Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You

Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You

Jennifer Conerly - November 30, 2017

What we know of as “westward expansion” has been occurring since the late eighteenth century. After the Revolutionary War, people began to move inland, seeking new opportunities and new lands. As the frontier moved further west, people began to move past it, exploring and settling what was to them unknown territory. With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the land that belonged to the United States became even larger, and the frontier moved past the Mississippi River into the Western United States.

In the nineteenth century, the United States government began to push for more westward expansion, which developed the concept of Manifest Destiny, the idea that Americans were meant to settle the West. As people began to explore and settle these vast areas, they encountered Native Americans who were uneasy with the new settlers, and the West became a no man’s land of crime, gunfights, and outlaws. With the California Gold Rush of the late 1840s and early 1850s, settlement of the West rose exponentially with people who were eager to make their fortunes. As settlement increased, a romantic notion of what the west was supposed to be developed, a time period we call the Wild West. It exaggerated the potential of the West as the land of opportunity, a place where you could go and make your fortunes, whether it was becoming rich or just having a space of land to call your own.

The field of photography was also developing in the nineteenth century. Many photographers were hired to travel west and photograph what was there to entice Americans to move there, including picturesque landscapes and photographs of famous personalities of the age. While many photographs were used to exaggerate the myth of the Wild West, much photographic evidence also depicts the harsh life of the West. They show the exploration of the territory, the journey west, and the hard work that people who lived there had to go through every day, and the treatment of Native Americans. Photographers documented life on the frontier, in all its forms. By looking at these photographs, we can see a glimpse of what life was like during the westward expansion.

Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Historic Spanish Record of the Conquest, Inscription Rock, New Mexico (Wheeler Survey). Even though westward expansion began in the late eighteenth century, the Spanish had explored and settled the area much earlier than that, starting in the sixteenth century. Photographed by Timothy O’Sullivan, 1873. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Wikimedia Commons.
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Shoshone Falls, Snake River, Idaho. Photographer Timothy O’Sullivan was an Irish-born photographer who is famous for his photographs of the Civil War and of the American West. His work in photographing the landscape of the Western United States to entice settlers to move there made him a pioneer in geophotography. Photographed by Timothy O’Sullivan, 1874. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Wikimedia Commons.
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Wheeler survey. Boat crew at Diamond Creek. Photographer Timothy O’Sullivan (fourth from left) with members of the Wheeler survey and Native Americans, on the Colorado River through the Black Canyon in 1871. In 1871, he joined Lieutenant George M. Wheeler on a survey of the west at the 100-degree longitude line that runs from Canada to Mexico, running through states North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Photographed by Timothy O’Sullivan, 1871. National Archives and Records Administration. https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/american-west-in-pictures/
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
A covered wagon during the Great Western Migration. Loup Valley, Nebraska, 1886. A family stands in front of their wagon as they migrate west. Unknown photographer. National Archives and Records Administration, 69-N-13606C. https://www.archives.gov/research/american-west
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
A Montana ranch, comfortable if not elegant, and the home of many well-to-do persons engaged in mining or stock-raising. Photographed by William H. Jackson, 1872. National Archives and Records Administration. https://www.archives.gov/research/american-west
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Ox train used to move supplies in Arizona Territory. Unknown photographer, 1883. National Archives and Records Administration. https://www.archives.gov/research/american-west
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
A family poses with their Indian domestic, their young children, and their dog outside a log cabin in New Mexico Territory. Unknown photographer, ca. 1895. National Archives and Records Administration. 111-SC-89608. https://www.archives.gov/research/american-west
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Overseer and cotton pickers in an Oklahoma cotton field, ca. 1897-1898. National Archives and Records Administration, 48-RST-7B43. https://www.archives.gov/research/american-west
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Photograph of Buffalo Bill, ca. 1875. Born William Frederick Cody, Buffalo Bill was an American showman and a scout. He served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and he became a scout for the Army during the Indian Wars. He began performing the Western vaudeville shows in his early 20s, eventually starting his own, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. By the 1880s, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West had spread from the United States and began touring in Europe. George Eastman House Collection. Wikipedia.
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
A troupe of Native Americans who performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West posed before tepees. Beginning in the 1880s, vaudeville shows depicting and romanticizing life in the West began traveling around the Europe and the United States. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was the first vaudeville show of its kind and became the basis for all of the ones that followed, touring with many personalities of the American frontier, such as Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane. It permanently established the myth of the Wild West as what people thought life in the American frontier was like and influenced the appearance of the American West in popular culture. Photographed by Napoleon Sarony, 1886. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Pawnee Bill’s Wild West show performers seated in a semi-circle, with horses behind them. Copyright by John A. Johnson, Somerville, Massachusetts, c. 1908. Library of Congress.
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Photograph of Annie Oakley shooting a gun over her shoulder using a hand mirror. Phoebe Ann Mosey, who later became known as Annie Oakley, was a famous sharpshooter in the West. She won her first shooting match when she was 15, and she and her husband became part of the traveling show Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, adding to her fame. Unknown date, but probably from ca. 1880s-1900. Wikimedia Commons.
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Full-length portrait of Calamity Jane, seated with a rifle as General Crook’s scout. Born Martha Canary, Calamity Jane was an American scout and woman of the frontier who was known for wearing men’s clothes as much as her abilities. She made appearances in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and the Pan-American exposition in 1901. She has become a mythic figure of the Wild West, mostly because most of what she claimed to have done in her life cannot be proven. Unknown photographer, ca. 1895. Library of Congress. Wikimedia Commons.
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Black Hills Expedition. General George A. Custer commands a column of cavalry, artillery, and wagons across the plains of Dakota Territory. In 1874, George A. Custer led the expedition into the Black Hills, Dakota Territory to investigate the potential of gold mining and to find a place to build a fort. The expedition led to mass migration to the area to mine for gold, which upset the local Sioux Indians. The tensions between the Sioux and the Americans led to the Great Sioux War (1876-1877). Photographed by W.H. Illingworth, 1874. National Archives and Records Administration. Wikimedia Commons.
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
A horsedrawn stretcher is carrying a wounded man from the Battle of Slim Buttes, Dakota Territory. Photographed by S. J. Morrow, 1876. National Archives and Records Administration, 111-SC-85704. https://www.archives.gov/research/american-west
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Indian Day parade in Omaha, Nebraska. Unknown photographer, August 4, 1898. National Archives and Records Administration. https://www.archives.gov/research/american-west
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
U.S. School for Indians in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. This photograph by John C. H. Grabill shows a small Oglala camp in front of the large government school buildings in Pine Ridge. American missionaries began establishing schools funded by the government near Indian reservations as part of the effort during the Progressive Movement to “educate” and “civilize” Native Americans. After the Indian Wars of the late 19th century and the Native Americans were forced to live on reservations, more schools were established, but they became more like boarding schools. Native American children were sent away from their reservations, and they were forced to give up their culture and language. Photographed by John C. H. Grabill, 1891. Library of Congress.
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
View of a Sioux Camp, Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Unknown photographer, 1890. National Archives and Records Administration. Wikimedia Commons.
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Photograph of Geronimo, a Chiricahua Apache, kneeling with a rifle. Geronimo was famous for leading raids against settlers and the United States military in Mexico and the southwestern United States. He was a leading warrior in skirmishes against the United States, who had begun settling Apache on reservations after the Mexican American War (1846-1848), so that Americans could settle the area of their homeland. He was eventually exiled to Florida with other Apache. He became a celebrity in his later years, appearing at fairs and selling photographs of himself. Photographed by Ben Wittick, 1887. National Archives and Records Administration. Wikipedia.
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Apache prisoners at a rest stop beside Southern Pacific Railway, near Nueces River, Texas. Geronimo and his son are shown to the right, wearing matching shirts. Photographed by A.J. McDonald, September 10, 1886. National Archives and Records Administration. https://www.archives.gov/research/american-west

Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Chinese drying shrimps and mending nets. San Francisco Bay, California. Beginning in the 19th century, the first major wave of Chinese immigrants began, but the number rose exponentially with people fleeing the political instability in China in the middle of the century. They became laborers in many different industries, such as agriculture and fisheries, and they became a major part of the labor force that built the western part of the First Transcontinental Railroad. Photographed by Charles H. Townsend, ca. 1889. National Archives and Records Administration, 22-FA-148. https://www.archives.gov/research/american-west
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Chinese fishermen, Monterey, California. By the middle of the 19th century, Chinese immigrants who came to the United States in the first wave of immigration were skilled fishermen, and they established successful fishing businesses along the western coast of the United States. Due to the racism against Chinese immigrants at the time, other American and European immigrant fishermen were successful in convincing the government to pass regulations restricting Chinese fishermen’s activity, such as making them pay taxes and forbidding the use of traditional Chinese nets. They also could not re-enter the country after they left, so Chinese fisherman could not go out fishing on their boats further than 3 miles from the coast, which severely impacted their businesses. Many Chinese immigrants abandoned this occupation as a result of these laws. Photographed by Albert Dressler, 1875. California Historical Society. Library of Congress. Wikimedia Commons.
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Chinese railroad workers on a wood train, Bloomer Cut, a rail passage in California, ca 1860-1870. Chinese laborers made up a large part of the labor force that built the first railroads in the West. Lawrence & Houseworth. The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, Stanford University. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/150-years-ago-chinese-railroad-workers-staged-era-s-largest-n774901
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Buffalo Soldiers. Restored photograph of the 25th infantry buffalo soldiers, Fort Keogh, Montana. Although there were African-American regiments during the Civil War, two cavalry units and two infantry units of African-American soldiers were established in 1866. These units were sent to the West to engage in the Indian Wars of the late nineteenth century. Although racial segregation in the Armed Forces ended in 1948, there were still active regiments of buffalo soldiers until the early 1950s. Photographed by Chr. Barthelmess, 1890. Library of Congress. Wikimedia Commons.
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Photograph of Cathay Williams. Cathay Williams, a woman who was born into slavery, disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the United States Army in 1866 as a buffalo soldier, the first African-American woman to serve in the Army. She was discharged in 1868 when the army surgeon discovered she was a woman. Unknown photographer. Pinterest.
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
U.S. Infantry parade through Kearney, Nebraska. Unknown photographer, 1888. National Archives and Records Administration, 165-FF-6G-6. https://www.archives.gov/research/american-west
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
The execution of a soldier of the 8th Infantry, Prescott, Arizona. Unknown photographer, 1877. National Archives and Records Administration, 111-SC-87810. https://www.archives.gov/research/american-west
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Cowgirl standing with horse. This picture on the front of a postcard shows a cowgirl standing with her horse. There is less documentation on the history of women in the West, but what is known is no less fascinating. The women who lived in the West often worked side by side with their male counterparts, farming, ranching, and sometimes contributing to cattle drives. The idea of the cowgirl became very popular by the end of the century with the introduction of cowgirls in Wild West shows. Unknown photographer, ca. 1900-1910. DeGolver Library, Southern Methodist University. Wikimedia Commons.
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Photograph of Kittie Wilkins, known as the “Horse Queen of Idaho.” Wilkins was a horse trader who was the only American woman whose livelihood depended only on the sale of her horses. She sold 8,000 horses to a buyer who sent them to the British Army to use in the Boer War. Although she was one of the most famous women of the American West, today she is largely unknown. https://www.neh.gov/humanities/2012/marchapril/statement/woman-the-west
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
The Cowboy. Photographed by John C. H. Grabill, ca. 1888. Library of Congress. Wikimedia Congress.
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Exterior view of a bath house in Hot Springs, South Dakota. Public baths in the United States were introduced in the 1890s. They were created to promote public health and cleanliness in the time before private bathing became the norm. Photographed by John C. H. Grabill, 1891. Library of Congress. Wikimedia Commons.
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Interior view, Toll Gate Saloon, Black Hawk, Colorado. Saloons were bars in the American West that served businessmen, trappers, cowboys, laborers, and soldiers. The first saloon was opened in the beginning of the nineteenth century, and by the end of the century, they had risen in popularity. Unknown photographer, 1897. Wikimedia Commons.
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Faro game in full blast at Orient Saloon in Bisbee, Arizona. Many saloons in the West were not just bars. They also provided places for gambling and prostitution. As saloons began to grow in popularity, a particular saloon culture developed in which saloons provided a gathering space for playing games, singing songs, and political organization. Photographed by C. S. Fly, ca. 1900. National Archives and Records Administration. Wikimedia Commons.
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Photograph of Wild Bill Hickock, with two Navy Colts and an unsheathed knife, which is probably a prop. James Butler Hickock, also known as “Wild Bill” Hickock, was a frontiersman who was known as a gunfighter, a scout, and a gambler. He has become a mythic figure of the American West, mostly because of the wild stories he told about himself, most of which have never been proven. Mendota, Illinois. Unknown photographer, 1869. Wikipedia.
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Retouched photograph of Billy the Kid. Billy the Kid was a famous American gunfighter and fugitive who participated in the Lincoln County War (1878-1881), a conflict over ownership of dry goods and cattle industries in the territory that would become New Mexico. Photographed by Ben Wittick, ca. 1880s. Wikipedia Commons.
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Peace Commissioners in Dodge City, Kansas. Chas. Bennett, W.H. Harris, Wyatt Earp, Luke Short, L. McLean, Bat Masterson, Neal Brown (left to right). Photographed by Camillus S. Fly, ca. 1890. National Archives and Records Administration. https://www.archives.gov/research/american-west#law
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Black Jack Ketchum gets fitted with a new necktie. Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum was a cowboy who became a train robber in the American West. He joined the Hole-in-the-Wall gang that engaged in train robberies. He was convicted of attempted train robbery and sentenced to death by hanging. He was executed in Clayton, New Mexico Territory in 1901. He was the only example of execution for robbing trains in the New Mexico Territory, and his execution was brutal. The rope was made too long, and when he was hanged, he was decapitated. Unknown photographer, 1901. https://www.archives.gov/research/american-west#law
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
The lynching of John Heith, Tombstone, Arizona. Heith was executed for a robbery in which four people were killed. Unknown photographer, February 22, 1884. National Archives and Records Administration. https://www.archives.gov/research/american-west#law
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
General view of Deadwood, Dakota Territory. Present-day Deadwood, South Dakota. Originally a gold rush town, Deadwood, South Dakota is now a registered National Historical Landmark because the architecture from the mid-nineteenth century is so well-preserved. Photographed by S. J. Morrow, 1876. National Archives and Records Administration, 165-FF-2F-15. https://www.archives.gov/research/american-west
Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You
Mountain Mine. A mine in Montana. John C. H. Grabill was a photographer whose work documented life in the American West, including the aftermath of Wounded Knee. Photographed by John C. H. Grabill, 1889.

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