The American West, whether you call it the Wild West or not, is one of the most evocative settings and periods of history that we can think of. Whether that’s because of countless movies down the years or more modern entries like Westworld and Red Dead Redemption 2, it’s a consistently interesting time.
Even better, it’s a time that coincided with the first instances of photography, and that means that there are plenty of old photos out there showcasing the diversity of life back then.
We’ve gathered together another selection of some of the most interesting photographs we’ve found for your browsing pleasure.
We all know that it was a more brutal time, when trophy hunting was more widely accepted than it is around the world now. This grizzly bear, though, is of particular note, and not just because of how impressively massive it is. It was actually shot by General Custer, who would later go down in infamy for his foolish military tactics.
Before you get worried, as you’ll see from the annotation on this photograph, the horses you see in it are alive and well, merely being trained in battlefield tactics. That said, given the guns being wielded on both sides, it’s more than a little depressing to consider that horses were trained to act as cover like this.
Quite a view
Turning away from that more brutal side of things, this view over the intersection between the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers is extremely romantic, not least because of the young woman surveying it to the left of the frame. In the background you can see some long buildings that are suggestive of barracks or other mass accommodation.
This picture is from Montana, and shows a skating party taking advantage of frigid weather to enjoy an excursion – don’t miss the big shaggy black dog the group on the left has brought with them. It’s rare to see images with families and children in this setting.
Cold weather generally didn’t make for fun and games like the skating we saw before, though – for people on the move it meant treacherous conditions and hard riding, as this column shows. At least they’re all wrapped up against the cold.
A bar in the old West has something extraordinarily evocative to it. This is The Good Old Days canteen from Fort Keogh in Montana, pictured in the early 1890s, in case the mustaches on show didn’t give you a hint.
Tools of the trade
Blacksmiths might not be a particularly common brand of tradespeople now, but they were key links chains of infrastructure in the West, helping with all manner of tooling and repairs, from carriages to horseshoes.
A stained history
Of course, one of many uncomfortable truths of this period of history is the treatment of indigenous people all around America. This image shows native Americans welcoming President Chester A. Arthur, a rare image of concord.
As camera technology pushed ever forward, pictures were able to become less and less posed and formal. This image of a cavalry unit performing practice sabre manoeuvres is a perfect example, packed with motion and dust.
Not much of a jail
Of course, the West is also famous for its gangs and robbers, and its sheriffs and deputies – a lawless time that would slowly be reeled in. If you ended up on the wrong side of the law things could get pretty rough for you. Just consider this jail in Clifton, Arizona, carved out of the very cliff face. We wouldn’t fancy spending much time in there.
This photograph of Dodge City, Kansas’ “Peace Commissioners” paints a real picture – the serious looks on their faces, the varied and eye-catching differences between their coats and hats. These were the law-keepers when there wasn’t much law.
Another form of justice is represented here by Judge Roy Bean, holding a court session of sorts as he judged horse thieves. As the sign for beer might have hinted, this building was both the courthouse and the saloon for locals, making it an interesting dual-purpose place.
While the cowboys and sheriffs might take the limelight, the reality is that most Americans in the West at the turn of the century faced a hard life of work and little play. These workers on a vineyard show that even if in rudimentary surroundings, industries were starting out.
You could probably rely on being able to relax after dark, though, as this party is doing at a ranch in Idaho, complete with characterful timber construction, furs and, of course, an astonishing collection of guns.
Depending on where you washed up, yours could be the only property for miles around, leading to isolated but stunningly beautiful scenes like this one, taken in Montana, with the mountains rising up in the background.
This might look some sort of military endeavour, but it’s actually an irrigation trench in the process of being dug in Arizona, largely by native American labour. This is a showcase of just how much physical labour was required.
Meanwhile, families continued to live and have children, as demonstrated by this group from Mormon Lake in Arizona (we can’t be sure whether they themselves were Mormons – the place name, though amusing, might be unrelated).
As anyone who’s played Red Dead Redemption 2 through to the end knows, building a house at this time took, well, time. This group might quite have finished the house behind them, but they look might proud of it regardless, and fair enough.