47 Colorized Old West Photos That Bring The American Frontier To Life

Published November 6, 2019
Updated December 6, 2022

From the streets and saloons of mining towns to the ranches and cowboys out on the plains, these Old West photos capture the frontier as it truly was.

Annie Oakley
Arlington Motel Wild West
Bass Reeves
Billy The Kid Photograph
47 Colorized Old West Photos That Bring The American Frontier To Life
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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.

Old West Photo Of Buffalo Bill And Native Americans

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, 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 like Bass Reeves 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.

Listen above to the History Uncovered podcast, episode 23: Bass Reeves, also available on Apple and Spotify.

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.

After seeing these photos of the Old West, check out our gallery of life on the American Frontier, followed by the reality behind the legend of Wild West outlaw Billy the Kid.

All That's Interesting
A New York-based publisher established in 2010, All That's Interesting brings together subject-level experts in history, true crime, and science to share stories that illuminate our world.