48 Snapshots Of Life In The Real Wild West

Published April 25, 2017
Updated March 25, 2021

These authentic vintage photographs of the American frontier reveal what life was actually like in the "Wild West."

The American Frontier
A covered wagon, the vehicle of the great western migration. This family will live in their wagon while they search for a new home on the untamed American frontier.

Loup Valley, Nebraska. 1886.
National Archives

Discovery Party On Horseback
A party leads their horses across the hot, slick rocks of Navajo Mountain.

Utah. 1909.
National Archives

Fort Belknap Indian Reservation
Riders stop at a Native American reservation. A dog is being roasted over the cooking pot at Fort Belknap Reservation, Montana in 1906.Wikimedia Commons

Abducted Jimmy Mckinn
An abducted child among his Apache captors. When 11-year-old Jimmy McKinn was rescued and returned to his family, he fought it bitterly, wanting to stay among the Apache.

Arizona. 1886.
Wikimedia Commons

Pictures Of The Old Wild West
Real cowboys, of course, herded cows. Here, one readies his lasso as he looks out on his herd.

Genesee, Kansas. 1902.
National Archives

Patten Livestock Co
Cowboys branding a calf.

Montana. Date unspecified.
Wikimedia Commons

Buffalo Hide Yard
A massive haul of 40,000 buffalo hides stored in a hide yard.

Dodge City, Kansas. 1878.
National Archives

American Frontier Horses
Coaches travel down a carriage road.

Pikes Peak, 1911.
National Archives

John Sontag Death
Outlaw John Sontag lies dying on the ground after a shootout with a posse.

Stone Corral, California. 1893.
National Archives

Miners Camp
A mountainside camp set up for miners.

San Juan County, Colorado. 1875.
National Archives

Lynching Of John Heath
John Heath, after joining in a robbery that turned into a massacre, is lynched by a mob.

Tombstone, Arizona. 1884.
National Archives

Infantry Crossing The River
Buckboard wagons cross a river.

San Carlos, Arizona. 1885.
National Archives

Rider Fills His Keg
A rider in the desert refills his keg with water from a well.

Arizona. 1907.
National Archives

Apache Indian Prisoners
Apaches, including the war hero Geronimo, after their surrender to General Miles. The train behind them will carry them into exile.

Nueces River, Texas. 1886
National Archives

Horses Water
Hauling water across the countryside.

Encinal, Texas. 1905.
National Archives

Pictures From The American Frontier
Men gamble over a game of Faro inside a saloon.

Bisbee, Arizona. 1900.
Wikimedia Commons

Looking For A Lot
A man, at the site of a new town, looks for a lot.

Guthrie, Oklahoma. 1889.
National Archives

Guthrie First Blacksmith Shop
The first blacksmith shop in town.

Guthrie, Oklahoma. 1889.
National Archives

Auction Sale Of Lots
Land in a new territory is auctioned off in this tent.

California. 1904.
National Archives

Dodge First Sod House
The first house built in Dodge City, a sod home built in 1872.

Dodge City, Kansas. 1913.
Wikimedia Commons

Arizona Poker Game
Men outside a crude ranch play poker.

Arizona. Circa 1887-1889.
National Archives

Kinman Bar
Inside a bar at the Table Bluff Hotel and Saloon.

Humboldt County, California. 1889.
Wikimedia Commons

Anadarko Townsite Growing
A town starts to grow. The crowd that has gathered is bidding on land that is being auctioned off.

Anadarko, Oklahoma. 1901.
National Archives

Laying Track For Trains
Men lay down track for a new railroad, connecting the wild frontier with the world.

Arizona. 1898.
National Archives

Deadwood In 1876
A gold rush town in Dakota.

Deadwood, Dakota. 1876.
National Archives

Hanock Homestead Feeding Chickens
A little girl feeds the chickens.

Sun River, Montana. 1910.
National Archives

Family With Indian Servant
A family outside their home. A Native American servant holds their child.

New Mexico. 1895.
National Archives

Saloon Shadows American Frontier
A saloon on the streets of an Old West town.

Hazen, Nevada. 1905.
National Archives

Klondyke Dance Hall
The Klondyke Dance Hall and saloon.

Seattle, Washington. 1909.
Wikimedia Commons

American Frontier Hardware
Typical downtown street of a town on the American frontier.

Corinne, Utah. 1869.
National Archives

Cow Takes Kids To School
A cow carries seven children to school. The caption, whether in jest or in earnest, claims that carrying the children to school is this cow's "daily duty."

Okanogan, Washington. 1907.
National Archives

Children Schoolhouse
A teacher and her students stand in front of a sod schoolhouse.

Woods County, Oklahoma. 1895.
National Archives

Perry Water Works
A town gets flowing water for the first time.

Perry, Oklahoma. 1893.
National Archives

Fred Loring Before Death
Correspondent Fred W. Loring poses in front of his mule before heading back home to write about what he'd seen out west.

Loring was killed by Apaches less than 48 hours after this picture was taken.

San Bernadino, California. 1871.
National Archives

Pony Express Rider
A Pony Express rider on horseback.

National Archives

Cowboy River Crossing
Cowboys herd cattle across a river.

Missouri. 1910.
Wikimedia Commons

Trappers And Hunters
A group of trappers and hunters outside their cabin.

Brown's Basin, Arizona. 1908.
National Archives

Mine Workers In Shaft
Mine workers coming out of the mine shaft.

Virginia City, Nevada. Circa 1867-1888.
National Archives

Champagne Corking
Men cork champagne at the Buena Vista Vinicultural Society.

Sonoma, California. Circa 1870-1879.
National Archives

Chinese Fishing Camp
A fishing camp set up by some Chinese settlers of the American frontier.

Point San Pedro, California. 1889.
National Archives

Shoshone Indians On Reservation
Shoshone tribe members dance on a Native American reservation while soldiers look on.

Ft. Washakie, Wyoming. 1892.
National Archives

Apache Indians Deliver Hay
Apaches deliver hay to American settlers.

Fort Apache, Arizona. 1893.
National Archives

Indian Training School Blacksmiths
An Indian Training School teaches blacksmithing.

Forest Grove, Oregon. 1882.
National Archives

Judge Roy Bean Building
Judge Roy Bean's courthouse, which doubled as a saloon.

Langtry, Texas. 1900.
National Archives

Cheyenne Indian Prisoners
Cheyenne natives, after trying to escape from their reservation and return to their home land, are held prisoner.

Kansas. 1879.
Wikimedia Commons

Execution Of A Soldier
The execution of a man on the gallows.

Prescott, Arizona. 1877.
National Archives

Us Deputy Marhsalls
U.S. Deputy Marshalls pose with the clerical force.

Perry, Oklahoma. 1893.
National Archives

Sandstorm Over Midland Texas
A sand storm moves across farmland.

Midland, Texas. 1894.
National Archives

The American frontier holds a mythic space in our imaginations. And because of that, it's a place we envision more through the stories of the Wild West than through its actual history.

The real American frontier wasn't always as dramatic as it's made out to be in films, but it was a dangerous place, an untamed land. The settlers who traveled out West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had to live in defiance of nature and the elements without the comforts of civilization.

Whole families would gather together in wagons and ride off into the unknown, sometimes spending months living in the carriages that pulled them westward. Men, women, and children alike would endure as they crossed over mountains, across rivers, and through deserts in search of a new home and a better life.

When they arrived, they lived in houses built with their own two hands. They had to fend for water and food on their own and set up the very infrastructures of their new towns. Some made their way by working on ranches and farms, others by trapping and trading fur, and some by toiling deep in the mines of the new American frontier.

Life was full of dangers. Sandstorms, tornados, and hurricanes plagued their ramshackle homes. The natives of the land fought to keep it their own. And when lawlessness rose its head, men had to take justice into their own hands.

Wild West has become a legend, but the real world of the American frontier played out just a short time ago. It's recent enough that we even have photographs of the families that traveled out and the lives they made, little glimpses into life in the real Wild West.

Next, learn about the most iconic men and women of the Wild West and see the newly unearthed photo of Billy the Kid, just the second of its kind in existence.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer, teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked, and can be found on his website.