The Wild West – where cowboys fought with Native Americans – has been a central part of American culture for well over a century. The constructs of Hollywood and TV have, however, shaped our perceptions of it. Still, these 20 remarkable, and rarely seen, images reveal just how wild the West really was.
40. Death Valley
Gold hunters, on their way to California from the east, gave Death Valley its name in 1849. Back then, the Californian Gold Rush was at its height, and prospectors were willing to cross landscapes as deadly and barren as this to make their fortunes.
39. Rose Dunn
This gun-wielding lady is Rose Dunn or, to those who feared her, “Rose of Cimarron.” Born in Oklahoma, Dunn fell in love with outlaw George “Bittercreek” Newcomb in 1893 when she was just 14 or 15. Just two years later, however, Newcomb was shot dead. And it was Dunn’s two bounty-hunter brothers who did it.
38. Rufus Buck Gang
There were criminal gangs aplenty in the Wild West, but what set the Rufus Buck Gang apart was its members’ racial profiles: they were a mix of African American and Creek Indian. And their operations mainly involved holding up stores and ranches in Arkansas and Oklahoma, with their offences later resulting in their hangings.
37. Charley Nebo
Charley Nebo arrived in the U.S. from Canada in 1861. And after fighting on the Union side in the Civil War, he worked as a cowboy in New Mexico, where one of his friends was none other than Billy the Kid. No one messed with Nebo. In fact, once he shot a man dead for killing a Mexican boy’s dog.
36. Texas Rangers
Formed in 1823 to defend Texas after the Mexican War of Independence, the Texas Rangers became the most iconic law enforcers in the Wild West. They were synonymous with violence. In fact, between 1858 and 1901 30 members suffered bloody deaths. The rangers did, however, kill and capture many high-profile outlaws – including bank robber Sam Bass.
35. Belle Starr
Belle Starr was a Wild West rarity; she was, after all, a female outlaw. In 1864 her family moved to Texas, and it was there that Starr mixed with the likes of Jesse James. In 1880 she married Cherokee Sam Starr and became involved in rustling, bootlegging and horse stealing. She spent some time in jail, and she was shot and killed in 1889.
34. Dispossessed Navajo people
This poignant image shows a group of Navajo people in 1873, somewhere near Fort Defiance, New Mexico. It was taken after the “Long Walk” of 1864, and photographer Timothy H. O’Sullivan has done an impressive job of recording the remnants of a once proud people who were, sadly, forcibly dispossessed of their ancestral lands.
33. Quanah Parker
Resplendent on his white horse and in his feathered headdress, Quanah Parker looks every inch the Comanche chief. And while his attire was striking, Parker was, first and foremost, a warrior. Indeed, he became a war chief at a remarkably young age after becoming known as an aggressive fighter.
32. Olive Oatman
She wasn’t your average Wild West woman, Olive Oatman – as evidenced by the tattoo beneath her mouth. The Mohave tribe gave it to her after they’d bought Oatman and her sister, Mary Ann, from the Native Americans who’d kidnapped them. The symbolism, Oatman believed, marked her as a slave.
31. Ned Christie
Cherokee statesman Ned Christie is best remembered for clashes with U.S. lawmen in what became known as Ned Christie’s War. Events started in 1887, when Christie was accused, perhaps wrongly, of killing a U.S. Marshal. Then, two years later, law-enforcement officers burnt his house down – though Christie escaped. In 1892, however, he was eventually killed.
30. Paiute people
This 1872 image shows a group of slightly surly-looking Paiute people. Still, their expressions can be forgiven, given the ordeals they suffered in the Paiute War. In fact, it’s not known exactly how many Paiute people died in the 1860 conflict, which was fought against U.S. settlers alongside other tribes.
29. Timothy H. O’Sullivan’s darkroom wagon
It wasn’t easy for Timothy H. O’Sullivan to document the Wild West; not only were terrains hostile, but camera technology was also in its infancy. And one of his most challenging assignments was a survey of the land west of the 100th meridian. In fact, this involved four mules hauling his darkroom wagon through Nevada’s Carson Sink.
28. Cowboys capturing a wolf
Cowboys had to defend their valuable stock from attacks by everything from grizzly bears and coyotes to mountain lions. In this 1887 photograph taken in Wyoming, five cowboys display a – presumably hungry – gray wolf that they’ve managed to rope. Cattle’s certainly off the menu for this unfortunate canine.
27. The Navajos
Here, a group of Navajo people are seen traversing Arizona’s notorious Canyon de Chelly. The Navajos, sadly, were the victims of one of the worst atrocities against Native Americans. Yes, in 1864 the U.S. government forced 9,000 Navajos to march 300 miles to Bosque Redondo, New Mexico – a resettlement later dubbed the “Long Walk.” Naturally, many later succumbed to disease, food shortages and conflict with other relocated tribes.
26. Armed guards
This image, which was probably taken in 1900, turned up in a Californian antiques store in Randsburg, California. It seemingly shows a particularly precarious pass in the Sierra Nevada, which is being traversed by important-looking passengers. Armed escorts accompanied them, after all, so they must have had some power or wealth.
25. The Cow Boy
“The Cow Boy,” by photographer and former miner John C. H. Grabill, is among the most accurate depictions of a Wild West cowboy there is – and this one, it seems, was happy to pose for the camera. Such figures started appearing as early as the 1820s, when English speakers began arriving in Texas.
24. Bathing cowboys
The life of a cowboy was undeniably tough, despite the romance that surrounds their escapades. In fact, they’d often be out on the range for weeks at a time, especially on long cattle drives. And that meant precious little opportunity to wash – until, that is, they stumbled upon a creek.
23. The Dalton Gang
Disgruntled by the non-payment of wages, the three Dalton brothers made a life-changing decision in 1890: they would become outlaws. And while they became pretty good at holding up trains, their downfall came in 1892 when they were caught robbing a bank in Coffeyville, Kansas. Grat and Bob Dalton were shot in the ensuing gun battle, while Emmet, who was shot 23 times and survived, went on to serve 14 years in jail.
22. “Bloody Bill” Anderson
William T. Anderson earned his “Bloody Bill” nickname for his actions during the Civil War. And in 1864 he led a Confederate guerrilla band in capturing a train in Centralia, Missouri. Some 24 Union soldiers were subsequently killed in what was an act of revenge for one of his sisters dying in Union custody.
21. Spotted Elk
Spotted Elk, also known as Big Foot, was a chief within the Lakota Sioux tribe. And he met his end at the Wounded Knee Massacre in December 1890, during which Union officers brutally killed him and 152 others – including many unarmed women and children.
20. Stagecoach hold-up
It’s plain to see that this 1911 photograph was a stage-managed affair. In reality, of course, the fear of crossing bandits or hostile Native Americans while traveling via stagecoach was exaggerated in popular literature. Attacks certainly did happen sometimes, mind you. One attack on two San Antonio to El Paso mail coaches, for example, came in 1854. On that occasion, 15 Texans fought off around 50 Mescalero Apaches, killing three of them at the cost of two wounded.
19. Jesse James’ children
When thinking of Jesse James, you’d almost certainly picture a dangerous outlaw who would stop at nothing in pursuit of his crimes. And you wouldn’t be wrong. But it seems that there was actually another side to James. Photographed here in the early 1880s are the two children, Jesse Jr. and Mary, that he had with his wife, Zerelda.
One of the most famous of the 19th-century Apaches, Geronimo was an important leader of his people. Seen on the far right of this photo, he was born in 1829 as a member of the Bedonkohe. Geronimo actually teamed up with other Apache clans to lead many raids in northwest Mexico and southwest America. He finally surrendered to the U.S. Army in 1886 and lived on until 1909.
17. The Shoshone
Here we see an unidentified member of the Shoshone people dating from around 1900. The Shoshone were in bitter and often deadly conflict with settlers and U.S. soldiers during the 19th century. In one grim episode in 1863, for instance, U.S. soldiers attacked a camp in what is now part of Idaho. The event is known as the Bear River Massacre, and it saw some 410 Shoshone men, women and children killed.
16. Pearl Hart
Born in Canada around 1871, Pearl Hart gained a reputation as a dangerous Wild West outlaw. She was, in fact, from a prosperous family and had received a good education. But she rebelled against respectability and, after various criminal enterprises, took part in what may have been the last-ever stagecoach hold-up in Arizona in 1899. She was soon apprehended and sentenced to five years in prison. Some say that she later died in 1955, yet others believe she lived until 1960.
15. Custer’s last photo
This is U.S. military commander George Armstrong Custer in what is said to be his very last photograph. Not long after this was taken, you see, he died at the Battle of Little Big Horn, which is often known as Custer’s Last Stand. In this 1876 battle, the Northern Cheyenne, Lakota and Arapaho peoples defeated the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry Regiment. And in addition to Custer, 267 other cavalry men died in the battle, including two of his own brothers.
14. The Youngers
This photo shows four members of the infamous Younger family: brothers Bob, James and Cole, and their sister Retta. The Younger brothers were actually active in the outlaw gang that counted Jesse James and his brother Frank as members. The three brothers in the picture were later captured after a bank robbery and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1876. Another brother, John, was shot in 1874.
13. Young Jesse James
It was July 10, 1864, when a 16-year-old Jesse James went into a photographic studio in Platte, Missouri. Why he chose that particular day to have this photo taken, we don’t know. But with his three pistols and stony expression, James comes across an image-conscious young man. It would be another 18 years before James was killed by an associate called Robert Ford, who shot him in the back of the head.
12. The Wild Bunch
Here we have a 1901 group shot of one of the Wild West’s most famous outlaw gangs, the Wild Bunch. Third from the left is Harry Longabaugh, better known as the Sundance Kid. On the far right is Robert LeRoy Parker, immortalized under the name of Butch Cassidy. Eventually, all the gang members met violent deaths.
11. Wagon train
This sprawling line of wagons took American immigrants across the prairies and mountains to the west throughout the 19th century. Interestingly, wagon trains are perhaps among the most powerful representations of the creation of modern-day America due to their central role in Old West migration. As the 19th century unfolded, however, they were gradually replaced by the railroads.
10. Gold rush
This old-timer is panning for gold somewhere in California in 1850. That makes it two years since the beginning of the famous California gold rush, which started after James W. Marshall found deposits at Coloma in California. Some 300,000 people subsequently flooded into the state from other parts of America and around the world.
9. On the frontier
Frontier towns are an important element of the Wild West story and how it’s been depicted in popular media. They were typically timber-built, rough-and-ready places with one main street. A frontier town might have had a saloon, stables and a hotel too. The town in this 1903 photo is Tonapah, Nevada, which sprung up as the result of a silver find in around 1900.
Another central plank of the Wild West tale is the saloon bar. In these drinking dens, you might have found men gambling, like those in the picture here. The men captured are playing a card game called Faro in the Orient Saloon in Bisbee, Arizona.
7. Leadville, Colorado
Leadville in Colorado is another town that experienced an unprecedented boom on the back of a silver find. Prospectors here found silver in 1877. And over the following three years, the population increased a hundred times in size to 40,000 – a staggering spike.
6. Laura Bullion
Laura Bullion, a natty dresser judging from this 1893 mugshot, was a member of the Wild Bunch outlaw gang. Born in 1876, she is said to have had a romance with fellow outlaw Bill “The Tall Texan” Kilpatrick. But in any case, Bullion received a five-year jail sentence for a train robbery in 1901 and thereafter led an apparently quiet life until her death in 1961.
5. Marion Hedgepeth
If this 1892 arrest portrait is anything to go by, Marion Columbus Hedgepeth had a well developed taste for fancy neckwear. Still, born in 1856 in Prairie Home, Missouri, Hedgepeth was on the wrong side of the law at 20 years of age after robbing trains and killing people in both Wyoming and Colorado. And following a jail stretch in the 1880s, Hedgepeth continued his criminal career. He also served further prison sentences until a police officer shot and killed him in 1909 during an attempted saloon robbery.
4. Hat swap
This rather whimsical image is evidence that not all the inhabitants of the Wild West were cold-eyed killers. Some of them, it seems, had a sense of humor – and possibly even a touch of gender fluidity. After all, this cowboy’s girlfriend dresses him in her bonnet, while she dons his cowboy hat. This is evidence surely that the Wild West wasn’t all shoot-outs and train robberies.
3. Cowboy Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt was the 26th president of the U.S., serving two terms from 1901 to 1909. But earlier in his life, he’d entertained the idea of living as a cowboy. In fact, he acted on this for a time in the 1880s when he lived as a simple cowboy on his Elkhorn Ranch in North Dakota. But it seems that the call of politics was too strong, and the rest is history.
2. Calamity Jane
Calamity Jane was born Martha Jane Canary in 1852 in Princeton, Missouri. Her father, Robert, was a habitual gambler, and her mother was a prostitute. Both parents died young too, so it can hardly have been an easy childhood. Jane nevertheless went on to become a notably fearless fighter of Native Americans and that was how she earned her nickname. She also appeared in the 1890s in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Calamity Jane died in 1903.
Perhaps the most famous frontier town was Tombstone, Arizona. Its fame rests on the fact that it was the scene of the 1881 shootout at the O.K. Corral. During this deadly encounter, the law-enforcing Earp brothers and their buddy Doc Holliday fought a blood-soaked battle with criminal group the Cowboys. In the course of the firefight, three outlaws were shot dead.