Old West

United States historical travel topics:
Indigenous nationsPre-Civil WarCivil WarOld WestIndustrializationPost-war

The Old West, also known as the Wild West or the American Frontier, was a period from the early 19th century to the early 20th century, when the western part of the United States was colonized. The adventures of Western cowboys, settlers, outlaws, indigenous Americans and other luck-seekers have been romanticized by countless books and motion pictures. Many Western sceneries and ways of life remain to be seen today.


Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.Attributed to Horace Greely

As the first English settlers landed in New England in the 17th century, they developed the concept of the Western frontier, an untamed land of opportunity and Indians. After independence, the United States territory expanded westwards. The 1803 purchase of the Louisiana territory (charted by the Lewis and Clark expedition, along the Lewis and Clark Trail) and the annexations past the 1840s Mexican-American War helped fulfill the Manifest Destiny, the idea that the USA should expand all the way to the Pacific coast.

Completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.

At first "The West" consisted of areas west of the Appalachians that eventually became states like Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio. Until the mid-19th century, very few settlers ventured west of the Mississippi River, partly because Southern politicians opposed settlement policies. The American Civil War in 1861 gave the northern states power over the Congress, which could pass resolutions to colonize the western territories. The southern resistance against "internal improvements" as well as wrangling over the exact route (and the potential benefits associated with it) were the main things keeping the US from building a transcontinental railroad. When the Southern Democrats left Congress, the radical and progressive Republicans took the opportunity to authorize building of a transcontinental railroad, which was completed by a "golden spike" in May of 1869, less than four years after the war ended.

While many settlers went west via wagon train (and more often than not parts of their party died en route) people with more money and/or less cargo usually opted for a ship down to either Nicaragua (see Ruta del Tránsito) or Panama and a short overland trip in one of these countries before heading North on the Pacific side. Illustrious figures of the 19th century traveled these routes, among them Mark Twain (Nicaragua) and Ulysses S. Grant (Panama).

The cowboy was the iconic hero character of the west. Many Westerners were indeed cowboys, though their lives was hardly as glamorous as in the novels or movies. Rodeo events celebrate the cowboys' adventurous lifestyle.

The last decades of the 19th century might be called the Golden Age of the West, and the setting of most Western fiction, a genre as old as the West itself. Dime novels from the 1860s and later often took place in the West, and The Great Train Robbery, considered the first Western film, was recorded in 1903. Due to most Western movies being produced in the 1950s, the West is often perceived as having been a domain of white English-speaking men. The actual Old West had more ethnic diversity than the movies. While most settlers were of European descent, Germans were the largest ethnic group; however, much of their heritage faded away due to the anti-German sentiment of the World Wars. Many African-American freedmen moved West to escape racism in the South. There was also a small population of Latinos present in those territories that were previously part of Mexico, as well as a number of Native American tribes, of which the Navajo are today the most numerous. East Asian immigrants, most of them Chinese, took part in construction and mining; often under harsh conditions. "Revisionist Western" fiction from the 1960s and later years gives more recognition to non-white Westerners, as well as the often-forgotten women who struggled at the male-dominated frontier.

A big part of the process of "taming" the West involved invading Indian territory, massacring Indians and corralling the remainder into reservations, and destroying the once-tremendous herds of wild buffalo that were sacred to many tribes and served as sources of meat, skins and other products. However, many Indians were not murdered or killed in wars, so the West to this day is the area of the United States with the largest Native American population. Many Native Americans (a term used interchangeably with "American Indians"), like the cowboys, are ranchers, and there are quite a few reservations that can be visited today, especially in Western and Rocky Mountain states. See also Trail of Tears.

The Old West era ended in the early 20th century, as enough railroads, telegraph lines and livestock fences had been built from coast to coast, and New Mexico and Arizona gained statehood in 1912. However, while the Alaska territory was purchased from Russia in 1867, it did not become a state until 1959, and much of the state remains as untouched wilderness. Bearing the nickname The Last Frontier, America's westernmost state still keeps the Western spirit alive. Others might say that the American space program is the new frontier.


See also: Pioneer villages#United States

There are many art museums in the Western and Mountain States that show a large number of Western paintings and sculptures. This is a particular style of Romantic art that developed in the 19th century and tends to emphasize the wide open spaces and long vistas typical of the terrain, along with heroic portrayals of white and sometimes Indian men. In the 20th century, probably the most famous painter associated with the West is Georgia O'Keefe, who spent a lot of time in Taos and Abiquiu, New Mexico and worked in a new modernist style distinct from the Romantic style described above but also showcasing the endless mesas of New Mexico in her landscapes (she was also known for flower paintings, etc.). Ansel Adams is one of the most famous Western photographers.

The Denver Art Museum has an entire wing of Western paintings.

Early history

Golden Age (from Civil War and beyond)

Monument Valley, well-known from Western films.

Ghost Town Trail


See also

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