Certain images immediately come to mind when one thinks of the Old West (or more affectionately dubbed the “Wild West”). From tales of “cowboys and Indians” to grand adventures in saloons, most of what we think we know about this period in history is informed by what we’ve seen on television and film.
Sure, there may have been some truth to that folklore… but nothing can compare to actual, photographic documentation of this era. If you think you knew the Wild West, think again! These 20 rare photos may just show you a different side of it.
1. Death Valley
Gold hunters had to journey through the oppressively hot Death Valley in 1849 to reach California during the gold rush. Many did not survive.
2. Rose Dunn
Also known as “Rose of Cimarron” to those haunted by her, she fell in love with an outlaw named George “Bittercreek” Newcomb at the age of 14 or 15. Two years later, George was shot by her two brothers, both of whom were bounty hunters.
3. The Rufus Buck Gang
Unlike most criminal outfits in the Old West, the Rufus Buck Gang was a mix of Creek Indian and African American outlaws. They were hanged for holding up stores in Oklahoma and Arkansas.
4. Charley Nebo
Charley Nebo (left) moved to the United State from his native Canada in 1861. He fought for the Union in the Civil War, but later went to New Mexico to become a cowboy. He was even friends with Billy the Kid. Respected and feared, he once shot a man to death after seeing him kill a dog that belonged to a boy from Mexico.
5. The Texas Rangers
The Texas Rangers formed in 1823 to defend Texas at all costs after the Mexican War of Independence. They became the West’s most infamous lawmen, killing a great deal of notorious outlaws, including notorious bank robber Sam Bass.
6. Olive Oatman
Olive Oatman’s family was killed by a group of Mojave Native Americans when she was a young girl. She and her sister were spared and taken in by the tribe, which taught her their customs. Olive later would rejoin European Americans, but she believed the traditional tattoo she was given marked her as a slave.
7. Belle Starr
Belle Starr was a female outlaw who was acquainted with notorious criminals like Jesse James. She started rustling, bootlegging, and stealing horses shortly after marrying a Cherokee man named Sam Starr in 1880. Belle even did time in jail; she was shot to death in 1889.
8. The Navajo
Members of the Navajo tribe traveled through Arizona’s dangerous Canyon de Chelly during the “Long Walk” of 1864, in which 9,000 Navajos were forced to march 300 miles to a resettlement area in New Mexico.
9. Dispossessed Navajo People
Taken in 1873 near Fort Defiance, New Mexico, these Navajo people were some of the many who were dispossessed of their homeland during the treacherous “Long Walk.”
10. Quanah Parker
Quanah Parker was a Comanche chief known for his bravery and aggression as a warrior, becoming a leader at a young age.
11. Ned Christie
Ned Christie was a Cherokee statesman who fought U.S. lawmen in a series of conflicts that later earned the title “Ned Christie’s War.” Many believe the accusation that he killed a U.S. Marshall in 1887 was fabricated; despite this, his home was burned down by law enforcement officials in 1889, and he was killed in 1892.
12. The Paiute
This image of a group of Paiute Native Americans was taken in 1872, 12 years after the Paiute War, during which they were nearly wiped out by U.S. settlers.
13. The Darkroom Wagon of Timothy H. O’Sullivan
Cameras were an extremely new invention for the Old West, which only made documenting the period more difficult. Timothy H. O’Sullivan, one of the era’s most important photographers, traveled around with a mobile darkroom, carried here by four mules through the Carson Sink in Nevada.
14. Wolf Captured by Cowboys
Predators like mountain lions and bears regularly attacked cattle, so it was quite an accomplishment when these cowboys in Wyoming captured a gray wolf in 1887.
15. Armed Guards
Most likely taken around 1900, these presumably wealthy people were escorted by armed guards through the treacherous Sierra Nevada.
16. “The Cow Boy”
This photo by former miner John C. H. Grabill, appropriately titled “The Cow Boy,” is considered one of the most realistic depictions of cowboys.
17. Cowboys Bathing
It was actually quite difficult for cowboys to get a chance to bathe, given the circumstances of their lifestyles on long cattle drives.
18. The Dalton Gang
Frustrated that they weren’t getting paid, all three Dalton brothers decided to become outlaws and rob trains in 1890. They had a pretty good thing going until a bank robbery gone wrong in Coffeyville, Kansas in 1892. Grat and Bob Dalton were shot to death, while brother Emmet—who took a whopping 23 bullets—survived. He did, however, spend the next 14 years in jail.
19. “Bloody Bill” Anderson
William T. Anderson earned the nickname of “Bloody Bill” due to his violent nature during the American Civil War. He even went so far as to lead a group of Confederate guerrillas to capture a train full of Union soldiers in Centralia, Missouri in 1864, killing 24 of them. The reason? To avenge his sister’s death, who perished while in Union custody.
20. Spotted Elk
Otherwise known as Big Foot, Spotted Elk was a Lakota Sioux chief that was killed in the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. He wasn’t the only casualty, though: 152 other Native Americans were killed by Union soldiers, including several women and children.
The Wild West is often romanticized, but it wasn’t all about quaint saloons and gunfights that end in glory. It’s amazing how little we really know about this tumultuous time in history. Hopefully, these rare images help shine a light on how “wild” the West really was!
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