The Old West was a fascinating place and period in American history. The terms ‘Old West’ and ‘Wild West’ generally apply from the late 18th century through to the early 20th century, with the 1800s, in particular, being the peak years of this period.
During this time, the sorts of scenes we see in Western Hollywood movies were actually just part of real life. Cowboys and Native Americans did battle over land, people spent their time in saloons and gathered around campfires, and the beginnings of the modern United States began to be formed.
It was a time of cowboys and outlaws, dominated by iconic figures like Buffalo Bill, the Sundance Kid, Annie Oakley, Butch Cassidy, and Jesse James. And it was also a time where the beginnings of some of the modern appliances and technological innovations we take for granted were first gaining a foothold in Western society, with cameras and photography being prime examples.
Photos from the days of the Old West are simply astonishing to look at, giving us a glimpse into the past and showing us the reality of the Wild West, rather than the fictionalized and distorted tales and truths we experience these days in movies, comic books, and video games. Check out these amazing Wild West photos to learn more.
Gambling It All To Win Big
One of the main ways people used to amuse and entertain themselves in their free time back in the Old West was to gamble. There were many different games of chance to be enjoyed back in those days, with places like gambling halls and saloons being very popular for these activities.
This photo shows us an example of that, with a group of men gathered around a poker table and placing their chips in the center. Just like nowadays, gambling could help people win a lot of money, or lose everything they had!
The Fascinating Life of Pearl Hart
Pearl Hart is one of the best-known female figures of the Old West days. She came from quite a wealthy background and was well-educated as a girl, but fell in love and eloped with her partner, who eventually abused her.
She fled from him and moved around, turning to a life of crime. Hart was said to be extremely skilled with a rifle in her hands and could shoot with alarming accuracy from great distances. She robbed various stagecoaches and even escaped from an all-male prison once, using her status as a woman to get the guards on her side.
Johnny Ringo of The Cochise Cowboys
Now here’s a photo of an evil man. This is Johnny Ringo, and he was part of the Cochise County Cowboys gang. The Cowboys were a very famous group of outlaws, renowned for their many crimes and ruthless attitudes.
Ringo and his associates terrorized the town of Tombstone in Arizona for a long time, leading all the way up to the most famous shoot-out in Old West history: the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Ringo wasn’t actually involved in that gunfight, but his actions and those of his fellow Cowboys caused it to happen.
The Truth About Cowgirls
Some people tend to think that cowboys were the ones doing all the fighting and thrilling things, while cowgirls simply worked back at the various farms and ranches, but the truth is very different. Cowgirls were actually heavily involved in many of the same things that cowboys did.
Just like the men, cowgirls, also known as rodeo queens, could get involved in gunfights, become highly proficient with different weapons, learned how to ride the toughest of Broncos, and even performed as showgirls from time to time too. The likes of Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley went down in history.
The Most Famous Coach of All
Stagecoaches could often be seen traveling around the lands of the American Frontier, but this one was one of the most famous. This photo shows us the incredible Deadwood Coach, and the photo itself was taken by a successful photographer at the time named John C. H. Grabill.
The Deadwood Coach was used by Buffalo Bill in his famous Wild West shows, meaning that this particular coach went all around America and even over the ocean into Europe for countless different shows over the years. This coach probably traveled more than almost any other.
A Typical Day In The Old West
Here’s another awesome photo from the days of the Old West, taken by none other than John C. H. Grabill himself. This photo is currently kept at the Library of Congress, part of an extensive collection of Grabill’s images.
The photo shows a day in the town of Sturgis, South Dakota. We can see a lot of oxen in this photo, with these animals being hugely useful to miners, travelers, cowboys, and more for pulling wagons across long distances. This is undoubtedly a very different image of how towns and cities look nowadays.
A Brave Buffalo Soldier
This photo shows us an unnamed Buffalo Soldier. We don’t know much about him, but his picture was taken and has been preserved for many generations, all the way through to the modern era, giving him a special place in American history. The term ‘Buffalo Soldier’ was used exclusively for black soldiers.
The Native Americans used this nickname during the Indian Wars, and it just seemed to stick, even becoming popular in white circles too. Officially, the term was used for the 10th Cavalry of the United States Army which formed in September of 1866. The last surviving Buffalo Soldier lived to the age of 111 and died in 2005.
An Old West Photographer Like No Other
The name Timothy O’Sullivan is very significant to people interested in Old West images and photography in general. O’Sullivan was one of the main photographers of the Old West days. He was a bit of a pioneer of photography and took some amazing shots in his time, just like this one.
O’Sullivan developed a reputation for his photos of Civil War battle sites, but he also liked to meet Native Americans and photograph them in their own settlements and surroundings to provide authentic images that would last forever. He joined up with a survey team in the 1870s so he could travel all around the Frontier and take lots of different photos.
The Teepes Of The Sioux
When we think of cowboys, we picture horses, hats, and guns. When we think of Native Americans, we believe in bows and arrows, campfires, and teepees. This image shows us a large number of teepees constructed and used by the Sioux Nation of Native Americans.
This photo was probably taken in the Dakota Territory, with the Sioux tribes mostly living in the areas that would eventually become North Dakota and South Dakota. These tribes lived off the land, fishing in streams and hunting bison on the plains for sustenance and resources.
Renowned Lawman Wyatt Earp
Wyatt Earp is one of the most famous faces of the Old West era, but, unlike many of his contemporaries, he fought on the side of justice, rather than against it. Wyatt Earp was a deputy sheriff in Arizona and became famous for his superb shooting abilities and unflinching bravery.
He was involved in the legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral in which he shot and killed three outlaws. Interestingly, he was good friends with reputed outlaw Doc Holliday. He also owned a brothel and loved to gamble, so he wasn’t exactly a picture of innocence.
The Cheerful Faces Of A Survey Group
Here we see a group of men who don’t look particularly happy at all, but it was a habit at the time for people not to smile when having their photographs taken. In reality, they might have been quite cheerful as they were part of a significant expedition known as the Wheeler Survey.
Led by Captain George Montague Wheeler, this expedition lasted around a decade and helped to map out large parts of the Southwest, with many landmarks eventually being named after Wheeler himself like Wheeler Peak in Nevada and Wheeler Geologic Area in Colorado.
Many people don’t realize that vast parts of the Transcontinental Railroad were actually made by Chinese workers. These hard-working men worked long hours and toiled beneath the hot sun for many days to help build one of the defining monuments of the Old West.
Sadly, these workers were not appreciated for their efforts. Due to their race, they were looked down upon and paid less than white workers. Many companies and towns also refused to let the Chinese workers stay or eat, and many of them developed health issues from being worked too hard and not given enough rest.
The Beauty Of Black Canyon
If you’ve never been to Black Canyon in Colorado, it’s definitely worth making the trip out there. This canyon sits on the Colorado River and is home to the enormous and hugely impressive Hoover Dam, which was built back in the 1930s after the days of the Old West had come to an end.
The Black Canyon is a beautiful place, surrounded by mountains on all sides. The El Dorado Mountains and the Black Mountains can be seen in the local area, and the canyon is filled with warm, welcoming hot springs that are just so tempting to climb into and soak away your troubles.
General Custer And His Men Ride Across Dakota
This awe-inspiring image shows us a fantastic scene as we can observe General Custer, a hugely influential Civil War officer, and his men riding across the territory of Dakota, which would eventually become the states of North Dakota and South Dakota.
The photo was taken by an Englishman named W. H. Illingworth and is just one example of how travel and long-distance journeys were a big part of Old West life. People were always moving about in search of new lands to claim, new mines to explore, and new opportunities to potentially get rich and be successful.
Mythic Outlaw Billy The Kid
The man himself, Billy the Kid. This photo of the iconic outlaw was taken around 1879 and shows Billy himself in his classic outfit. The outlaw’s real name was Henry McCarty, but everyone knew him as Billy, the Kid by the end.
He was one of the most well-known outlaws of the era, spending most of his life in New Mexico. He was involved in a lot of robberies and shoot-outs over the years and earned his nickname because he was very young when he committed his first crimes. He also died at the tender age of just 21.
Whirling Horse Of The Wild West Shows
There were several Native Americans who spent time as part of Buffalo Bill’s traveling troupe for his iconic Wild West Shows, and this man was one of them. This photo shows us Whirling Horse, and he would be involved in various shows for audiences around the world.
He was one of the troupe’s ‘Show Indians’ who would perform authentic tribal dances and songs to entertain audience members, as well as being involved in the reenactment of various famous battles through history between white settlers and Native Americans. The presence of Native Americans in Buffalo Bill’s shows helped to ease people’s fears and tensions in the wake of the American-Indian Wars.
The Niagara Of The West
Here’s a beautiful landscape photo from that man again: Timothy O’Sullivan. This photo shows us Shoshone Falls, which is located in the great state of Idaho on the Snake River. These falls have been nicknamed the ‘Niagara of the West’ about Niagara Falls.
Interestingly, the Shoshone Falls are actually even taller than Niagara Falls, and this spot was very popular with Native Americans in the local area many years ago, with lots of different fish being caught here with astonishing regularity. They’re also just beautiful to look at.
Doc Holliday The Jack Of All Trades
Here we see a photo of Doc Holliday, who you may know as a legendary outlaw from the Wild West days. As well as being an outlaw, Doc Holliday was also a gambler, a skilled gunfighter, and a dentist, hence his unique nickname!
He actually became a dentist at the age of 20 and was pursuing quite a normal, lawful life until he contracted tuberculosis and decided to turn to a life of crime, getting involved in gambling in saloons and eventually using his shooting abilities to lead a life of crime.
Maiman Of The Mojave
This is a fantastic photo of a true Mojave Native American named Maiman. There were many tensions between white Americans and Native Americans during the Old West days, but there were also plenty of people on both sides who tried to get along with the other. Maiman was one example.
He worked as a guide and interpreter for white people in Colorado, guiding people around the lands. Maiman worked closely with a photographer called Timothy O’Sullivan and helped him find some super spots for amazing photos of the Old West landscape. O’Sullivan also took this photo of his guide.
A Miner Deep Down Underground
Can you believe this photo was taken nearly a thousand feet below the surface of the Earth? Miners had to be very bold and brave to head down to such depths, with many mines collapsing and many miners struggling with respiratory illnesses later in life due to all the dust they inhaled over time.
Miners also tended to struggle with visual issues as they spent so much time in damp, dark places with only the smallest sources of light. This photo was taken in the mines of Virginia City, with mines providing the primary source of income for most towns at the time.
Another Member Of The Earp Clan
The likes of Wyatt and Virgil Earp were very famous figures of the Old West days, but there were many other interesting faces in the Earp family too. Louisa Earp is an excellent example, and we can see a photo of her here. Louisa was married to Morgan Earp. The pair lived together in Montana and moved to California.
Morgan then went to work as a Special Policeman in Tombstone, Arizona and left Louisa behind, expecting to return to her relatively quickly. Unfortunately for him, he was killed in retaliation for his involvement in the O.K. Corral gunfight.
The Origin of the Cowboy
We all have an image in our minds when we hear the word ‘cowboy,’ but where did that term actually originate? Well, it comes from the Spanish word ‘vaquero,’ meaning a livestock herder riding a horse.
Cowboys in the Old West were mostly white, but there were some African American, Native American, and Mexican cowboys too towards the latter 19th century. Cowboys needed to be very skilled and talented, having to do a lot of different tasks to look after their herds, as well as being proficient with guns in case of any attacks.
A Very Popular Montana Saloon
Here we can see ‘The Bob Saloon,’ which was located in Jordan, Montana back at the start of the 20th century. This photo was taken around 1904 and shows a few cowboys sitting outside in front of the saloon, relaxing and chatting while the world goes by.
The saloon was started and owned by Robert ‘Bob’ Leavitt, who was a cowboy himself and one of the first settlers in the Jordan area. Saloons like this one were mainly for drinking but could also feature showgirls, live musical entertainment, and card games.
Sipping Beers At The Bar
Just like nowadays, the folks of the Old West needed to cool off and enjoy themselves from time to time. They didn’t have the same modern conveniences and forms of entertainment we have nowadays, so one of the only ways to hang out and relax was to head to the local bar or saloon.
This photo was taken at a saloon in Old Tasacosa, circa 1907. We can see a long line of cowboys, all dressed up in traditional hats and outfits, enjoying some drinks and casual conversation. It’s interesting to note there were no stools or chairs here, with the Cowboys merely standing at the bar to drink.
The Mystical Beliefs Of The Apache
There were many different Native American groups and tribes all around the land that would become the United States of America. The Apache was one of the most prominent groups, consisting of several different tribes all around the Southwest states.
Part of the Apache belief system involves the idea that the Apache’s ancestors used to live side-by-side with various supernatural beings, who eventually began to live down underground and in the mountains all around the various landscapes of the west. The ‘spirit dancers’ we see in this photo allegedly had the power to summon those spirits for protection.
Civil War Cowboy Charley Nebo
In this picture, we can see a man named Charley Nebo. Nebo is standing on the left-hand side of the photo, with a friend or acquaintance of his on the right. Nebo was born in 1842 and was a cowboy who traveled around various states. He also fought in the Civil War on the side of the Union Army.
Sadly, he was injured during the war, leading to a permanent handicap and an honorable discharge. He eventually went into the cattle trade, becoming pals with Old West outlaw Billy the Kid in his later years.
One Of The Original Spanish Missions
Spanish colonists and settlers established many Missions throughout the Old West, many of which are actually still standing to this day. You can find some Missions in cities around New Mexico, California, and beyond. This one is from New Mexico and was one of the first to be built, being constructed in around 1630.
The Old Mission Church of New Mexico is actually still standing in the modern era and is a favorite spot with tourists, despite being quite small. This Mission, like others, was famous for people in the era. It was used as a home by Franciscans for a while.
Big Cottonwood Canyon In Utah
This Old West photo shows us a breathtaking location out in the state of Utah known as Big Cottonwood Canyon. This canyon is actually found in Salt Lake City, the biggest city in all of Utah and a popular skiing destination in the modern era. Even back in the Old West days, Big Cottonwood Canyon was a popular recreation area.
People used to visit here for activities like hiking, climbing, fishing, and camping, and we can see that a nice little town has started to develop in this image. It’s also home to a lot of different flora and fauna, making it a popular spot with nature enthusiasts.
Predicting The Future
Back in the days of the Old West, there was a strong belief in mysticism and magic by many people. A lot of folks especially considered Gypsies and Romani people to have some kind of special powers, with many allegedly having the ability to read fortunes and predict the future.
A lot of Romani immigrants arrived in North America throughout the 1800s and played on this stereotype to make money as fortune tellers. They would often make use of crystal balls and tarot cards, as well as other classic fortune telling methods like palm reading.
The Women Of The Wild West
We all know the big male figures of the Wild West days like Butch Cassidy and Jesse James, but there were plenty of female gunfighters back in those days too. Big Nose Kate is one example; she was married to Doc Holliday, another famous outlaw.
Calamity Jane is another example of a Wild West woman who went down in history. She worked as a prostitute for a time, as well as working as a showgirl and being highly skilled with a rifle. Other female figures of the era include Stagecoach Mary, Pearl Hart, and Lillian Smith.
The Evolution Of A Mining Town
As we’ve seen, mining was a big part of life on the Frontier, but the thing about mining is that it doesn’t last forever. When the mines run out, the workers are out of jobs and need to go elsewhere, and this meant that many towns could grow and shrink quite rapidly.
This photo shows us one example. Here, we can see the town of Gold Hill in Nevada. This town really grew to quite a size and looks quite busy and popular in this photo, but it’s more or less a ghost town nowadays, with less than 200 people actually living here.
Rose of the Cimarron
Rose Dunn, nicknamed Rose of the Cimarron, is another Wild West woman that everyone needs to know about. She was only a teenager when she got into a romantic relationship with George ‘Bittercreek’ Newcomb, a famous outlaw of the time.
Newcomb’s gang eventually ran into the law and got into a big shoot-out, with the surviving members going into hiding to try and survive. Rose went and hid out with her brothers. Newcomb and another gang member came calling one day, but Dunn’s killed them both to collect a $5,000 bounty. The story says that Rose was in on the whole thing.
The Wild West Show Of Buffalo Bill
Buffalo Bill is a name that everyone with even a vague interest in the Old West will know. One of the greatest showmen of all time, Buffalo Bill was a scout and tracker but made a real name for himself in the entertainment business. He assembled a band of amazing talents from all around the Old West as part of his Wild West Shows.
The shows traveled all over, bringing the spirit and magic of the Old West to eager audiences who wanted to see what life was like out on the Frontier without actually running the risk of encountering outlaws and dangerous thieves for real.
Mysterious Kidnap Victim Olive Oatman
The story of Olive Oatman is a fascinating one. She was only a teenager when her family was set upon by a group of Native Americans. The Oatman family had been traveling through the Arizona Territory, but Olive and her sister were taken alive and sold. Olive’s sister sadly died of starvation, while Olive was kept alive and given a facial tattoo.
Five years after being kidnapped, Olive eventually made it back to society, and her story was retold dramatically by the press and a memoir she wrote herself, but a lot of what really happened remains a mystery.
Adopted Native American Santiago McKinn
Santiago ‘Jimmy’ McKinn was even younger than Olive Oatman when he was also the victim of an attack and kidnapping by Native Americans. His family lived and worked in New Mexico. They were enjoying a regular day when Jimmy and his brother, Martin, were approached by a group of Apache Native Americans.
Martin was killed, while Jimmy was abducted. The story then tells us that Jimmy was eventually rescued by General George Crook, but apparently, he’d become part of the Native American group and didn’t want to leave his adopted family, preferring instead to remain with his captors. He even learned their language and lived just like them.
Legendary Outlaw Jesse James
Jesse James, like Butch Cassidy or the Sundance Kid, is just one of those names that people all over the world know and associate with the Old West. James was one of the most famous outlaws of all time, being a driven leader and a ruthless criminal, stopping at nothing to reach his ends.
Born in Missouri, James formed a gang with his brother. The pair fought on the Confederate side of the Civil War and were actually accused of committing terrible crimes against some Union soldiers during that period. Outside of the war, they spent time robbing banks and trains.
Iconic Gunfighter Texas Jack Vermillion
There were many amazing gunfighters back in the days of the Old West, and you might have heard of a few of them, but perhaps you haven’t yet heard of Texas Jack Vermillion. His real name was John Wilson Vermilion, but, like many other gunfighters, he was more commonly known by his nickname.
He traveled with Wyatt Earp and the other Earp siblings in search of cowboys who had broken the law and also became known as ‘Shoot Your Eye Out Vermillion’ due to his outstanding level of accuracy and precision with his gun and the fact that he allegedly once shot a man directly in the eye.
The Girls Of Fannie Porter’s Brothel
Back in the Wild West days, brothels and prostitutes could be found in many towns with relative ease. Fannie Porter’s brothel was a particularly popular location, especially with outlaws, as Fannie was said to be quite respectful towards them and refuse to turn anyone in when the law came calling.
The famous Wild Bunch gang regularly called at this brothel, with many of the women there getting romantically involved with members of the gang. One of the gang members, Laura Bullion, allegedly worked at the brothel for a while before becoming an outlaw herself.
A Native American Member of Buffalo Bill’s Show
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows didn’t just include white performers. This man, known as Charging Thunder, was one of several Native American people who also participated in the classic shows and traveled all around to entertain happy crowds. Charging Thunder was a Lakota Chief who joined up with Buffalo Bill in his twenties.
He ended up falling in love with one of the horse trainers behind-the-scenes and getting married to her. Charging Thunder eventually moved to England, becoming a British citizen and changing his name to George Edward Williams, working as a circus trainer and factor worker in the later years of his life.
Goldie Griffith Was One Tough Woman
We’re living in an important time for female empowerment, but strong, tough women can be found all throughout history, with Goldie Griffith being a fine example. She was part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and was known for her incredible physical strength and impressive boxing skills.
Griffith once rode a horse for more than 3,000 miles, all the way across the country from San Francisco to New York City, and she wasn’t afraid of everyone. She got married in Madison Square Garden and lived a fantastic life, working as a showgirl, a trick rider, and an athlete over the years.
The Man In The Mask
To hide his identity, this outlaw used to wear a mask, but we do know quite a lot about him. His name was William Whitney Brazelton, and he was nicknamed ‘Bill Brazen.’ He spent much of his life as a stage robber.
It is believed that Brazen killed his first man at the age of just 15 and quickly got into a life of crime. The photo you see here actually shows a deceased Brazen, with this photo being taken shortly after he was killed by a posse of lawmen in 1878.
An Old West Photographer In The Flesh
These days, we all carry around cameras and smartphones wherever we go, snapping countless photos all year long, but back in the days of the Old West, cameras were rare and unique, used only by professional photographers like Timothy O’Sullivan here. O’Sullivan was responsible for many of the best surviving photos of the Frontier.
He fought in the Civil War before getting interested in photography and actually spent a lot of time taking photos of old battle-sites to try and capture the fury, fear, and violence of war for future generations to experience and appreciate. He traveled all over the West and took some outstanding photos.
The Adorable Face Of Goldie Griffith’s Son
This lovely smiling face belongs to Sterling Griffith. Sterling was born to an extraordinary mother: Goldie Griffith. Goldie, as we have seen, was a member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows and a renowned female boxer. She married Harry Griffith in Madison Square Garden in 1913.
The pair had a bit of an up-and-down relationship, but their marriage did produce this adorable young boy. Goldie raised Sterling by herself in Colorado. He, along with other members of the Griffith family, worked alongside his mother in opening restaurants and training dogs.
A Wagon In The Sand
Here’s another photo by renowned Old West photography Timothy O’Sullivan, and this one was taken in a place called Carson Sink, Nevada. We can see huge sand dunes dominating the background, making tough work for the horses to pull that wagon along as the wheels probably weren’t turning too smoothly in all that sand.
This photo actually shows O’Sullivan’s wagon. We can even see his footprints in the sand leading up to the spot where the photo was taken, and the wagon itself was home to his darkroom, where he developed his many photos.
Super Shooter Annie Oakley
Annie Oakley is another big name that everyone associates with the Old West. She’s right up there with the likes of Jesse James as one of the most iconic figures of the period due to her outstanding shooting skills. She became famous as a teenager, having spent her childhood learning to shoot and hunt.
Annie’s father had died when she was quite young, so she decided to step up and do all she could to support her family. She ended up being a part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, becoming a global star for her extraordinary talents and earning a lot of money.
An Authentic Wild West Saloon
Here’s another fantastic saloon photo, giving us a little glimpse into the sorts of establishments where cowboys would spend vast amounts of their free time. Miners and soldiers could also be found hanging out in these kinds of bars.
The first ever saloon was constructed in the state of Wyoming in 1822, with the idea quickly catching on and leading to countless more all around the Frontier. Nowadays, saloons have been replaced with bars and clubs, but they’re an iconic image of the Old West days and were hugely popular at the time.
Gender Inequality In The Old West
Gender inequality is a big issue in modern times, so it’s no surprise that there are many examples of women being excluded and looked down on back in the olden days of the Wild West as well.
For example, women (aside from prostitutes and showgirls) weren’t really welcomed in saloons back in those days, so struggled to enjoy themselves and have a drink like the men. Eventually, towards the end of the 19th century, women who were sick and tired of this unfair treatment formed the Anti Saloon league, which was one of the strongest prohibition lobbies of all.