America was founded in 1776, which was a long time before it became “The United States” as we know it. At the start, the nation comprised just the easternmost states. Spain and Mexico both owned land in the Western and Southern regions over the next 50+ years. Through the 19th century, the Americans battled to finally claim the remaining territory, all the way to the West coast.
This stage of American history was one of mass migration from the East. People traveled across the country hoping for a more prosperous life. Some wanted to leave their troubles behind, while others came in search of gold. The Wild West appears in popular culture through legends and movies, but these fail to paint a complete picture of America back then.
Everybody knows about cowboys on horseback, but few are aware that many at that time were black too (as old west photos prove). Women were very prevalent in old western societies on both sides of the law.
One must also acknowledge the role played by mainly Chinese immigrants in constructing America’s early railways. This efficient transportation opened the country up and helped turn baron Western areas turned into wealthy settlements. Finally, Native Americans played a part by trying valiantly to defend their land.
Overall it was a strange, lawless time in the west. Bandits and criminals ran riot as law enforcement tried to keep up. The recent invention of photography was key to documenting historic moments in the Wild West. Now we shall take a look at defining images from that time. Many of these places, events, and faces are well remembered to this day. These old west photos are all colorized to give an even more intimate taste of the changing American frontier.
East To West
A group of settlers poses for a photograph on their journey. Both Americans and foreigners used horse-drawn wagons like this as a mode of transport. Families took their possessions, then rode across the great plains and beyond to start a new life.
A Cross-Country Railway
The building of the railway got underway. It was transcontinental and spanned from Iowa to the Californian coast. Above, workers can be seen installing a bridge in Wyoming as part of the project.
Chinese Railroad Workers
Chinese workers were crucial for the development of the railway and industry as a whole in the West. Their presence was primarily met with disapproval nonetheless, so much so that whites campaigned for anti-immigration laws. These were America’s first discriminatory laws that intended to reduce the flow of migrants from Asia.
A Sheriff On Duty
A black sheriff is pictured riding his horse in Idaho, 1903. A quarter of cowboys on the American Frontier were black, although their lives are not well documented. This was one of a handful of jobs that hired African-Americans in that period.
From Slave To Marshal
Bass Reeves went from being a slave to becoming the first black Deputy Marshal in the Western USA. He is said to have arrested over 3,000 criminals throughout his time with the police. Old west photos like this reveal the diversity of the Wild West.
A Gold Miner
A gold miner poses with his equipment in California, 1851. The gold rush that started three years prior irreversibly changed Californian society and the American economy.
An Unknown Prospector
Another miner is pictured in California, 30 years after the previous man. By this time, the gold rush had long since dried up. As luck would have it, the next wave of prospectors found silver in the mountains of California instead. This surge of wealth was also halted when the price of silver dropped in 1907.
One of the Wild West era’s most recognizable outlaws was Butch Cassidy, who gained infamy for numerous train and bank robberies. He died on the run from the law in 1908.
The Apache leader Geronimo is probably the best-known face of Native American resistance. During the USA’s expansion, he fought against both whites and Mexicans. He was captured and eventually confined to living on a reservation. He made a living through participating in American propaganda, such as in the photograph above.
Billy The Kid
Having left poverty-stricken New York, Billy The Kid built a reputation as a notorious Wild West criminal. The many murders on his resume made him a feared man. This streak of lawlessness did not last long, as a policeman killed him at 21 years of age.
A Prisoner In Tow
The criminal Belle Starr on the left (later called the “Bandit Queen”) sits atop a horse after being captured by a deputy. This is one of many old west photos that demonstrate the role of women on the frontier, both as criminals and lawmakers.
Annie Oakley’s talent with a gun was spotted when she was a child. She ultimately became a famous shooter due to her accuracy and entertaining performances for crowds.
Olive Ann Oatman
Different native tribes captured and imprisoned this lady during her childhood. Before her release, the captors marked her face with blue ink. She later recounted this story, and it became a famous tale.
A Cowboy At Work
From our selection of old west photos, here is a most stereotypical scene. A cowboy swings his lasso as he rides towards his cattle in Kansas, 1902.
Bison Nearly Went Extinct
On the subject of animals, the U.S army led a truly despicable campaign to wipe out bison. These animals were essential for the Natives’ livelihoods, so settlers sought to kill wherever they found them. The bison population had decreased to only 300 (from 60 million) by the time this horrific practice was outlawed. Today their numbers have risen to 200,000.
Miners Set Up Camp
Miners sit next to their tents on a hillside in Colorado.
A Typical Wild West Town
Another sight common in old west photos is that of saloons and coaches on dirt roads. Pictured here is the town of Tombstone in Arizona. This was a fitting name for a place that staged many battles between police and criminals.
Jesse James fought in the Civil War at just 17 and returned home to head a group of bandits. He was compared to Robin Hood, but there is no proof that he donated any of his stolen wealth.
Born as Martha Jane Canary, she was a leading figure on the expansion of the frontier. She engaged in many battles with native tribes.
The Bull Chief
This portrait of The Bull Chief is from 1908. He coordinated many counter-attacks on white settlements in the 1870s. As the widespread expansion overwhelmed his tribe, he was forced to retire to a reservation.
Wyatt Earp is seen photographed here in around 1870. He played a significant role in law enforcement during the battles in Tombstone, Arizona. He was accused of murder by surviving criminals, though Earp was never charged.
The Oklahoma Land Rush
This is one of the old west photos showing extreme chaos on the American frontier. 2 million acres of land in Oklahoma were declared open, at which point 50,000 settlers scrambled to claim a piece for themselves.
A Child In Captivity
A child named Jimmy McKinn spent his early years captive among an Apache tribe. He actually wished to stay with the Apaches rather than return to his family at age 11.
A Typical Saloon
A few men are captured sitting at the heavily decorated bar in a saloon in North-West California (1889).
A vagrant called Goldie Williams has her mugshot taken after being arrested in Omaha, Nebraska. The picture is dated 1898.
Tailor James Collins is photographed after his arrest for burglary, also in Omaha, Nebraska (1897).
This man’s nickname was “Wild Bill.” He became a folk hero in the Wild West for his role as an actor and soldier. He did kill some men, but in hindsight, it seems that he fabricated a lot of his reputation.
Hunters In Arizona
Hunters take a break in Arizona.
Prostitution Was Common
It occurred in the old west as with elsewhere in America. Because of the laid-back (or limited) laws on the American frontier, prostitutes could eventually own brothels themselves.
So Too Were Lynchings
Here is one of the old west photos that depict the sometimes bloody nature of life on the American frontier. John Heath was hanged in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1884 due to his participation in a robbery that went wrong. Criminals, whether guilty or not, were frequently tried without due process. An execution could swiftly follow without a chance for them to defend themselves.
Did These Old West Photos Change Your Perspective?
Some might view this chapter of American history as an exciting time when the nation captured new lands and expanded into their full form. It was also a time of hard labor, struggle, poverty, and broken dreams. Many searching for an improved life did not find it. These were also the final stages of colonization, in which the native way of life changed forever.
The old west photos here have hopefully shown the positive and negative sides. They also draw attention to the women and ethnic minorities who played an important part in communities of the Wild West.