Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You

What we know of as “westward expansion” has been occurring since the late eighteenth century. After the Revolutionary War, people began to move inland, seeking new opportunities and new lands. As the frontier moved further west, people began to move past it, exploring and settling what was to them unknown territory. With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the land that belonged to the United States became even larger, and the frontier moved past the Mississippi River into the Western United States.

In the nineteenth century, the United States government began to push for more westward expansion, which developed the concept of Manifest Destiny, the idea that Americans were meant to settle the West. As people began to explore and settle these vast areas, they encountered Native Americans who were uneasy with the new settlers, and the West became a no man’s land of crime, gunfights, and outlaws. With the California Gold Rush of the late 1840s and early 1850s, settlement of the West rose exponentially with people who were eager to make their fortunes. As settlement increased, a romantic notion of what the west was supposed to be developed, a time period we call the Wild West. It exaggerated the potential of the West as the land of opportunity, a place where you could go and make your fortunes, whether it was becoming rich or just having a space of land to call your own.

The field of photography was also developing in the nineteenth century. Many photographers were hired to travel west and photograph what was there to entice Americans to move there, including picturesque landscapes and photographs of famous personalities of the age. While many photographs were used to exaggerate the myth of the Wild West, much photographic evidence also depicts the harsh life of the West. They show the exploration of the territory, the journey west, and the hard work that people who lived there had to go through every day, and the treatment of Native Americans. Photographers documented life on the frontier, in all its forms. By looking at these photographs, we can see a glimpse of what life was like during the westward expansion.

Historic Spanish Record of the Conquest, Inscription Rock, New Mexico (Wheeler Survey). Even though westward expansion began in the late eighteenth century, the Spanish had explored and settled the area much earlier than that, starting in the sixteenth century. Photographed by Timothy O’Sullivan, 1873. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Wikimedia Commons.
Shoshone Falls, Snake River, Idaho. Photographer Timothy O’Sullivan was an Irish-born photographer who is famous for his photographs of the Civil War and of the American West. His work in photographing the landscape of the Western United States to entice settlers to move there made him a pioneer in geophotography. Photographed by Timothy O’Sullivan, 1874. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Wikimedia Commons.
Wheeler survey. Boat crew at Diamond Creek. Photographer Timothy O’Sullivan (fourth from left) with members of the Wheeler survey and Native Americans, on the Colorado River through the Black Canyon in 1871. In 1871, he joined Lieutenant George M. Wheeler on a survey of the west at the 100-degree longitude line that runs from Canada to Mexico, running through states North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Photographed by Timothy O’Sullivan, 1871. National Archives and Records Administration. https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/american-west-in-pictures/
A covered wagon during the Great Western Migration. Loup Valley, Nebraska, 1886. A family stands in front of their wagon as they migrate west. Unknown photographer. National Archives and Records Administration, 69-N-13606C. https://www.archives.gov/research/american-west
A Montana ranch, comfortable if not elegant, and the home of many well-to-do persons engaged in mining or stock-raising. Photographed by William H. Jackson, 1872. National Archives and Records Administration. https://www.archives.gov/research/american-west
Ox train used to move supplies in Arizona Territory. Unknown photographer, 1883. National Archives and Records Administration. https://www.archives.gov/research/american-west
A family poses with their Indian domestic, their young children, and their dog outside a log cabin in New Mexico Territory. Unknown photographer, ca. 1895. National Archives and Records Administration. 111-SC-89608. https://www.archives.gov/research/american-west
Overseer and cotton pickers in an Oklahoma cotton field, ca. 1897-1898. National Archives and Records Administration, 48-RST-7B43. https://www.archives.gov/research/american-west
Photograph of Buffalo Bill, ca. 1875. Born William Frederick Cody, Buffalo Bill was an American showman and a scout. He served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and he became a scout for the Army during the Indian Wars. He began performing the Western vaudeville shows in his early 20s, eventually starting his own, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. By the 1880s, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West had spread from the United States and began touring in Europe. George Eastman House Collection. Wikipedia.
A troupe of Native Americans who performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West posed before tepees. Beginning in the 1880s, vaudeville shows depicting and romanticizing life in the West began traveling around the Europe and the United States. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was the first vaudeville show of its kind and became the basis for all of the ones that followed, touring with many personalities of the American frontier, such as Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane. It permanently established the myth of the Wild West as what people thought life in the American frontier was like and influenced the appearance of the American West in popular culture. Photographed by Napoleon Sarony, 1886. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Pawnee Bill’s Wild West show performers seated in a semi-circle, with horses behind them. Copyright by John A. Johnson, Somerville, Massachusetts, c. 1908. Library of Congress.
Photograph of Annie Oakley shooting a gun over her shoulder using a hand mirror. Phoebe Ann Mosey, who later became known as Annie Oakley, was a famous sharpshooter in the West. She won her first shooting match when she was 15, and she and her husband became part of the traveling show Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, adding to her fame. Unknown date, but probably from ca. 1880s-1900. Wikimedia Commons.
Full-length portrait of Calamity Jane, seated with a rifle as General Crook’s scout. Born Martha Canary, Calamity Jane was an American scout and woman of the frontier who was known for wearing men’s clothes as much as her abilities. She made appearances in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and the Pan-American exposition in 1901. She has become a mythic figure of the Wild West, mostly because most of what she claimed to have done in her life cannot be proven. Unknown photographer, ca. 1895. Library of Congress. Wikimedia Commons.
Black Hills Expedition. General George A. Custer commands a column of cavalry, artillery, and wagons across the plains of Dakota Territory. In 1874, George A. Custer led the expedition into the Black Hills, Dakota Territory to investigate the potential of gold mining and to find a place to build a fort. The expedition led to mass migration to the area to mine for gold, which upset the local Sioux Indians. The tensions between the Sioux and the Americans led to the Great Sioux War (1876-1877). Photographed by W.H. Illingworth, 1874. National Archives and Records Administration. Wikimedia Commons.
A horsedrawn stretcher is carrying a wounded man from the Battle of Slim Buttes, Dakota Territory. Photographed by S. J. Morrow, 1876. National Archives and Records Administration, 111-SC-85704. https://www.archives.gov/research/american-west
Indian Day parade in Omaha, Nebraska. Unknown photographer, August 4, 1898. National Archives and Records Administration. https://www.archives.gov/research/american-west
U.S. School for Indians in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. This photograph by John C. H. Grabill shows a small Oglala camp in front of the large government school buildings in Pine Ridge. American missionaries began establishing schools funded by the government near Indian reservations as part of the effort during the Progressive Movement to “educate” and “civilize” Native Americans. After the Indian Wars of the late 19th century and the Native Americans were forced to live on reservations, more schools were established, but they became more like boarding schools. Native American children were sent away from their reservations, and they were forced to give up their culture and language. Photographed by John C. H. Grabill, 1891. Library of Congress.
View of a Sioux Camp, Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Unknown photographer, 1890. National Archives and Records Administration. Wikimedia Commons.
Photograph of Geronimo, a Chiricahua Apache, kneeling with a rifle. Geronimo was famous for leading raids against settlers and the United States military in Mexico and the southwestern United States. He was a leading warrior in skirmishes against the United States, who had begun settling Apache on reservations after the Mexican American War (1846-1848), so that Americans could settle the area of their homeland. He was eventually exiled to Florida with other Apache. He became a celebrity in his later years, appearing at fairs and selling photographs of himself. Photographed by Ben Wittick, 1887. National Archives and Records Administration. Wikipedia.
Apache prisoners at a rest stop beside Southern Pacific Railway, near Nueces River, Texas. Geronimo and his son are shown to the right, wearing matching shirts. Photographed by A.J. McDonald, September 10, 1886. National Archives and Records Administration. https://www.archives.gov/research/american-west