When you think about the “Wild West,” what comes to mind? Cowboys, cattle drives, Native Americans, gun fights, bank robbers, and saloons? The Wild West was indeed wild! It was a place where the normal order of our society had not yet reached – there was little government, few roads, temporary towns, and wide open spaces. It was where people had to be determined, resourceful, independent and strong. The Wild West was hard work and not for everyone.
The Wild West was that part of America that was west of the frontier – that part of America that was beyond the towns and farmers. Where the Wild West started was constantly changing as people continued to move west and organize themselves into communities. For example, anything west of the Mississippi River was considered the American frontier after the Louisiana Purchase. Gradually, the frontier moved west as the land was organized into states and settled by farmers.
The federal government considered itself to be the owner of the Wild West – it purchased the land or conquered it, depending on your point of view. And, it took a while for the government to sell the land or give it away under the Homestead Act. So, in the meantime it was available to anyone who was willing to make the journey.
Eventually the federal government caught up and surveyed the land, allowing people to own it over time and establish communities. Many times, the railroads paved the way – as the railroad tracks pushed west across the country, land ownership and organized communities followed. This process continued over and over, until the order of “civilization” reached the Pacific Ocean.
Why did people travel to the frontier? For many, it was that deep hunger to own land. For others, it was part of Manifest Destiny – that belief that it was America’s destiny to conquer all the land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. For even more, it was that desire to make some money and provide for their family. Some people went west because they didn’t have anywhere else to go. Others hoped to make it rich in the Goldrush.
If you want to learn more about the Wild West, consider going to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. The Center has five museums, which are dedicated to preserving the Spirit of the American West. They also tell the story of the life and times of William Cody, otherwise known as “Buffalo Bill,” and his famous Wild West Show.