Top 10 Interesting and Fun Facts About the Wild West and Cowboys
Where Was the Wild West?
We can define the Wild West by both time and place. Geographically, it was that part of the United States to the west of the Mississippi River. Historically, it was the period in the latter half of the 19th century and the early 20th century.
Before the outbreak of the Civil War, a common expansionist political doctrine known as Manifest Destiny swept through the country. The principle, promoted by the United States government, said it was an inevitable and divinely ordained movement to claim and settle the lands westward. So we are looking at the land between the Mississippi and the Pacific Ocean.
What Made the West so Wild?
The expansion into the west was no easy undertaking. The pioneers driving the expansion were often faced with extreme hardship, for one thing. For another, the westward movement was not by any means a peaceful one. The settlers forced their way to the Pacific by driving the Native Americans from their lands.
The culture that developed in this harsh and violent environment led to violence, a break-down in law and order, and a daily struggle for survival in the early days. The ongoing tensions between natives and settlers which ultimately resulted in the Indian Wars, with heavy loss of life on both sides and finally the genocide of many entire tribal populations, made the west a pretty wild place.
In this dangerous landscape, people developed a new philosophy which still holds fast in much of the west today, that everyone had a right to bear arms and defend their newly claimed property to the death.
The larger part of hostility was between the natives and the settlers, a fact which is not only historically accurate but has been enshrined in any number of 'westerns' or 'Cowboys and Indians' books and movies.
Top Ten Facts About the Wild West
So, that's a bit of historical and geographical context. Now, let's take a look at the top ten facts:
1. There's Gold in Them There Hills!
So the westwards expansion was finally completed with the settling of what is now California.
And if the settlers were happy at first just to have arrived safely on the beautiful shores of the Pacific, they were not destined to settle down and enjoy the peace. Oh, no.
In 1848, a discovery was made in California which initiated a wild, madcap rush of even more people to the West. The discovery was gold. Driven by the desire for easy riches, close to 175,000 people crossed over from the east to the west, prospecting for gold.
Some found gold and became wealthy. Others lost everything in the effort. There's no doubt, however, that 'the gold rush' as it became known, remains one of the most extraordinary moments in western history.
This was also the period of the long wagon trains, with people migrating along the Oregon Trail to buy the land which had been acquired after the massacre of the native populations.
The Gold Rush
2. Wagons Roll!
Many settlers also travelled westward along the Oregon Trail, which stretched from Independence in the east, all the way to what is now Oregon City in the west.
It was a long, hard journey, and while many folks made it across the country, many died on the way. They either succumbed to illness or exhaustion or otherwise were killed in conflicts with Native Americans defending their land and buffalo from what they must have seen as the plague of white, European expansion.
It is this movement along the Oregon Trail that is the origin of all those images of the wagon trails that we have grown up with in the western movies.
3. Who Were the Cowboys?
Sometimes we are tempted to talk about cowboys in the past tense. Of course, that is really a mistake as there are still plenty of real ones around today.
Even so, the cowboys of the nineteenth century lived a different lifestyle than the modern ones.
The cowboys we think of when we think of the Wild West started out as cattle herders who followed the imported Spanish style of ranching.
The herds were huge, replacing the slaughtered buffalo and many thousands strong. The land, however, was arid and hard and so the cattle had to roam, as the native buffalo once had, for many miles to find enough food and water. The cowboy's job was to follow the herds on horseback, to manage and care for the cattle and to drive them back to the ranch for slaughter.
The cowboys were often away from home for many weeks at a time. They lived rough, camping out under the stars and surviving largely on a diet of beans, dried meat and coffee brewed in a 'billy can' over the fire. It was a hard life and sometimes a lonely one but has also given rise to some wonderful songs and stories that are still sung and told today.
4. Cowboy Clothes and Lifestyle
Cowboy clothes were designed to be tough and warm. They had to withstand rough treatment in harsh conditions and still be comfortable as a cowboy might wear them without a change for weeks at a time.
The typical western outfit was denim jeans with leather covers known as 'chaps' which helped to protect the cowboy's legs.
As he would often ride through the baking heat and dust of the desert or the plains, cowboys also wore wide-rimmed hats called 'Stetsons' to protect them from the glare of the sun. They would also have a large neckerchief that they would tie around their necks and pull up to protect their nose and mouth from the dust of the cattle trail.
The famous Stetson hat, which many cowboys still wear today, would also double up as a drinking bowl for both the cowboy and his horse.
The cowboys always carried guns, both rifles and pistols, to protect themselves from natives, bandits and cattle rustlers and to protect the cattle from attacks by wolves and cougars.
We have said 'he' but the truth is that there were also cowgirls. It's true that there were not so many of them as there were cowboys, but it should be mentioned that the cowgirls did exactly the same work as the cowboys.
5. The Western Saloon
The cowboys and girls worked very hard, as you can imagine and when they landed in a town to rest for a few days, they would often head to the local saloon.
In the saloon, they would pass the time drinking beer and whiskey, often to the point of extreme drunkenness. Gambling was also rife, and there were often women who offered physical comforts in exchange for money or drink.
Violence would frequently break out in these saloons of the Wild West, and arguments were often resolved in shoot-outs. The Sheriff, whose only real authority was often the strength of his own personality and his ability to gain popular support, had a tough time trying to maintain law and order.
We've all heard of the famed 'gunslingers' of the wild west and who doesn't remember any number of scenes in the movies when the good guy and the bad guy finally meet in the dusty, deserted street of a western town, pacing slowly towards each other, fingers poised over their holstered guns, survival dependent on being the fastest draw?
It's interesting that the handgun known as a revolver (and often referred to by its manufacturer's name as a 'Colt') was not actually invented or produced until 1836.
The gun was invented by Samuel Colt and was a revolutionary design in its day. The revolver was so called because it had a revolving barrel that could be loaded with six bullets and each bullet fired in rapid succession. That's also why you'll have heard the guns referred to as 'six-shooters.'
Before Colt's invention, each bullet had to be loaded and fired separately.
The rapid-firing Colt revolver was a fast and dangerous weapon. Cowboys commonly wore two of the guns, one strapped to the left thigh and one to the right in a tough leather pocket known as a holster.
7. The Pony Express, the Telegraph and the Railroad
The rapidly expanding occupation of North America by European settlers brought with it a new tide of invention and endeavor in the development of communications.
It soon became necessary to be able to convey messages and information quickly across the vast distances of the new continent. The first of these was The Pony Express.
This service operated for eighteen months and began in 1860. During that time, almost fifty letters and three newspapers were taken on horseback from Missouri to California. That's a distance of 1,980 miles. The horses were driven hard and fast, and so both mount and rider were changed over at 12-mile intervals.
It sounds slightly insane today, but at the time it was very effective, reducing the time it took to cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast to just ten days.
The Pony Express
The Invention of the Telegraph
Back in 1837, Samuel Morse had invented his famous 'electrical telegraph' which used a device to tap out a series of long and short electrical signals that came to be known as 'Morse Code' and that could then be transmitted through wire cables for many miles.
Once the cable infrastructure was in place, the new 'telegrams' soon took over from the old Pony Express and a vast network of rapid communications spread across the entire country.
If the telegraph enabled information to be transferred almost instantly from coast to coast, the development that would transform the country forever was the laying down of the railroads.
With the advent of the railroads, not only information but now people, livestock, fuel and goods of all kinds could be transported in bulk across vast distances.
The first railroad to cross the continent from east to west was built between 1863 and 1869, stretching from Iowa to California.
Nothing else had such an impact on the American west as the railroads. New towns rapidly sprang to life along their lengths, and the ability to transport timber and stone across the vastness of the plains led to ever faster expansion and development.
Native Americans might well have looked down on the steaming, noisy, clanking heat of the unstoppable iron engines that now drove across their lands and perhaps realised that not only was their culture drawing towards it end but the very nature of the land they had roamed for thousands of years was to be changed forever.
8. The Wild West Show
It wasn't long before the emerging culture of what was to become modern America began to mythologise itself.
In 1883 a man by the name of William Cody but known to the world as 'Buffalo Bill' presented the first Wild West Show.
The Wild West show was a mixture of a theatrical presentation and a kind of circus. Mock re-enacted battles between 'Indians' and 'cowboys' were staged. The native people, of course, were always presented as vicious savages and the cowboys as noble heroes. In part, the wild west shows—which soon became hugely popular and were imitated across the nation—served as a propaganda machine to support the continued genocide and expansion of the European occupation of North America.
There were also demonstrations of prowess at horseback riding, shooting and rope skills.
As there were cowgirls as well as cowboys, there were several women who also performed in these shows. The most famous is Annie Oakley, known as 'the peerless lady wing-shot.'
In many ways, the wild west shows of the nineteenth century were the forerunners of the 'westerns' of the movie and TV age, in which the mythology of the gun-slinging outlaw and the 'cowboys and Indians' conflict was further developed.
Little wonder then that in our popular culture we now consider real-life outlaws such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Jesse James and Billy the Kid as folk heroes rather than the lawless criminals they probably really were.
Buffalo Bill and the Wild West Show
9. The Fate of the Native Americans
Before the invasion of white European settlers, many traditional tribal cultures lived out on the Great Plains. Their lifestyle was largely nomadic, as they followed the herds of buffalo, hundreds of thousands strong, on which they depended for their food, clothing and homes.
While the native peoples had established a sustainable relationship with these herds, the settlers slaughtered them indiscriminately. In part, they also used them for meat and for their hides, but there was also a policy to destroy the buffalo in order to starve the native people into submission and drive them onto the 'reservations.'
Even before the domination of the railroad, the buffalo were being killed, and the natives forced onto the reservations, which were the poorest land and frequently overcrowded, allowing no possibility of them continuing their traditional lifestyle.
Many natives refused to go quietly.
In 1868, a band of Sioux warriors who had acquired rifles as weapons launched a series of attacks on white strongholds. These forts were being constructed to protect prospectors and their families following the Bozeman Trail to the western gold mines.
The warriors did considerable damage and killed 81 soldiers. The Bozeman Trail followed more ancient trails traditional to the native tribes.
But the struggle to defend their land was finally lost, and the invading forces took control. It was the end of an era. The invaders would later, using the labor of enslaved Africans, change the face of America forever.
10. Battle of Little Bighorn and Custer's Last Stand
So to the final fact, which is known as Custer's Last Stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
This has become an iconic moment in the history of the Wild West and in many ways symbolizes the end of that period of the blood-stained history of our invasion of these lands known as 'The Wild West' and the beginning of the new era of modern America.
General George Custer led his regiment of soldiers into the Black Hills of Dakota in 1874. The area was then a Native reservation. However, Custer and his men saw that the tribes wore ornaments made from glittering, yellow metal: gold.
As word got out, the pact of reservation was broken as hordes of settlers came to the land to prospect for the precious metal.
In rebellion against this breach of the agreement, the native people left the reserved areas and made a war pact with the great warrior-leaders, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.
Custer ordered them back to the reservation by the end of February that year. Understandably, they ignored this order.
A band of warriors from the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho people attacked Custer and his regiment at the now famous Battle of Little Bighorn. General Custer made his last stand at that battle as both he and all his 225 soldiers were killed to a man.
But this was to be the final small victory in a war already lost by the native people, and within a few short years of this tragic event, the Buffalo had been slaughtered; the tribal people that remained, dispersed and contained on the reservations.
The period of 'The Wild West' was drawing to an end, and the new era of modern America was about to begin.
Wild West Quizview quiz statistics
A Last Word
I hope you enjoyed these top ten facts about The Wild West.
Before you go, you might like to try your hand at the quiz opposite to test just how much you really know.
While it's fun and exciting on the one hand to think of the old style cowboy life and times in the romantic way of the old movies, it's also a period of history that raises some difficult questions for us today.
Do you think you would have liked to have lived during the time of the wild west? How do you think our perception of the events of the period may have changed over time?
What do you think?
© 2014 Amanda Littlejohn