The American frontier is not something we know about well. It holds a mythic space in our imaginations. Consequently, it's a place we envision more through the stories of the Wild West than through its actual history. But the real American frontier hadn't always been as dramatic as it was made out to be in films. Nevertheless, it was a dangerous place. Settlers who traveled out West in the late 19th and early 20th century had to live in defiance of nature and the elements, with little to protect them.
Families would ride off together in wagons into the unknown. Sometimes, they'd spend months living in the carriages that took them to the west. They would have to endure mountains, cross rivers and ride through deserts in search of a new home and a better life. Once they arrived, they would live in a house built by their own hands. They would then have to find their own water and food, and set up the infrastructures they needed in their new towns. Some would make ends meet by working on ranches and farms, while others would resort to trapping and trading fur. Some would toil deep in the mines of the new American frontier. Life in the wild was dangerous.
Families would have to endure sandstorms, tornados, and hurricanes that plagued their homes. They also had to fight for their land to keep it their own. When lawlessness rose its head, men had to take justice into their own hands.
Now, the Wild West is nothing more than a legend. Still, it hasn't been that long since the American frontier played out. In fact, it's recent enough that photographs of the families that traveled here exist, showing us a little glimpse into life in the real Wild West.
1. Wagons were used to migrate families to the west. This family would have to live in their wagon while they search for a new home on the untamed American frontier. This photo was captured in Loup Valley, Nebraska in 1886.
2. A party leads their horses across the hot, slick rocks of Navajo Mountain. Captured in Utah in 1909.
3. Riders stop at a Native American reservation. A dog is being roasted over the cooking pot. Taken at Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana, 1906.
4. An abducted child among his Apache captors. When 11-year-old Jimmy McKinn was rescued and returned to his family, he fought it bitterly, wanting to stay among the Apache. This photo was taken in Arizona in 1886.
5. Real cowboys, herding cows. Here, one readies his lasso as he looks out on his herd. Captured in Genesee, Kansas, 1902.
6. Cowboys branding a calf in Montana. Date unknown.
7. A massive haul of 40,000 buffalo hides stored in a hide yard. Taken in Dodge City, Kansas in 1878.
8. Coaches travel down a carriage road. Captured in Pikes Peak, 1911.
9. Outlaw John Sontag lies dying on the ground after a shootout with a posse. Captured in Stone Corral, California, 1893.
10. A mountainside camp set up for miners. Taken in San Juan County, Colorado in 1875.
11. Buckboard wagons cross a river. Captured in San Carlos, Arizona, 1885.
12. A rider in the desert refills his keg with water from a well. Arizona in 1907.
13. Apaches, including the war hero Geronimo, after their surrender to General Miles. The train behind them will carry them into exile. Captured in Nueces River, Texas, 1886.
14. Hauling water across the countryside. Taken in Encinal, Texas, 1905.
15. Men gamble over a game of Faro inside a saloon. Taken in Bisbee, Arizona, 1900.
16. A man, at the site of a new town, looks for a lot. Captured in Guthrie, Oklahoma, 1889.
17. The first blacksmith shop in town, Guthrie, Oklahoma, captured in 1889.
18. Land in a new territory is auctioned off in this tent. Taken in California, 1904.
19. The first house built in Dodge City in 1872. Photo taken in Dodge City, Kansas, 1913.
20. Men outside a crude ranch play poker in Arizona. Circa 1887-1889.
21. Inside a bar at the Table Bluff Hotel and Saloon in Humboldt County, California, 1889.
22. A town starts to grow. The crowd that has gathered is bidding on land that is being auctioned off in Anadarko, Oklahoma, 1901.
23. Men lay down track for a new railroad, connecting the wild frontier with the world. Taken in Arizona, 1898.
24. A gold rush town in Deadwood Dakota, 1876.
25. A little girl feeds the chickens in Sun River, Montana, 1910.
26. A family outside their home. A Native American servant holds their child. Captured in New Mexico, 1895.
27. A saloon on the streets of an Old West town in Hazen, Nevada, 1905.
28. The Klondyke Dance Hall and saloon. Captured in Seattle, Washington, 1909.
29. Typical downtown street of a town on the American frontier. Taken in Corinne, Utah, 1869.
30. A cow carries seven children to school. The caption, whether in jest or in earnest, claims that carrying the children to school is this cow's "daily duty." Taken in Okanogan, Washington, 1907.
31. A teacher and her students stand in front of a sod schoolhouse in Woods County, Oklahoma, 1895.
32. A town gets flowing water for the first time in Perry, Oklahoma, 1893.
33. Correspondent Fred W. Loring poses in front of his mule before heading back home to write about what he'd seen out west. Loring was killed by Apaches less than 48 hours after this picture was taken in San Bernardino, California in 1871.
34. A Pony Express rider on horseback in 1861.