These authentic vintage photographs of the American frontier reveal what life was actually like in the "Wild West."
The American frontier holds a mythic space in our imaginations. And because of that, it’s a place we envision more through the stories of the Wild West than through its actual history.
The real American frontier wasn’t always as dramatic as it’s made out to be in films, but it was a dangerous place, an untamed land. The settlers who traveled out West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had to live in defiance of nature and the elements without the comforts of civilization.
Whole families would gather together in wagons and ride off into the unknown, sometimes spending months living in the carriages that pulled them westward. Men, women, and children alike would endure as they crossed over mountains, across rivers, and through deserts in search of a new home and a better life.
When they arrived, they lived in houses built with their own two hands. They had to fend for water and food on their own and set up the very infrastructures of their new towns. Some made their way by working on ranches and farms, others by trapping and trading fur, and some by toiling deep in the mines of the new American frontier.
Life was full of dangers. Sandstorms, tornados, and hurricanes plagued their ramshackle homes. The natives of the land fought to keep it their own. And when lawlessness rose its head, men had to take justice into their own hands.
The Wild West has become a legend, but the real world of the American frontier played out just a short time ago. It’s recent enough that we even have photographs of the families that traveled out and they lives they made, little glimpses into life in the real Wild West.
A covered wagon, the vehicle of the great western migration. This family will live in their wagon while they search for a new home on the untamed American frontier.
Loup Valley, Nebraska. 1886.
A party leads their horses across the hot, slick rocks of Navajo Mountain.
Riders stop at a Native American reservation. A dog is being roasted over the cooking pot at Fort Belknap Reservation, Montana in 1906.
An abducted child among his Apache captors. When 11-year-old Jimmy McKinn was rescued and returned to his family, he fought it bitterly, wanting to stay among the Apache.
Real cowboys, of course, herded cows. Here, one readies his lasso as he looks out on his herd.
Genesee, Kansas. 1902.
Cowboys branding a calf.
Montana. Date unspecified.
A massive haul of 40,000 buffalo hides stored in a hide yard.
Dodge City, Kansas. 1878.
Coaches travel down a carriage road.
Pikes Peak, 1911.
Outlaw John Sontag lies dying on the ground after a shootout with a posse.
Stone Corral, California. 1893.
A mountainside camp set up for miners.
San Juan County, Colorado. 1875.
John Heith, after joining in a robbery that turned into a massacre, is lynched by a mob.
Tombstone, Arizona. 1884.
Buckboard wagons cross a river.
San Carlos, Arizona. 1885.
A rider in the desert refills his keg with water from a well.
Apaches, including the war hero Geronimo, after their surrender to General Miles. The train behind them will carry them into exile.
Nueces River, Texas. 1886
Hauling water across the countryside.
Encinal, Texas. 1905.
Men gamble over a game of Faro inside a saloon.
Bisbee, Arizona. 1900.
A man, at the site of a new town, looks for a lot.
Guthrie, Oklahoma. 1889
The first blacksmith shop in town.
Guthrie, Oklahoma. 1889.
Land in a new territory is auctioned off in this tent.
The first house built in Dodge City, a sod home built in 1872.
Dodge City, Kansas. 1913.
Men outside a crude ranch play poker.
Arizona. Circa 1887-1889.
Inside a bar at the Table Bluff Hotel and Saloon.
Humboldt County, California. 1889.
A town starts to grow. The crowd that has gathered is bidding on land that is being auctioned off.
Anadarko, Oklahoma. 1901.
Men lay down track for a new railroad, connecting the wild frontier with the world.
A gold rush town in Dakota.
Deadwood, Dakota. 1876.
A little girl feeds the chickens.
Sun River, Montana. 1910.
A family outside their home. A Native American servant holds their child.
New Mexico. 1895.
A saloon on the streets of an Old West town.
Hazen, Nevada. 1905.
The Klondyke Dance Hall and saloon.
Seattle, Washington. 1909.
Typical downtown street of a town on the American frontier.
Corinne, Utah. 1869.
A cow carries seven children to school. The caption, whether in jest or in earnest, claims that carrying the children to school is this cow's "daily duty."
Okanogan, Washington. 1907.
A teacher and her students stand in front of a sod schoolhouse.
Woods County, Oklahoma. 1895.
A town gets flowing water for the first time.
Perry, Oklahoma. 1893.
Correspondent Fred W. Loring poses in front of his mule before heading back home to write about what he'd seen out west.
Loring was killed by Apaches less than 48 hours after this picture was taken.
San Bernadino, California. 1871.
A Pony Express rider on horseback.
Cowboys herd cattle across a river.
A group of trappers and hunters outside their cabin.
Brown's Basin, Arizona. 1908.
Mine workers coming out of the mine shaft.
Virginia City, Nevada. Circa 1867-1888.
Men cork champagne at the Buena Vista Vinicultural Society.
Sonoma, California. Circa 1870-1879.
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 while soldiers look on.
Ft. Washakie, Wyoming. 1892.
Apaches deliver hay to American settlers.
Fort Apache, Arizona. 1893.
An Indian Training School teaches blacksmithing.
Forest Grove, Oregon. 1882.
Judge Roy Bean's courthouse, which doubled as a saloon.
Langtry, Texas. 1900.
Cheyenne natives, after trying to escape from their reservation and return to their home land, are held prisoner.
The execution of a man on the gallows.
Prescott, Arizona. 1877.
U.S. Deputy Marshalls pose with the clerical force.
Perry, Oklahoma. 1893.
A sand storm moves across farmland.
Midland, Texas. 1894.