American Old West facts for kids

Kids Encyclopedia Facts
Grabill - The Cow Boy-edit
A Cowboy from the Wild West

The American Old West is generally considered to be located in western North America, usually the Western United States and usually occupying the timeperiod of the late 19th century, especially from the antebellum period to the turn of the century. It has played a significant role in history and fiction. The terms Old West and Wild West refer to life beyond the settled frontier. This terminology could place the setting as far back as the American colonial period, but is usually meant to signify the latter 1800s in the "Frontier Strip" (eg. six U.S. states from North Dakota south to Texas).


A typical view of the American West's land (and this kind of terrian is partially responsible for this area and some northlands being called "the Great American Desert"). This view is at Kilbourne hole in New Mexico.

Many accounts of Old West life have been highly romanticized. In typical Western fiction, the Old West is a dry landscape populated by many archetypes, including:

  • Cowboys and Indians,
  • Lawmen and various types of outlaws,
  • Gold miners (usually at their gold mines),
  • Trappers and,
  • various other explorers.

Conflicts generally occurred, and still occur, over water, since land without water is of little value in the dry western states. The series of gold rushes in the Old West led to a feverish migration of workers into the frontier because of the dramatic discoveries of commercial quantities of gold. In the history of the United States and Canada, several gold rushes took place throughout the later 19th century, like in Sierra Nevada and Fraser Canyon.

The real Old West

Certain events, locations, and characters existed that are part of the fabric of American history and its folklore.

Events and people

Piegan-Blackfoot tipis

The frontier

Pre-1800s and the Louisiana Purchase

The various native tribes in North America streched from from the midwest to the west coast. There were widespread trade networks extending as far west as the Rockies, north to the Great Lakes, and south to the Gulf of Mexico. Inheritors of the ancient American culture, the Kiowa and other plains tribes inhabited the Great plains. Theses Plains inhabitants lived, travelled, and hunted from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, and from the north border of Mexico to halfway through Alberta. The main Plains Indians tribes were the Dakota, the Blackfoot, the Cheyenne, the Lakota and the Comanche. Wild game was abundant and included vast herds of buffalo (American bison). In the southwest, the Apache and Navajo inhabited the dry fruitful lands.

Francisco Vasquez de Coronado crossed the Arkansas River in 1541 and visited the centeral part of America. In 1776, that the Juan Bautista de Anza Trail was used by Commander Anza and a group of almost 300 settlers, soldiers, and their families across the Sonoran and Colorado Deserts in search of a better way of life along the edge of the Spanish Empire. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 expanded the western borders of America.

The West explored

Early 1800s
Early explorers and trappers
Lewis & Clark stamp 2004
200th Anniversary issue U.S. postage stamp commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Expedition

The Lewis and Clark expedition (1804–1806) was the first United States overland expedition acrros the west frointier, to the Pacific coast, and then back, lead by Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark.

Mike Fink, the a semi-legendary brawler and river-boatman, was an early frontiersman that travelled into the Old West. He supposedly died around 1823 in the Rocky Mountains on a trip scouting, rafting, and trapping. The nature of his death involved an argument over a "cher ami".

Trails, roads, and routes
Map of Santa Fe Trail-NPS
Map of the Santa Fe Trail

The 1821 opening of the Santa Fe Trail ("Santa Fe Road") by William Becknell allowed commercial trade between Kansas City, Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico, until 1880. Bent's Fort, in Bent County, Colorado, was established by William and Charles Bent, along with Ceran St. Vrain. The fort was built in 1833 to trade with plains Indians and trappers. The primary trade was with the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians for buffalo robes. The fort was the only major permanent white settlement on the Santa Fe Trail between Missouri and the Mexican settlements. Emigrants travelling futher on to California may have used the Old Spanish Trail (which ran from Santa Fe to the pueblo de los Angelos). The Southwest Trail was another pioneer route that was the primary route for American settlers bound for Texas. The Mormon Trail was the overland route the Mormon pioneers followed west from Nauvoo, Illinois to Salt Lake Valley, establishing Salt Lake City, Utah in 1846.

Conestoga wagon on Oregon Trail - NARA - 286056 - Restoration
Oregon Trail reenactment at Scotts Bluff

The Oregon Trail was a key overland migration routes on which pioneers traveled across the North American continent in wagons. This trail helped the United States implement its cultural goal of Manifest Destiny, that is to build a great nation spanning the North American continent. The Oregon Trail spanned over half the continent as the wagon trail proceeded over 2,000 miles west through territories and land later to become six U.S. states (Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon). Between 1841 and 1869, the Oregon Trail was used by settlers to the Northwest and West Coast areas of what is now the United States. The California Trail, sharing a portion of the Oregon Trails route, was another major overland emigrant route across the American West from Missouri to California in the middle 19th century. It was used by 250,000 farmers and gold-seekers to reach the California gold fields and farm homesteads in California begiinning in the late 1840s.

Indian Territory
Tipis painted by George Catlin who visited a number of tribes in the 1830s and recorded Native American daily life

Indian country was the land set aside within the United States for the use of American Indians. The general borders were set by the Indian Intercourse Act of 1834. It was more properly "Indian territory" (lower-case T) than "Indian Territory" (capital T) because the name referred to the unorganized lands set aside for Native Americans, as opposed to an organized territory meant for settlement by Easterners.

Other pioneers and settlers
Portrait of Davy Crockett
Davy Crockett

In 1835, Davy Crockett, after being defeated in an election and being fed up with the the eastern folks, said, "You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas". He joined the Texas Revolution. In November of 1835, Crockett left Tennessee for Texas. On 14 January 1836 Crockett and 65 other men signed an oath to the Provisional Government of Texas. Each man was promised about 4,605 acres (19 km²) of land as payment. On 6 February 1836 Crockett and about a dozen remaining men arrived at San Antonio de Bexar.

Crockett took part in the Battle of the Alamo (February 23 - March 6, 1836) and was assigned to defend the south palisade in front of the chapel. The Texas forces of 180-250 were overwhelmed by the 1,300-1,600 Mexican soldiers. Tradition has it that Crockett went down fighting inside the Alamo.

The Gold rush and Civil War era

Gold prospector
Gold prospector
Large California gold nugget on display

The California Gold Rush was the 1848-1858 gold rush, a type of mass hysteria, sparked by the discovery of gold near Sacramento, California. The period is marked by mass migrations across the old west into Northern California. It was among the most important eras of migration in American history, and led to statehood for California. The peak of the rush was 1849, and immigrants of this period became known as '49ers. His Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I, was a celebrated citizen of San Francisco who famously proclaimed himself "Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico" in 1859. Although he had no political power, and his influence extended only so far as he was humored by those around him, he was treated deferentially in San Francisco, and currency issued in his name was honored in the establishments he frequented.

Wild Bill Hickok, in 1855, was a stagecoach driver on the Santa Fe route and Oregon Trail. His gunfighting skills led to his nickname. He lived a while in Johnson County, Kansas and later was a town constable in Nebraska. He became well-known for single-handedly capturing the McCanles gang, through the use of a ruse. On several other occasions, Hickok confronted and killed several men while fighting alone. The Pony Express Trail from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, was also in use aroung this time. It was 1840 miles in length. The Pony Express Trail traversed the states of Missouri and California and the intrevening Utah Territory, Nebraska Territory, and Kansas Territory lands (ed. the present day states include: Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California). It only stayed in operation for 18 months, between April 1860 and October 1861.

Schlacht von Glorieta Pass
Battle of Glorieta Pass

When the Civil War erupted in April of 1861, Kit Carson resigned his post as federal Indian agent for northern New Mexico and offered to help organize the New Mexico volunteer infantry. Although New Mexico Territory officially allowed slavery, geography and economics made the institution so impractical that there were only a handful of slaves within its boundaries. The territorial government and the leaders of opinion all threw their support to the the Union. Carson participated in the Battle of Valverde (February 20–21, 1862), fought in and around the town of Valverde in the New Mexico Territory. It was a major Confederate success in the New Mexico Campaign of the American Civil War, despite having to leave later after the Battle of Glorieta Pass, which was a major Union victory. In the 1850s, Henry Hopkins Sibley invented the "Sibley tent", which was later widely used in the frontier.

In 1862, Cochise and Mangas Coloradas, with 500 fighters, fought against a force of 3000 California volunteers under Carleton until howitzer artillery fire was brought to bear on their position. This was part of a series of conflicts between the encroaching Americans and the Apache. Cochise and the Apache continued their raids against American and Mexican settlements and military positions throughout the 1860s. The Colorado War (18641865) were clashes centered on the Colorado Eastern Plains between the U.S. Army and an alliance consisting largely of the Cheyenne and Arapaho. The Sioux Uprising (1862) unleashed a series of skirmishes in the southwestern quadrant of Minnesota which resulted in hundreds of dead.

The Wild Wild West

PioneerPlaza Dallas 02
Cattle Drive sculpture in Pioneer Plaza located in downtown Dallas, Texas

While the Eastern United States was beginning to experience the the Second Industrial Revolution (which started around 1871), the frontier was beginning to fill up. In the early days of the wild west, alot of the land was in the public domain, open both to livestock raising as open range and to homesteading. Throughout much of the Old West during this time, there was little to no local law enforcement and the military had only concentrated presence in the area at specific locations. Buffalo hunters, railroad workers, drifters and soldiers scrapped and fought, leading to the shootings where men died with their boots on. In the cities, business houses, dance halls and saloons catered to the Texas cattle drive trade. The historic Chisholm Trail was used for cattle drives. The trail ran for 800 miles from South Texas to Abilene, Kansas and was used from 1867 to 1887 to drive cattle northward to the railhead of the Kansas Pacific Railway, where they were shipped eastward. The trail was named after Jesse Chisholm who had built a number of trading posts. Cattle rustling was sometimes was serious offense and was always a hazard for the expeditions. Mexican rustlers were a major issue during the American Civil War, with the Mexican government being accused of supporting the habit. Texans likewise stole cattle from Mexico, swimming them across the Rio Grande.

Dodge City
Dodge City Longhorn
Dodge City Longhorn Sculpture

Fort Dodge, Kansas, was established in 1859 and opened in 1865 on the Santa Fe Trail near the present site of Dodge City, Kansas (which was established in June 1872). The fort offered some protection to wagon trains, the U.S. mail service, and served as a supply base for troops engaged in the Indian Wars. At the end of 1872, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad was crossing kansas. During this time, Dodge City acquired its infamous stamp of lawlessness and gun-slinging and it's infamous burial place - Boot Hill Cemetery. It was used until 1878. Dodge City was the buffalo capital until mass slaughter destroyed the huge herds and left the prairie littered with decaying carcasses. Law and order came riding into Dodge City with such respectable law officers as W. B. 'Bat' Masterson, Ed Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Bill Tilghman, H. B. 'Ham' Bell and Charlie Bassett. The city passed an ordinance that guns could not be worn or carried north of the "deadline" which was the railroad tracks. The south side where "anything went" was wide open. Fort Dodge was closed in 1882 and due to a January 1886 blizzard, the cattle drives ended.

Wild Bill and Calamity Jane
Calamity Jane on a horse
Calamity Jane on a horse

After the American Civil War, Wild Bill Hickok became an army scout and a professional gambler. Hickok's killing of Whistler the Peacemaker with a long range rifle shot had influence in preventing the Sioux from uniting to resist the settler incursions into the Black Hills.

In 1876, Calamity Jane settled in the area of Deadwood, South Dakota, in the Black Hills region where she was close friends with Wild Bill Hickok and Charlie Utter, all having traveled in Utter's wagon train. On August 2, 1876, while playing poker in Deadwood (then part of the Dakota Territory but on Indian land), Hickok could not find an empty seat in the corner, where he always sat in order to protect himself against sneak attacks from behind, and instead sat with his back to the door; unfortunately, his previous caution proved wise, as he was killed by Jack McCall. The motive for the killing is still debated. It is claimed that, at the time of his death, Hickok held a pair of aces and a pair of eights, with all cards black, and this has since been called a "dead man's hand". In 1876, Calamity Jane nursed the victims of a smallpox epidemic in the Deadwood area. She married Clinton Burke in 1891 after the couple had been living together several years.

Lincoln County War
Billy the Kid richtig
Billy the Kid

The Lincoln County War (1877) was a conflict between two entrenched factions in the Old West. The "war" was between a faction led by wealthy ranchers and another faction led by the wealthy owners of the monopolistic general store in Lincoln County, New Mexico. A notable combatant on the side of the ranchers was Billy the Kid, the infamous 19th century American frontier outlaw and murderer. The Kid is reputed to have killed 21 men, one for each year of his life, but the figure is probably closer to nine (four on his own and five with the help of others).

The James gang
Jesse and Frank James
Jesse and Frank James, 1872

The criminal Jesse James was infamous for his activities in the Old West, often cast by the sensationalist media of the time as a contemporary Robin Hood. James and his compatriots robbed their way across the Western frontier targeting banks, trains, stagecoaches, and stores from Iowa to Texas. Eluding even the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, the gang took thousands of dollars. James is believed to have carried out the first daylight bank robbery in peacetime, stealing $60,000 from a bank in Liberty, Missouri. While James did harass railroad executives who unjustly seized private land for the railways, modern biographers note that he did so for personal gain — his humanitarian acts were more fiction than fact.

Western Indian Wars
Chief Sitting Bull
Chief Sitting Bull

The Apache and Navajo Wars (1861–1886) had Col. Christopher "Kit" Carson fighting the Apache around the reservations in 1862. Skirmishes between the U.S. and Apaches continue until 1886, when Geronimo surrenders to U.S. forces. Kit Carson used a scorched earth policy in the Navajo campaign, burning Navajo fields and homes, and stealing or killing their livestock. He was aided by other Indian tribes with long-standing enmity toward the Navajos, chiefly the Utes. He later fought a combined force of Kiowa, Comanche and Cheyenne to a draw at the First Battle of Adobe Walls, but managed to destroy the Indian village and winter supplies. 'Bat' Masterson also fought at the Battle of Adobe Walls.

Red Cloud's War (1866–1868) was lead by the Lakota chief Makhpyia luta (Red Cloud) and was the most successful war against the U.S. during the Indian Wars. By the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868), the U.S. granted a large reservation to the Lakota, without military presence or oversight, no settlements, and no reserved road building rights. The reservation included the entire Black Hills.

Captain Jack, was a chief of the Native American Modoc tribe of California and Oregon, and was their leader during the Modoc War (18721873). With 53 Modoc warriors, under Captain Jack held off 1000 men of the U.S. Army for 7 months. Captain Jack killed Edward Canby was the only general killed during the Indian Wars (contrary to the occasional impression that Custer ranked higher than lieutenant colonel).

Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer, United States Army, 1865

The Black Hills War (1876–1877) was conducted by the Lakota under Tatanka Iyotake (Sitting Bull) and Tasunka witko (Crazy Horse). The conflict began after repeated violations of the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868). One it's famous battles was the Battle of the Little Bighorn (1876) – Sioux and Cheyenne under the leadership of Tatanka Iyotake (Sitting Bull) and Tasunka witko (Crazy Horse) defeat the 7th Cavalry under George Armstrong Custer.

The end of the Indian Wars came at the Massacre of Wounded Knee (December 28, 1890) where Tatanka Iyotake's half-brother, Big Foot, and some 200 Sioux are killed by the U.S. 7th Cavalry. (Only thirteen days before, Tatanka Iyotake had been killed with his son Crow Foot in a gun battle with a group of Indian police that had been sent by the American government to arrest him.)

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and others on the Dodge City Peace Commission

The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was an event of legendary proportion in the Wild West. 'Bat' Masterson visited Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, Arizona, leaving shortly before the famous event. The gunfight occurred on Wednesday morning, October 26, 1881, in a vacant lot, known as lot 2, in block 17, behind the corral, in Tombstone, Arizona. Thirty shots were fired in thirty seconds. Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Virgil Earp, and Morgan Earp fought against Billy Claiborne, Frank McLaury, Tom McLaury, Billy Clanton, and Ike Clanton. Both McLaurys were killed, as was Billy Clanton.

Buffalo Bill Wild West Show
Buffalo bill wild west show c1899
Poster for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show

The frontiersman and showman, Buffalo Bill, toured the United States starring in plays based loosely on his Western adventures. In Omaha, Nebraska in 1883, Cody founded the "Buffalo Bill Wild West Show," a circus-like attraction that toured annually: Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull both appeared in the show. In 1887 he performed in London in celebration of the Jubilee year of Queen Victoria, and toured Europe in 1889.

1890 and beyond

Closing of the frontier

The eleventh U.S. Census was taken June 1, 1890, though original data is no longer available. After the 1890 census, it was announced that the frontier region of the United States no longer existed. The tracking of westward migration was no longer tabulated in the census. This trend prompted Frederick Jackson Turner to develop his milestone Frontier Thesis. Ironically, the Great Plains began losing population during Turner's lifetime and has continued to do so for the last century, with more and more counties falling into a "frontier" status (using Turner's definition) than in 1900.

Cross-border raids
Villa close up
Villa as he appeared in the United States press during the Revolution.

Pancho Villa, after leaving his father's employ, took up the life of a banditry and outlawishness in Durango and later in the state of Chihuahua, whence he immigrated. He was caught several times for crimes ranging from banditry to horse thievery and cattle rustling but, through influential connections, was always able to secure his release. Villa later would become a controversial revolutionary folk hero, leading a band of Mexican raiders in attacks against various regimes and was sought after by the U.S. government.

Fiction and non-fiction

Locations and characters

Bonanza Dan Blocker
Photo of Dan Blocker as Hoss Cartwright from the television program Bonanza.

Famous Old West locations and characters originate in fiction such as the television shows Gunsmoke and Bonanza, and Western movies and fiction. For example, while Dodge City, Kansas, the setting of Gunsmoke, was briefly a wide-open town and Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp were lawmen there, Marshall Matt Dillon and the other regular characters of Gunsmoke are fictional characters. Likewise, while Virginia City, Nevada, was a real Old West mining town, the Ponderosa Ranch and the Cartwright family of Bonanza are fictional. Considerable poetic license has been taken with a number of the actual events and characters such as Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid as they have been portrayed in ways which reflect contemporary concerns more than the historical record. Certain books and movies such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Shane, High Noon, and the novel The Virginian stand out. The American Old West has recently experienced a renaissance period in entertainment via the television series Deadwood.

Western movies

Great train robbery still
Justus D. Barnes, from The Great Train Robbery

While the Western has been popular throughout the history of movies, it has begun to diminish in importance as the United States progresses farther away from the period depicted. Westerns, by definition, are set in the American West, almost always in the 19th century, generally between the Antebellum period and the turn of the century. The western film genre often portrays idealized themes, such as the conquest of the wilderness and the subordination of nature (usually in the name of civilisation) or the confiscation of the territorial rights of the original inhabitants of the frontier. A sub-genre of Western film, referred to as Spaghetti westerns, emerged in the mid-1960s that removed many conventions of earlier Westerns films - partly intentionally, partly as a result of the work being done in a different cultural background and with limited funds.

Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry and The Lone Ranger often filmed near Lone Pine, California, where since the early 1920s over 300 movies have been filmed. John Ford pioneered the out of Hollywood on location western, when he packed up the crew and went out to Monument Valley to film movies like Stagecoach (1939). Even when the story involves Apaches from New Mexico and Southern Arizona, Ford filmed it up in Monument Valley far out of the Apache’s territory because he liked the scenery. In the late 1930s filming started in Old Tucson, Arizona, site of now over 300 western movies.

Western literature

Cowboy poetry is a form of poetry that focuses on the culture, features and lifestyle of the West, both the Old West and its modern equivalents. It is not defined by any particular scheme or structure, but by subject matter. Western novels, or coyboy novels, portrayed the west as both a barren landscape and a romanticized idealistic way of living.

Images for kids

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