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Old West

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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.

Understand[edit]

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. While Christian missionaries had settled in the West since colonial times, and small parties of "mountain men" came from the 1810s, larger settler expeditions came with the Oregon Trail from the 1830s, and with the 1849 gold rush in California.

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", at Promontory Summit near Corinne Utah, 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), who both wrote about their respective trips.

The West provided the country with raw materials for the industrialization of the United States, and extensive farming and ranching which made American fast food possible. While only a fraction of the country's population lived west of the Mississippi before the late 20th century, the Western lifestyle has formed the national identity of the United States, with the cowboy as an iconic hero character. While many Westerners were indeed cowboys, 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 (and arguably the first film ever with a plot) 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 classical 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. 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.

Colonization hit North American wildlife hard; hunters killed tens of millions of wild buffalo that were sacred to many Indian tribes and served as sources of meat, skins and other products; taking their number down to a few hundred. Carnivores such as cougars and wolves were exterminated from many parts of the countries. From the 1880s, the government set up national parks and natural reserves around the West. The environmentalist movement gained strength in the 1960s, and has helped many animal and plant species to recover. The buffalo in particular also owes its survival to the initiative of private citizens in addition to government efforts.

The land held by the United States which was not yet part of any State, was organized as territories. A territory or part of a territory with enough population and infrastructure (usually in the form of railroads, telegraph lines and livestock fences) could gain statehood; implying that the land was no longer part of the Wild West. New Mexico and Arizona gained statehood in 1912 as the last contiguous territories, marking the end of the Old West era. 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[edit]

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[edit]

  • 1 Astoria, Oregon. Fort Clatsop, at the end of Lewis and Clark's trail and the Oregon Trail.
  • 2 Sacramento, California. Founded during the 1849 gold rush. Old Sacramento is well preserved.
  • 3 San Antonio, Texas. This metropolis was once a town where Texan liberty was born, at the Alamo.
  • 4 Lindstrom, Minnesota: Karl Oskar Days (Lindström, MN). Lindstrom is known as "America's Little Sweden", northeast on 35E from Minneapolis. The Karl Oskar Days are a celebration of Swedish writer Vilhelm Moberg's Emigrants series, about Swedish settlers in Minnesota.

Golden Age (from Civil War and beyond)[edit]

Monument Valley, well-known from Western films.


  • 8 Dodge City, Kansas. Fort Dodge was built in 1865. Known from the Gunsmoke series.
  • 11 Little Bighorn National Monument, Montana. Commemorates the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, where the US Army suffered a remarkable defeat against Lakota, Dakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors, famously known as Custer's Last Stand.
  • 2 [dead link]Bar U Ranch, Longview (Alberta), e-mail: . National Historic Site run by Parks Canada. This ranch, situated between the Porcupine Hills and the Rocky Mountains, is preserved as life was during the time period 1882-1950. During this time, the Bar U was one of the foremost ranching operations in Canada. Over 35 buildings and structures, as well as the staff in period costume and character, allow the visitor to experience and understand life on the historical ranch. The ranch opens in mid to end May and closes in mid to end September.
  • 3 Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, near Fort Macleod (From the major intersection of Highways 2 and 3, go about 1km north on Highway 2, turn left (west) onto Highway 785 West, follow signs for about 15km), e-mail: . This UNESCO World Heritage Site has been in use for 5,500 years as a place where the aboriginal people of the plains killed buffalo by stampeding them over a cliff. An interpretive center built into a cliff has exhibits on the buffalo hunt.
  • 4 Wounded Knee Battlefield (just east of the town of Wounded Knee, northeast of Pine Ridge). The site of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. Wounded Knee Battlefield on Wikipedia Wounded Knee Battlefield (Q8037403) on Wikidata
  • 12 Toppenish, Washington. A town known for Western-themed wall paintings.
  • 13 Yuma, Arizona. At the border to California and Mexico, Yuma has been a transfer point for settlers, gold-diggers and Civil War soldiers, among others.
  • 14 Hot Springs (Arkansas). A spa resort which had its heyday during the 19th century.
  • 15 Salt Lake City, Utah. Settled in 1847 by the Mormons, and an important rest area in the hostile Utah landscape.
  • 16 Rapid City, South Dakota. A convenient base for travel on to the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, the Crazy Horse Memorial, the Badlands, and the Black Hills National Forest. The Journey Museum and the Dances with Wolves film set can be found here.
  • 17 Denver, Colorado. One of the largest cities of the West, and a center of the service sector.

Ghost Town Trail[edit]

  • Begin in Tombstone on Gleeson Rd, which becomes a graded dirt road. The 7 Gleeson Cemetery will be on your left, a short distance before the townsite. Remains of 8 Gleeson. include a saloon, schoolhouse, hospital, and newly restored jail.
  • Head north to 9 Courtland on N Gleeson-Pearce Rd, aka Ghost Town Trail, which has just a couple of ruined structures remaining.
  • Go further on to 10 Pearce with two structures on the National Register of Historic Places: the Old Pearce General Store and Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church.
  • From here continue on Hwy 191 to see Cochise and the historic 11 Cochise Hotel.

Itineraries[edit]

See also[edit]

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