The Wild West – American Frontier

The American, Wild West (Old West) or American Frontier, was a period that began after the Civil War in 1865 and ended around 1895.

It was an iconic era of cowboys, Indians, pioneers, outlaws, saloon madames and mythical lawmen. Outlaws preyed on edges, trains and stagecoaches and fabled figures like Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hickock, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley became larger than life. Famous Indians of the Wild West include Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud and Geronimo. And, there were the famous boomtowns like Dodge City, Tombstone, Deadwood and Abilene.

The Louisiana buy

“Let the Land rejoice, for you have bought Louisiana for a Song.”

The Louisiana buy of 1803 is associated with President Thomas Jefferson who wanted to gain control of the crucial Mississippi River port of New Orleans for the future protection, expansion and wealth of the United States.

France was paid $15 million for the Louisiana territory which doubled the size of the United States and provided opportunities for westward expansion.

It was the greatest real estate deal in history because the U.S. acquired nearly 828,000 square miles of land for just four cents an acre. Another great real estate deal by the United States was the buy of Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million in 1867.

President Thomas Jefferson promoted mass migration and settlement following the Louisiana buy, which gave rise to the expansionist movement known as “Manifest Destiny.”

Manifest Destiny

US President James K. Polk (1845-1849) is the leader most associated with Manifest Destiny

The term was coined in 1845 by editor, John L. O’Sullivan who wrote in favor of the U.S. annexing Texas and expansion all the way to the Pacific Ocean as it was good for trade and industry and for farmers and cattle ranchers.

Manifest Destiny brought wealth to the United States. It also brought about the forced removal of Native Americans from their lands and intensified slavery as new states were additional to the Union which ultimately caused the sudden increase of the Civil War (from 1861 to 1865).

“Go West, Young Man”

“Go West, young man” became one of the most commonly quoted sayings of the 19th century. People with pioneering spirits forged paths by the wilderness of the untamed West first, in covered wagons and later by aim to lay the foundation upon which the United States now stands.

There was opportunity for people willing to work hard to succeed. Some established ranches, farms and town businesses, others went into trapping and trading in fur, and some toiled and endured in the mines of the new American frontier.

The Oregon Trail

Between 1841 and 1866 about 350,000 people used the famous 2,000-mile Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon City to emigrate west.

The dangerous trail was made by wagon trains by Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and finally into Oregon.

The wagon trains would travel an average ten miles a day and with good weather the journey would take about five months to reach their destination.

The Santa Fe Trail

The Santa Fe Trail was approximately 800 miles, extending from Independence, Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Trail originally began in Franklin, Missouri, but was moved to Fort Osage and then, in 1827, to Independence. Along the route were serious natural hazards and travelers were also trespassing on land inhabited by the Kiowa, Apache, Comanche, Arapaho, and Cheyenne tribes.

The Chisholm Trail

The Chisholm Trail was used in the post-Civil War era to excursion cattle overland from ranches in Texas to Kansas.

From 1867 to 1872, more than three million head of Texas longhorn cattle were pushed up the Chisholm Trail from Texas to Abilene.

By 1890, some 10 million cattle were pushed on the Chisholm and other trails out of Texas.


Boomtowns were usually mining towns where gold, silver, or petroleum had been found. The 1849 California Gold Rush for example, sparked the largest mass migration in U.S. history after gold was found at Sutter’s Mill in early 1848. It reached its peak in 1852 with more than 300,000 people coming to the territory. These hopeful prospectors were called “forty-niners.”

When the gold ran out in an area, the miners and businesses would leave to find the next gold strike leaving the town empty and abandoned.

Boot Hill

Boot Hill is the name of many cemeteries of the Wild West during the 19th and early 20th century for the burial grounds of gunfighters, or those who “died with their boots on.” The graves of Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury and Tom McLaury who were killed during the famed Gunfight at the O.K. Corral are located at Boot Hill in Tombstone.

Dodge City, Kansas

Dodge City got its start in 1847 and is famous as a frontier cow-town, its saloons, outlaws, and Boot Hill Cemetery.

Many of the early settlers were buffalo hunters, railroad workers, gamblers, gunslingers, cattlemen and soldiers.

Two mythical lawmen of the Wild West, Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson served as marshals in Dodge City.

Dodge City became a boomtown, with thousands of cattle passing yearly by its stockyards.

Tombstone, Arizona

Tombstone became one of the last boomtowns of the American frontier. It was a big silver mining town and is famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral which took place on October 26, 1881.

established in 1877 by prospector Ed Schieffelin, it was considered the most dangerous of all the Wild West towns.

The Tombstone Epitaph, a monthly publication that covers the history and culture of the Old West was established in 1880 and is the oldest, continually published newspaper in Arizona.

Deadwood, South Dakota

Deadwood was a lawless frontier settlement that became a thriving mining town.

In 1874, a band of U.S. cavalrymen led by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills which belonged to the Sioux Indian Reservation. Between 1874 and 1877, some 20,000 prospectors made the trek to Deadwood Gulch including outlaws, gamblers and gunslingers. Gambling and prostitution were big business, and many locals took the law into their own hands.

Two of Deadwood’s most famous characters were Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok, one of the greatest gunfighter’s of the American West. He was killed in Deadwood on August 2, 1876. The Black Hills Gold Rush also brought Wyatt Earp and his brother, Morgan in 1876 to Deadwood.

Abilene, Kansas

Abilene was a railroad cow-town of the Old West. Between 1866 and 1889, millions of Texas longhorn cattle made their way there in search of a market.

Abilene was also a point for grain and other agricultural products.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower spent his boyhood in Abilene, and is buried in the Place of Meditation at the Eisenhower Center in Abilene along with his family.

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