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Construction of a railroad bridge in Green River Valley, Wyoming with Citadel Rock in the background. Circa 1868.Getty Images
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Annie Oakley (1860 - 1926) was the stage name of Ohio's Phoebe Ann Moses, whose skill with a gun was discovered when she was 15 years old and beat a traveling marksman in a shooting competition. She ultimately became a famous sharpshooter in her own right thanks to her ability to thrill audiences with her daring feats. Wikimedia Commons
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A stagecoach sits in the town of Tombstone, Arizona. Circa 1882. Tombstone was founded in 1879 by prospectors and remains legendary for the fights between lawmen and outlaws that took place there, including the infamous shootout at the O.K. Corral.Underwood Archives/Getty Images
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Bass Reeves (1838 - 1910) was a former slave who rose to become the first black Deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi River. He is credited with making more than 3,000 arrests during his career and killed 14 outlaws in self-defense, preferring to bring criminals in alive whenever possible to face trial.Wikimedia Commons
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Arguably one of the Wild West's most famous outlaws, Billy the Kid (born Henry McCarty, 1859 - 1881), left the Irish slums of New York City to make a name for himself out West. After several brushes with the law, including a number of murders, Billy the Kid became part of the Lincoln County Regulators, a deputized posse in New Mexico whose attempt to bring the killers of ranch-owner John Tunstall to justice became known as the Lincoln County War. It was during this period that Billy the Kid became famous nationwide for killing as many as 27 men, though the real number was much lower. The law finally caught up with Billy the Kid, however, when he was shot and killed in 1881 at the age of 21.Wikimedia Commons
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At 17, Jesse James (1847-1882) left his native Missouri to fight as a Confederate guerrilla in the Civil War. After the war, he returned to his home state and led one of history’s most notorious outlaw gangs. Despite being romanticized in the Eastern newspapers which portrayed James as a modern day Robin Hood, there is no evidence that he ever shared the proceeds of his theft with anyone outside his gang.Library of Congress
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Outlaw Belle Starr (1848 - 1889) after her arrest by Deputy U.S. Marshal Charles Barnhill (right), in 1886. Starr's story was widely publicized at the time by the National Police Gazette, who dubbed her the "Bandit Queen."Wikimedia Commons
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Pinkerton's Detective Agency mugshot of Laura Bullion (1876 - 1961), taken in 1893. Bullion was an outlaw with Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch gang in the 1890s, participating in the Great Northern train robbery, for which she was sentenced to five years in prison in 1901. After her release, she lived in Memphis, Tennessee and tried, unsuccessfully, to scratch out an honest living as a seamstress and interior designer. Bullion died in poverty in 1961.Wikimedia Commons
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A mound of bison skulls circa 1870s, taken during the U.S. Army's drive to put an end to the resistance from the Native tribes of the western United States. Believing that hunting bison was a critical source of both food and social unity for these tribes, the U.S. Army encouraged the mass, indiscriminate slaughter of buffalo herds wherever they were found to deprive the Native tribes of their communal hunting practices as well as the food that they depended on to survive.
Where there had once been as many as 60 million bison roaming the Great Plains, by the end of the 19th century only an estimated 300 remained when Congress stepped in and outlawed the slaughter of the only remaining bison herd in Yellowstone national park. Today, the number of bison has rebounded to about 200,000.Wikimedia Commons
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In this 1903 photo, a black sheriff in Pocatello, Idaho sits astride his horse. As many as one in four cowboys in the Wild West were black, though their stories have often been ignored in favor of those of white settlers. "Right after the Civil War, being a cowboy was one of the few jobs open to men of color who wanted to not serve as elevator operators or delivery boys or other similar occupations," said William Loren Katz, scholar of African-American history. Wikimedia Commons
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After the Civil War, the American West was in large part settled by freed slaves who sought to both distance themselves from their past but also to seek a better future in a place where the established and rigid prejudices of the East held less power over their lives.Wikimedia Commons
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Calamity Jane (born Martha Jane Canary, 1852 - 1903), was a famous frontierswoman and scout known for her generous spirit on the one hand and her daredevil persona on the other, as well as the stories of her various fights with raiding parties from several Native tribes. An acquaintance of Wild Bill Hickok, to whom she may have been married at some point (accounts vary). Wikimedia Commons
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A photo of an unnamed prospector in California in 1881. Following the 1849 gold rush and its subsequent bust a few years later, a group of prospectors found silver in the mountains that they described as "calico-colored." With a mine set-up soon after, Calico, California, as it was known from then on, became one of the largest suppliers of silver in California during the 1880s. When the Silver Purchase Act was passed, the price of silver plummeted, and Calico, California was entirely abandoned in 1907.Public Domain
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Chief John Smith, also called Kahbe Nagwi Wens -- which, when translated to English, means "Wrinkle Meat" -- was a Native from the Chippewa tribe in Cass Lake, Minnesota. Reportedly between 132 and 138 years old when he died, he was probably in fact just under 100 when he died of pneumonia in 1922.Wikimedia Commons
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A covered wagon, commonly used by settlers to transport their families and possessions as they moved west in search of land on which to settle. Such wagons were a common sight in the mid to late 1800s as more and more Americans and other immigrants headed into the untamed West as a place to carve out a life for themselves.National Archives
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A cowboy getting his lasso ready as he drives a heard of cattle across Kansas in 1902.National Archives
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Famous Apache leader Geronimo (1829 - 1909), who fought both U.S. and Mexican Army forces along the U.S.-Mexico border regions for much of the second half of the 19th century.
Though he was captured several times during his life, his final surrender in 1886 made him a U.S. prisoner of war for the rest of his life. He would often be the centerpiece of U.S. propaganda, including during parades and photo shoots, such as this one, done in 1887. Geronimo used these events to support himself financially after his confinement to a reservation in Arizona.Wikimedia Commons
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A portrait of an unidentified gold miner in California taken around 1851, during the Gold Rush that began in 1848 and forever changed the landscape of California and the western United States.Canadian Photography Institute/NGC/Ottawa
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Mugshot of famous outlaw Butch Cassidy, taken in 1894.Wikimedia Commons
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Chinese immigrant labor in the western United States was essential to the development of industry in the West -- and led to racist resentment from white settlers, prompting the first major anti-immigrant laws in the United States to prevent further immigration from Asia.Los Angeles Times
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Iron White Man, a Sioux Indian from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Library of Congress
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Joe Black Fox, another Sioux Indian from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.Library of Congress
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Prostitution in the Old West was as commonplace as it was in many other places at the time, but the relative freedom of the western frontier enabled many prostitutes to rise to become the owners of their own brothels.John van Hasselt/Sygma/Getty Images
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Judge Roy Bean (1825 - 1903), the "law west of the Pecos," held court inside his saloon in the desert of southwest Texas. Eccentric to the core, he is often portrayed in films, television, and novels as a so-called "hanging judge," but he only ever sentenced two men to death, one of whom escaped custody before he could be hanged.University of Texas at Arlington
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The Klondyke Dance Hall and Saloon, built for the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition in Seattle, Washington in 1909, had to be temporarily closed down for being "too realistic."University of Washington Libraries
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The Oklahoma Land Rush began at noon on April 22, 1889, with about 50,000 people taking part in the opening up of 2 million acres of Unassigned Lands in Oklahoma. Arranged in lots of up to 160 acres apiece, settlers could stake their claim to a lot at no cost to themselves, but they were required to live on the land they claimed and "improve" it.
The land had been promised by treaty to the dislocated Native tribes from other U.S. states, but like most Indian Treaties, the U.S. government violated it in the name of Manifest Destiny.Wikimedia Commons
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Mugshot of James Collins, a 23-year-old tailor who was arrested for burglary in Omaha, Nebraska in 1897.History Nebraska
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A young Wyatt Earp (1848 - 1929) circa 1870, when he was just 21. Earp was a deputy marshal of Tombstone, Arizona under his brother, Sheriff Virgil Earp, and a legendary participant of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Claiming to have brought down more than a dozen outlaws in his career, he also faced down several murder charges from surviving outlaws who claimed that Earp and his posses shot outlaws who were attempting to surrender. He was never indicted on any of these charges.Wikimedia Commons
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After his gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, Wyatt Earp (seen here in his final years) would go on to try his hand at several different business ventures, including running a brothel. But it was his short time as his older brother Virgil's deputy sheriff in Tombstone that would be Wyatt Earp's claim to fame for the rest of his life. Imgur
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A miner's camp set up along the side of a mountain in San Juan Country, Colorado.National Archives
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An abducted child, Jimmy McKinn, among his Apache captors. When the 11-year-old McKinn was rescued, he bitterly fought against his being returned to his family, wanting instead to remain with the Apaches.Wikimedia Commons
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Bull Chief, of the Apsaroke (Crow) tribe, circa 1908. As a warrior, Bull Chief led many raiding parties into white settlements in the 1870s, but after the westward expansion of the United States overtook his people, he was forced to move to a Crow reservation. Wikimedia Commons
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A Navajo man in full ceremonial regalia, complete with mask and body paint, in 1904.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
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Olive Ann Oatman (1837 - 1903) was kidnapped in present-day Arizona in 1851 by an unknown Native American tribe. They later sold her to the Mohave tribe, which kept her for five years and tattooed her face with blue pigment. After being released and returned to a white settlement, she told her story in a popular "memoir" of her time in captivity.Wikimedia Commons
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Chinese workers were initially hired for manual labor on the railroad, but were found to be highly capable of more skilled work and were soon working as tracklayers, masons, and even foremen of other railroad laborers. Their immigration to the United States would prompt one of the U.S.'s most infamous anti-immigrant backlashes in its history.Denver Public Library
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A picture of Portsmouth Square in San Francisco, California, 1851, during the Gold Rush. Library of Congress
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Trappers and hunters in the Four Peaks country of Brown's Basin, Arizona territory.National Archives
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Mugshot of a woman named Goldie Williams after her arrest for vagrancy in Omaha, Nebraska in 1898.History Nebraska
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Whirling Hawk, a member of the Sioux tribe performing with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show.Gertrude Käsebier/National Museum of American History
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Whirling Horse, a member of the Sioux tribe performing with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show.Gertrude Käsebier/National Museum of American History
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James Butler Hickok (1837 - 1876), known as Wild Bill, was a legendary folk hero of the American West for his time as a soldier, lawman, gunslinger, performer, and actor. Though his legend was largely fabricated (most of it by himself), Hickok is known to have killed several men in gunfights during his lifetime.Wikimedia Commons
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Inside the Table Bluff Hotel and Saloon in Humboldt County, California. 1889.Wikimedia Commons
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Few places are as tied to the mythologizing of the American West as Dodge City, Kansas. Seen here in an 1878 photo, Dodge City was one of the major terminals for cattle drives from further west, which meant a lot of young, amped-up cowboys with guns crossed paths in and around Dodge City — and it took equally-tough lawmen to keep the peace.Wikimedia Commons
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The lynching of John Heath in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1884 after he participated in a robbery-gone-bad that ended in a massacre. With little in the way of formal law in the Wild West, it was common for men found guilty of a heinous crime to be promptly hanged with no chance for recourse.National Archives
47 Colorized Old West Photos That Bring The American Frontier To Life
The development of photography starting in the middle of the 19th century marked a momentous turning point for the study of history.
In this new age of photography, history itself was able to be preserved for posterity as it actually happened and in real time. Now, artists' interpretations and people's faulty memories were quickly becoming largely obsolete.
And as the Old West photos above show, few historical periods benefitted as much from the invention of the camera as did the infamous Wild West. The cowboys, Native Americans, and stunning vistas west of the Mississippi were some of the earliest people and places to come in front of the lens for pictures that survive and remain important to this day.
Capturing Photos Of The Old West
As the United States expanded its western frontier throughout the 19th century, the last remaining stretches of the North America that had gone largely untouched by colonization eventually came under the control of white settlers. And some of these settlers — not to mention outlaws, sheriffs, miners, and judges — remain captivating and historic to this day.
From frontier legends like Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid to Native tribesman like Whirling Horse and Geronimo, the traditional practice of portraiture took on new realism and immediacy in the new age of the camera, during which these two sides struggled for the heart of the Wild West.
Meanwhile, landscape photographs show us how places like San Francisco looked before they became the sprawling metropolises of today and reveal the frontier towns that sprang up to support the influx of settlers from the East looking for their fortune — or to simply escape their pasts.
McCracken Research Library, Buffalo Bill Center of the WestAn 1886 picture of William "Buffalo Bill" Cody with several of his Pawnee and Sioux performers, taken in Staten Island, New York. Buffalo Bill's Wild West troupe toured the world, captiving audiences with a heavily-romanticized story about the American West.
Other Wild West photos show us the lives of cowboys, both real and fictional, white and black, as they built a way of life out west that has captured the imaginations of generations of people long after these figures themselves had passed into legend.
At the same time, gold prospectors digging in the hills of California and madams running frontier brothels all scratched out a living out west the best way they knew how. Lawmen, meanwhile, shared space with billiard halls and saloons in the towns that dotted the trails and rails snaking their way from the settled East to the untamed West, while gangs of outlaws tried to stay one step ahead.
Through it all, the railroad lines carved up the land like arteries, bringing new blood from the heart of the United States. The men who built them and the men and women who rode them to whatever lay to the west became the new face of the frontier American, an idea older than the nation itself and an idea that would see its last manifestation in the people frozen in time by the Old West photographs taken during this era.
Bringing Old West Pictures To Life Like Never Before
Much of the fascination that people still have with the Wild West comes from these pictures handed down through the decades. However, these black-and-white or sepia-toned images inevitably create a sense of distance for modern viewers that live in a colorized world.
It is often easy to forget that the people in these photographs were real and that what we see are the actual places and events that we could only read about and imagine.
When these photographs are colorized (like these above, by specialist Matt Loughrey), however, these images take on a new life and become more real to many of us than ever before.
In color, no longer does Billy the Kid look like a figure confined only to the pages of some history book. A colorized Geronimo is much less the Native warrior we see in some cheap spaghetti western but a flesh-and-blood man who was fighting for the survival of his people and their way of life.
Newsreel footage of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show from 1910.
A 49er gold prospector in color seems much less like the caricature we imagine when we can see the exhaustion in his eyes and possibly relate to the desperation that drove this man half-way across the country in search of a better life.
A black cowboy astride a horse and carrying himself with an assertive dignity reminds us that the history of the Wild West isn't the straightforward story of white men taming a wild land, but a story of every kind of man and woman forging their own way in a brave new world.
Pictures of single women, some prostitutes, some madams of brothels, and even some gang members, represent just a few of the whole host of other, lesser-known women who found a new life in the Wild West and built it up as much as any man did -- even though their stories are so often ignored.
All in all, however, Old West photos like the ones above tell the tale of this era as it actually happened, every picture a testament to the gritty determination and fierce stoicism necessary to live a life in a harsh land that would have faded largely into myth if not for the camera.