Few places and periods in time have inspired so many people, ignited so many imaginations and affected so many stories and ideas as the American frontier has over the years.
But for most of us, the Wild West is mostly brought to life through Westerns, books and cowboy costumes. From 1903’s The Great Train Robbery to Westworld and Red Dead Redemption, we can’t seem to get enough of the Wild West.
Despite its mythical stature, the Wild West was a real place, with real people – and real photographers, too. We’ve complied some of the best and most interesting photos and stories from the real Wild West – and you might be surprised to learn that history, in many cases, outshines any piece of fiction.
Texas Jack Vermillion
One of the most famous guns for hire back then was a man by the name of John Wilson Vermillion – better known as Texas Jack Vermillion.
Vermillion never lived in Texas, and if you were to ask him about the origin of his nickname, his usual answer would be “because I’m from Virginia” – which doesn’t go a long way towards explaining things. Still, that’s the name he went by, at least on his “WANTED” posters.
Another name John Wilson Vermillion went by was “Shoot-Your-Eye-Out Vermillion” – a name he earned after reportedly shooting someone in the eye following an argument about a card game.
Vermillion is most famous for riding with Wyatt Earp and taking part in his vendetta against a group of outlaw cowboys, and his life truly sounds like something taken out of a Western.
One name from the Old West that still rings familiar today is “Jesse James.”
An infamous outlaw, James was a gang leader, bank and train robber and, ultimately, a murderer.
Forming a gang with his brother – the James-Younger Gang – James roamed the country, looting, pillaging and terrorizing whoever and whatever crossed their path. During the Civil War, they fought alongside the Confederates, and were responsible for several atrocities committed against Union soldiers. Still, despite his law breaking lifestyle, James became an icon of the Wild West
Here in the 21st century, Olive Oatman isn’t as well-known a name as Jesse James – but back in her day, she was a celebrity through and through.
The circumstances that turned her into a celebrity, however, were quite tragic. When Olive was 14 years old, she and her family were attacked by a group of Native Americans as they were travelling through what is today known as Arizona. Most of her family was killed, and Olive and her sister were taken captive, and later, sold to the Mohave people.
The Mohaves took Olive and her young sister in, and reportedly adopted them as their own – as Olive’s traditional Mohave tattoos indicate.
Olive survived and married within the tribe – but when she was 19, a white delegation came to “rescue” her – and she became famous for her story of captivity.
Santiago ‘Jimmy’ McKinn
Quite a few westerners were abducted by Native tribes, including the young Santiago ‘Jimmy’ McKinn.
When Jimmy was 11 or 12, he and his family were living in New Mexico’s Mimbres Valley. One day, Jimmy and his older brother, Martin, were walking around the valley, when a group of Apache braves – reportedly led by the legendary Geronimo – approached the two children. The killed Martin, but took Santiago to live with them as one of their own.
General George Crook eventually rescued the boy, but the story says that he did not want to return to his family, and preferred to stay with his captors!
Probably one of the most famous women in the West, Annie Oakley was famous for her spectacular skill as a sharpshooter.
Annie started using a gun when she was just eight, using it to hunt in order to support her family after her father had passed away. Her natural skill with a firearm soon showed itself, and Oakley went from trapping and hunting to competing in sharpshooting tournaments.
She eventually married fellow gunslinger Frank E. Butler, whom she had competed against in her tournament days, and the two talented markspeople later joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, where they performed their talents in front of thousands, and become international stars.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show
We all grew up playing Cowboys and Indians, and the Wild West held a strong sway over the imagination of children for many generations – even while it was still a reality.
One man to capitalize on the West’s romantic allure was Buffalo Bill. A frontiersman, scout and bison hunter, Buffalo Bill made his fortune after he put together a traveling show which brought the magic of the West to audiences all throughout America and Europe.
The show featured variety acts and exciting performances, as well as reenactments of famous shoot outs and battles.
Rose Dunn, later known as Rose of the Cimarron, was the sweetheart of George ‘Bittercreek’ Newcomb. Newcomb and his gang ran off with the young Rose, heaping praise and lavish gifts on her, complimenting her for her looks – and her ice-cold demeanor.
Still, all good things come to an end, and Newcomb’s gang had to go into hiding following a shootout with US Marshals. Eventually, George came out of hiding to return to Rose – where her two brothers were waiting, and shot him on sight, collecting a $5,000 bounty which was placed on his head, Dead or Alive.
Some believe that Rose set him up – while others think this is a tragic Romeo and Juliet story.
While it may not be pleasant to admit it now, back in the Wild West, brothels were popular institutions, and were frequented by many of the Frontier’s most iconic personalities.
One brothel, owned by Fannie Porter, was particularly popular, thanks to Fannie’s fierce loyalty to her customers. She was respected among outlaws and criminals for her discretion, never having turned in any of her customers despite pressure from authorities.
Among Fannie’s San Antonio brothel’s regular clients were Butch Cassidy, Harry Alonzo Longabaugh (the Sundance Kid), Kid Curry and many more.
The Fairer Outlaws
When we think of Old West outlaws, we usually pictured rugged, scruffy men – but the Frontier had plenty of female outlaws to go around as well!
Doc Holliday, the famous dentist outlaw, was married to Big Nose Kate – who was an accomplished criminal in her own right, and even helped spring him from jail.
Calamity Jane was another colorful criminal, famous for wearing men’s clothing – and Pearl Heart was a skill shooter for hire. Other talented markswomen were Lillian Smith Stagecoach Mary – an emancipated slave whose life story easily rivals that of Quentin Tarantino’s Django.
The California Gold Rush, which started in 1848, had thousands upon thousands of people rushing to the West Coast in search of the plentiful gold reported to be there.
The promise of fortune drove many people from all walks of life to the Californian wilderness – but at first most were men.
Still, women eventually found their way to the Golden State, either with their husbands and families or entirely alone, and managed to carve out a place for themselves in the burgeoning new economy, either as gold panners or as housekeepers, cooks, clothes washers, actresses or dancers.
Much like the English pub or the savannah’s watering hole, Saloons in the Old West were more than just a place to get a drink. They were places where cowboys, gold diggers, militia men and people of every other walk of life would get together to talk, socialize, gamble and even conduct business.
This photo of a saloon in Old Tasacosa, Texas, was taken circa 1907, but still shows the type of atmosphere that was prevalent in similar establishments for many years prior.
The one word associated with the Wild West, more than any other, is “Cowboy.”
But who were these cowboys, and what did they actually do?
The term “Cowboy” originates with the Spanish “Vaqueros” – horse mounted cattle herders.
The job required immense skill and physical strength, and cowboys trained for the job from a very young age, mastering horse riding, rope work and more.
In America, most cowboys were white men – although by the early 1870s plenty of African Americans, Mexicans and Native Americans had taken on the profession as well. Their outfits famously include bandanas, gloves, chaps, high riding boots and – of course – a wide brimmed hat.
Mine, All Mine
While we often associate the Wild West with cowboys, there was another, very prominent occupation there as well: mining.
The American Frontier contained many untapped deposits of precious metals and minerals, and the pioneers who settled there often did so based on the natural resources a location had to offer.
In Virginia City, Nevada, for instance, there were two major silver mines – which sustained the entire city’s economy.
At its height, the city boasted 25,000 residents – but as the mine’s silver deposits began to be exhausted, more and more people left. In a recent census, out of the 25,000 residents which inhabited the city at its peak, only 850 remain.
Old Mission Church, New Mexico
We aren’t used to thinking of American history in 17th century terms, but Old Mission Church in New Mexico has been standing since 1630, and is one of the longest standing examples of adobe architecture.
It played a big part in the Pueblo Revolt, was inhabited by Franciscan monks for many long years, and passed hands between Spain, Mexico and the United States.
Today, it’s still possible to visit the mission. It serves as one of New Mexico’s most prominent tourist attractions.
The First Saloon
Saloons were an extremely important part of frontier life, serving as places where folks could congregate and talk.
The very first saloon was established in Wyoming, way back in 1822 – and its format proved so popular that similar establishments soon spread out all throughout the West. By 1880, it was difficult to find a town without a saloon. The establishments were an important part of their communities. But not all saloons were wholesome: many of them were known as places where gambling, prostitution and opium smoking were popular.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show didn’t just bring sharpshooters and horse wranglers to the masses – they also let them meet Native Americans.
One of these was a Lakota chief by the name of Charging Thunder, who joined the traveling show when he was 26 – and eventually married one of the crew’s horse trainers!
After Buffalo Bill’s show, Charging Thunder immigrated to England, where he became a British citizen and a lion trainer at a local circus, before eventually finding a more stable job at a factory.
My Man Maiman
Photographer Timothy O’Sullivan worked primarily in Colorado, in the 1870s. He would photograph American scenery, as well as Civil War battlefields – and in his wanderings, was often assisted by a Mojave tribe member, whose name was Maiman. Maiman, pictured here, worked as a guide and interpreter, and helped O’Sullivan with his photography work.
Most other photographers at the time liked to photograph Native Americans in a studio, but O’Sullivan preferred the outdoors – a choice which lends his work a distinct realistic quality.
Billy the Kid
One of the West’s most legendary outlaws was a man by the name of Billy the Kid. Well, calling him a man is stretching it – Billy, whose actual name was Henry McCarty, really was a kid.
Following stories of the Wild West, Billy left New York City at a very young age and made his way to New Mexico – and raked up a significant body count on his way there, having killed at least eight people. He proceeded to lead a life of crime until he was finally jailed – and shot dead by Sheriff Pat Garrett when he attempted to escape his jail cell, when he was only 21 years old.
General Custer’s Army
This photograph shows General Custer’s men crossing the Dakota plains. Custer, a legendary military leader, fought in both the Civil and Indian Wars, and was considered a legend in his own lifetime.
This photo was taken by photographer W.H. Illingworth. Illingworth was actually a British subject, but was an important documenter of early American history.
Prostitution was very common in 19th century frontier America – and the women who practiced it were fixtures in towns and cities all throughout the West.
Still, people were uncomfortable calling them by their profession, and so a variety of nicknames arose, including “Soiled Doves,” “Ladies of the Line,” “Sporting Women,” “Fallen Frails,” “Doves of the Roost, “Nymphs du Prairie,” and, of course, the ever so poetic “Fallen Angels.”
Wheeler Survey Group
The American West was an unexplored frontier – and as any explorer knows, the most important thing you need when you’re heading to a new location… is a map.
This group of men were called the Wheeler Survey Group. Led by Captain George Montague Wheeler, the Wheeler Group operated between 1869 and 1879, and were tasked with creating topographic maps of the American Southwest.
These maps were later instrumental in the settlement and further exploration of what would later become Western United States, and three of the areas they explored were named after Captain Wheeler: Wheeler Peak in Nevada, Wheeler Peak in New Mexico, and the Wheeler Geologic Area in Colorado.
Wyatt Earp was an Arizona Sheriff famous for his clashes with outlaw cowboys. He was a good friend of Doc Holliday and other outlaws, and gained fame after a shootout he got into with the Cowboys at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona – a bloody incident in which he killed three men, and which would later be immortalized in numerous films, tv shows and books. Earp continued to clash with the Cowboys long into the 20th century, until his death in 1929.
Wyatt Earp had a brother, a man by the name of Morgan. Morgan Earp was married to Louisa – a strong woman by all accounts, although it remains unclear how they met and when they were married.
The couple lived in Montana for a while, but then moved to California. Morgan later travelled to Arizona, leaving Louisa behind, expecting his trip to be a short one – but would never return. His murder sparked a years long vendetta carried out by his brother, Wyatt.
Navajo Indians Near Fort Defiance
This photograph by Timothy O’Sullivan, entitled “Aboriginal Life Among the Navajo Indians Near Old Fort Defiance, New Mexico” was printed in 1873. It depicts the Navajo tribe in their home, an abandoned military post.
The Navajos were a prominent and well-known tribe, and are one of the wealthiest aboriginal tribes of the United States today. In this photo, you can see the ears of corn that they cultivate, as well as the looms they used for making their distinctive blankets.
Another one of Wyatt Earp’s gang was a man by the name of Doc Holliday – but “Doc” wasn’t just a nickname – it was his actual profession! Holliday became a dentist when he was just 20, but much preferred gambling and gunfighting to his medical practice – and so, in addition to his dentistry, was also quite well known for his looting, thieving and robbing – as well as for his deadly use of a gun.
The Sioux Nation of Native Americans is one of the largest tribes to have lived on the Great Plains. The Sioux are, in fact, three different tribes under the same nation: Eastern Dakota, Western Dakota, and the Lakota tribes. All of them were nomadic bison hunters, and all lived in teepee tents – iconic structures still widely recognized today.
It’s not known exactly where this photograph was taken, but saying it was in Dakota Territory is a pretty safe bet.