Eastern settlement altered the Great Plains. Farmers plowed the native grasses to plant wheat and other crops, nearly eradicating the vast herds of American bison that once roamed the prairies. As a practical way to transport cattle to markets, the railroad increased the importance of the cattle business.

The extinction of the bison and the expansion of white settlement significantly impacted the lives of the Native Americans residing in the West.

Despite a few victories, the Native Americans appeared doomed to defeat in the ensuing battles against the larger populations of settlers and the armed might of the U.S. government.

By the 1880s, most Native Americans were confined to reservations, frequently in parts of the West that European settlers thought were least desirable.

In the late 19th century, the cowboy developed into a cultural icon for the West and was frequently portrayed as a stylish or valiant character. However, the stereotype of the brave Caucasian cowboy is untrue.

Spanish vaqueros, who had brought cattle to Mexico centuries ago, were the first cowboys. Cowboys of color also traveled the range. In addition, the life of a cowboy was anything but glamorous, entailing long, arduous hours of work, substandard living arrangements, and financial hardship.

Band of Apache Indian prisoners at rest stop beside Southern Pacific Railway, near Nueces River, Texas, 1886.

The cities were important for the growth of the frontier because they served as commercial, financial, and communication hubs as well as sources of goods, services, and amusement.

After 1860, as the railroads expanded into the unpopulated west, they constructed service towns to cater to the requirements of the workers building the railroad, the train crews, and the passengers who stopped for meals.

Railroads did not start to appear until the 1880s because there were few cities of any significance in most of the South for miles around. This pattern also applies to Texas.

After that, the cattle were shipped out, and cattle drives were restricted to small distances. However, armed groups frequently targeted passenger trains.

European immigrants frequently established communities with comparable racial and religious backgrounds. For instance, a lot of Finns migrated to Minnesota and Michigan, a lot of Swedes and Norwegians migrated to Minnesota and the Dakotas, a lot of Irish migrated to railroad hubs along the transcontinental lines, a lot of Volga Germans migrated to North Dakota, and a lot of German Jews migrated to Portland, Oregon.

There are two common methods of hauling water in Old Mexico and the southwestern United States. Texas, 1905.

Along with becoming cowboys, farmhands, saloon employees, cooks, and outlaws, Black Americans migrated to the West as soldiers. The 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments and the all-black 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments of the United States Army both had members who served as Buffalo Soldiers. They worked in many western forts and had white commanders.

During the Gold Rush era, about 4,000 black individuals migrated to California. Several thousand Freedmen from Southern states relocated to Kansas in 1879 after Reconstruction in the South ended.

They were drawn by the promise of good, inexpensive Homestead Law land and improved treatment, and they became known as the Exodusters. Nicodemus, Kansas, an all-black town established in 1877, was a planned community that existed before the Exodusters but is frequently compared to them.

The myths of the West in fiction and film took a firm hold in the imaginations of both Americans and outsiders as the American frontier faded into history.

In David Murdoch’s view, America is exceptional in choosing its iconic self-image: “No other nation has taken a time and place from its past and produced a construct of the imagination equal to America’s creation of the West.”

Men gamble over a game of Faro inside a saloon. Bisbee, Arizona. 1900.

A new settler at the site of a new town looks for a lot. Guthrie, Oklahoma. 1889.

First Blacksmith Shop in Guthrie. Oklahoma. 1889.

Land in a new territory is auctioned off in this tent. California. 1904.

First house on the present site of Dodge City, Kansas. Built sometime in August 1872.

An Arizona poker party at John Doyle’s ranch. Arizona, 1887-1889.

Inside a bar at the Table Bluff Hotel and Saloon. Humboldt County, California. 1889.

Starting a new town: Anadarko Townsite, August 8, 1901. Auction in progress in lumber company booth. Temporary bank buildings and the beginnings of a lodging house nearby.

Men lay down a track for a new railroad, connecting the wild frontier with the world. Arizona. 1898.

Photograph of a family with their covered wagon during the Great Western Migration. Loup Valley, Nebraska. 1886.

Discovery party and horses on hot, slick rocks of Navajo Mountain on their way to Rainbow Bridge. Utah, 1909.

Gros Ventre Camp, Fort Belknap Reservation. A dog was being roasted over the cooking pot at Fort Belknap Reservation, Montana, in 1906.

Eleven-year-old Jimmy McKinn was abducted in early September 1885 by Geronimo. When the Indians were briefly captured in March 1886, Jimmy bitterly resisted being returned to his family, wanting to stay among the Apache. He was photographed among the Indians before Geronimo’s surrender to General Crook.

Roundup on the Sherman Ranch, Genesee, Kansas. Cowboy with lasso readied looks beyond the herd on the open range to his fellow cowpunchers waiting on the horizon, 1902.

Cowboys branding calves. Montana.

Buffalo hide yard in Dodge City, Kansas in 1878. It shows 40,000 buffalo hides.

Buckboard and coaches zigzagging down the “W” Pike’s Peak carriage road, Colorado, 1911.

Outlaw John Sontag was shot to death on Sept. 14, 1904. He was not yet dead when this picture was taken.

Camp of the miners of the North Star and Mountaineer lodes. San Juan County, Colorado, 1875.

A gold rush town in Deadwood, Dakota. 1876

A family outside their home. New Mexico. 1895. Note the Native American servant holds their child.

Saloons and disreputable places of Hazen, Nevada, 1905.

The Klondyke Dance Hall and saloon. Seattle, Washington. 1909.

Street view in a typical American Frontier town, Corinne, Utah, 1869.

A cow carries seven children “to school” (as claimed in the original caption). Okanogan, Washington. 1907.

A teacher and her students stand in front of a sod schoolhouse. Woods County, Oklahoma. 1895.

First water works of Perry, Oklahoma, 1893.

Correspondent Fred W. Loring and his mule He was killed by Apaches two days after this picture was taken. Arizona, 1871.

A Pony Express rider, 1861.

”Trappers and hunters in the Four Peaks country in Brown’s Basin, Arizona. Two Crab Tree boys, their father, and the dogs and burrows they hunt with. Their cabin is on Long Creek, at the entrance of Hell’s Pocket in Brown’s Basin, between Four Peaks and Salt River.”

Mine workers are coming out of the mine shaft. Virginia City, Nevada, 1867-1888.

A fishing camp set up by some Chinese settlers of the American frontier. Point San Pedro, California. 1889.

Shoshone tribe members dance on a Native American reservation. Ft. Washakie, Wyoming. 1892.

Apaches deliver hay to American settlers in Arizona. 1893.

Class in blacksmithing, Forest Grove School, Oregon, 1882.

Judge Roy Bean’s notary office also served as a saloon. Langtry, Texas. 1900.

Cheyenne Indians held prisoners in County Jail in Dodge City in 1878. They were captured while trying to return to the Black Hills from a reservation in Oklahoma. 1913.

U.S. Deputy Marshals pose with the clerical force. Perry, Oklahoma. 1893.

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