While we may have seen depictions of the Old West in movies and TV, we can’t help but wonder what the lawless frontier was actually like. Luckily, the legacy of the Wild West lives on with these incredible rare photos we’ve uncovered.
The Death Valley ’49ers
It all started when James W. Marshall and his crew found gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. After that, the race was on as tens of thousands of hopefuls know as the “Death Valley ’49ers,” travelled across the desert, using wagons and oxen to search for gold.
For cowboys in the Old West, protecting farmland and cattle could mean the difference between life and death. This photo shows the capture of a wolf in 1887. By 1900, frontiersmen wiped out almost every single wolf from Texas to North Dakota.
Seth Bullock – Sheriff Of Deadwood
With this powerful mustache, it’s no surprise that Seth Bullock was famous for his toughness. As the Sheriff of the infamous illegal settlement of Deadwood in South Dakota, Bullock enforced the law with an iron fist, and would later go on to serve in Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Bullock died of cancer in 1919 and was buried on Sheep Mountain, now called Mount Roosevelt. His legacy still lives on today, as his law-enforcing character is portrayed in the HBO series Deadwood.
Annie Oakley – Skilled Sharpshooter
Winning a shooting competition at Frank Butler’s traveling marksman show at just 15 years old, Annie Oakley made a name for herself as rugged gunslinging sharpshooter who was not afraid to give the boys a run for their money. She would go on to marry Frank Butler a year after the competition. Together they joined the famous Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, where she rose to international fame for her incredible talent. Oakley died in 1926 at the age of 66.
Jesse James – Notorious Outlaw
Jesse James was no stranger to violence and the outlaw lifestyle. Initially a guerrilla fighter for the Confederates during the Civil War, James would move on to become a notorious gangster in the Wild West. James, together with his brother Frank, became leaders of the famous James-Younger gang, where they carried out bank, train, and stage coach robberies. In 1882, James was murdered in an act of betrayal by Robert Ford, a member of his own gang who received a reward for the killing.
Geronimo – Fearless Apache Leader
Geronimo was born in 1829 and died in 1909. As the Native American leader of the fierce Apache tribe, Geronimo became famous for leading raids against the more-advanced American and Mexican militaries. Some of Geronimo’s loyal followers believed that the mighty leader possessed supernatural powers including the ability to heal the sick, slow time, avoid bullets, bring on rainstorms, and witness events over great distances. Perhaps these powers were the reason it took nearly a quarter of US forces to hunt him down and capture him in 1886.
Masterson And Earp – Wild West Enforcers
Bat Masterson, a Canadian-born American hero, earned a living as a gambler, U.S. Army scout, hunter, Sheriff, U.S. Marshal, Journalist, and Gunfighter. Masterson met Wyatt Earp in Dodge City and the two formed an alliance as lawmen. Earp became famous for a gunfight at the OK Corral, which started a back-and-forth war against a gang of outlaws who would later take revenge on Earp, killing one of his brothers and maiming another. This photo was taken in 1876, at the peak of the duo’s careers as lawmen.
The Short Reign Of The Rufus Buck Gang
The Rufus Buck Gang was a multiracial group of African American and Native American outlaws, notorious for a series of murders, robberies, and assaults. Operating in the Indian Territory of he Arkansas-Oklahoma area from 1895 to 1896, the gang was made up of founder Rufus Buck, Lucky Davis, Maoma July, Lewis Davis, and Sam Sampson. Their first known crime was the murder of US Deputy Marshal John Garrett in July 1895. By 1896 the gang had been captured, sentenced and hanged for their crimes.
Rose Dunn – Conflict Of Interest
Rose Dunn, AKA Rose of Cimarron, was born in 1878 in Ingalls, Oklahoma. Having two brothers who left the outlaw life to become bounty hunters, and an infamous relationship with well-known outlaw George “Bittercreek” Newcomb, Dunn was caught in the middle of some serious real-life drama. Newcomb, a Wild Bunch gang-member, was killed by Dunn’s brothers in 1895. Following their death, speculations arose that Rose was involved in the killing of Newcomb. She denied the accusations and her brothers defended her, stating she had no involvement.
Curly – Survivor Of Custer’s Last Stand
During The Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as “Custer’s Last Stand,” American forces were annihilated under the command of George Custer. Custer was a great military leader and his death was a surprise to many. Curly was the lone survivor of the battle and became famous after the fact. While his level of involvement has been interpreted in different ways, he denied ever having actually fought in the battle. He watched from a distance and was the first to report of the American defeat.
Chief Joseph – Nes Perce Tribe Leader
Chief Joseph was the leader of Native American tribe Nez Perce and was famous for leading a 1,170 mile fighting retreat known as the Nez Perce War. As extreme underdogs, the 700 men women and children that joined Chief Joseph in the journey to the Canadian border earned wide-spread praise and admiration from their military opponents and the American public for their efforts in the face of adversity. Unfortunately, they were stopped just 40 miles shy of their destination in 1877.
Olive Oatman – Kidnapped By The Mohave Tribe
Olive Oatman was born in 1837 and grew up in Illinois. At the age of fourteen, most members of her family were murdered by Native Americans. The only survivors were Oatman and her sister Mary Ann, who were taken to be slaves, and her brother Lorenzo, who was clubbed and left for dead. After five years living as a Mohave slave, the sisters were released. This photo shows Oatman with a tattoo, given to her by the Mohave tribe to wish her luck in the afterlife.
Kit Carson – Famous Frontiersman
Born in December 1809, Christopher Houston Carson, AKA Kit Carson, was considered by many to be the ultimate frontiersman. Carson mastered the art of fending for himself on the fringes of society in wild and unsettled territories. As a mountain man, explorer, trader, guide, U.S. Army Officer, and Indian Agent, Carson sealed his legacy as an iconic figure of the Old West. This photo was believed to be taken around 1850. Carson lived to the age of 58 and died in Colorado.
Tiburcio Vasquez – Hispanic Outlaw
Tiburcio Vasquez was a hispanic outlaw, active in California from 1854 to 1874. His career as a criminal began in 1854, when he was simply present during a fight that killed Monterey Constable William Hardmount. Vasquez then denied involvement and fled. Two years later he was caught and imprisoned for five years, where lead four separate prison breaks that left 20 convicts dead. After his release, Vasquez carried on as an outlaw, robbing and stealing, ultimately becoming one of the most notorious hispanic outlaws of all time.
Ned Christie – Indian On The Run
Ned Christie was not your typical outlaw. As a member of the executive council in the Cherokee Nation senate, Christie served as an advisor to Chief Dennis Bushyhead. After being falsely accused of murder, Christie became famous for his resistance efforts against the men trying to capture him. In 1892, a group of lawmen attacked Christie’s fort and killed Christie. Eventually in 1918, Dick Humphreys came forward with an eye-witness account of the murder Christie was accused of, clearing Christie of any murder charges.
Belle Starr – Bandit Queen
Belle Starr, born Myra Maybelle Shirley Reed Starr in February 1848, was a notorious outlaw of the Old West. Referred to by some as “The Bandit Queen,” Starr had well-known relationships and marriages with many outlaws like Cole Younger, Jim Reed, and Sam Starr. Having been associated with the James-Younger gang, Starr was convicted of horse theft in 1883 and fatally shot in 1889. The circumstances of her murder are still unclear and the case remains unsolved to this day.
Elk And Black Elk – Native American Warriors
This photo displays two famous Native Americans – Black Elk on the left and Elk on the right. Black Elk took part in the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876 as well as the Battle of Wounded Knee fourteen years later. Between the fighting, Black Elk toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, performing in London for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. In his later years, Black Elk converted to Christianity and worked with writer John Neihardt to publish his story, “Black Elk Speaks.”
John Horton Slaughter, AKA Texas John Slaughter was a famous lawman, cowboy, poker player, and rancher. After serving the Confederate Army in the Civil War, Slaughter became a cattle driver and with his brother, formed the San Antonio Ranch Company. He would later purchase the San Bernardino Ranch. In 1886, Slaughter became a lawman, helping in efforts to catch Geronimo as well as the Jack Taylor Gang. This photo was taken around 1885 and shows Slaughter’s men, referred to as Slaughter’s Cowboys.
Johnny Ringo – Running From The Law
Johnny Ringo, born John Peters Ringo, was an American outlaw born in 1850. In Ringo’s youth, his father accidentally killed himself stepping out of a wagon while holding a shotgun. During the Mason County War, Ringo committed his first murder and was arrested but escaped from jail. Later in life, Ringo was accused of involvement in the murder of Morgan Earp and attempted murder of Virgil Earp. He was found dead in 1882 with a bullet in his head. His mysterious death was ruled a suicide.
The Apache Kid – Fierce Apache Warrior
With his Indian name translating to ‘the tall man destined to come to a mysterious end,’ The Apache Kid was known by many to be one of the fiercest Apache, second only to Geronimo. He began as a While Mountain Apache scout, where he fought off raiding bands of Apaches that bothered and harassed the early settlers. He later went off on his own became a notorious renegade in Arizona and New Mexico during the late 19th and possibly early 20th centuries.
Zip Wyatt – Outlaw ‘Til Death
Zip Wyatt was born Nathaniel Ellsworth Wyatt, and also went by the aliases Wild Charlie and Dick Yeager. His father, known as ‘Old Six-Shooter Bill,’ had a well-known reputation for misbehavior and was frequently arrested for disorderly conduct in his hometown of Guthrie, Oklahoma. His brother, known as ‘Six-Shooter Jack,’ was a professional gambler. Wyatt’s career as an outlaw began in 1891, when he shot and wounded two citizens in Mulhall. Wyatt went on the run, living the outlaw lifestyle until his capture and death in 1895.
Cole Younger – Confederate Guerrilla Fighter
Thomas Coleman “Cole” Younger became an American Confederate guerrilla fighter after his father, a Union supporter, was shot dead by another Union soldier from Kansas. Younger sought revenge and became a bushwhacker during the Civil War. After the war, younger became an outlaw, joining the James-Younger game with his brothers. They robbed banks, trains, and stage coaches until being caught on September 7, 1876. Younger and his brothers pleaded guilty in an attempt to avoid the death penalty and were later let out on parole.
The Long Walk Of The Navajo
In 1864, Navajo people were forced to walk 300 miles over 2 months from their land in what is now Arizona to eastern New Mexico. The decision was made by the United States’ government in response to fighting between the Navajos and Americans of Europeans descent wanting to settle Navajo lands. More than 8500 men women and children made the journey in the dead of winter to the Bosque Redondo Reservation. About 200 Navajos died from starvation and exposure to the elements.
Charley Nebo – Righteous Cowboy
Charley Nebo, seen here on the left, lived in Canada until 1861, when he moved to Saginaw, Michigan. He fought with Union forces during the Civil War and later became a cowboy in New Mexico, where he befriended Billy the Kid. He would later write in a letter about Kid, “He wasn’t the ruthless bad fellow that Western history has made him out to be.” As a well-respected cowboy, Nebo once shot a man after witnessing him kill a Mexican boy’s dog.
Doc Holliday – Dentist And Deputy Marshall
Doc Holliday was born in 1851 with the name John Henry and received a dental degree at the age of 21. He was unfortunately diagnosed with Tuberculosis that same year. Before the illness got the best of him in, Holliday was a renowned dentist, gambler, and gunfighter. As a close friend of Wyatt Earp, Holliday was famous for taking part in Earp’s ‘Vendetta Ride’ following the events surrounding the gunfight at the OK Corral and murder and maiming of Earp’s brothers.
Quanah Parker – Last Chief Of The Comanche
Quanah Parker was a famous Comanche war leader. Parker’s father was a Comanche chief and his mother was an Anglo-American, kidnapped as a child who assimilated into the tribe. Parker clashed with Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie during the Red River War, before eventually surrendering and leading the tribe to the Fort Sill reservation in Oklahoma. While he was never elected chief by his tribe, the federal government appointed him principal chief of the Comanche nation and he is described as the “Last Chief of the Comanche.”
Butch Cassidy – Wild Bunch Leader
Robert Leroy Parker, AKA Butch Cassidy, became famous as leader of the Wild Bunch. The gang was notorious for train and bank robberies at the end of the 19th century. In 1901, after the gang had split up and Cassidy been on the run for years, he fled to South America with fellow gang member Harry Alonzo Longabaugh and female companion Etta Place. Cassidy is believed to have been killed by police and military forces in southern Bolivia in 1908. There were, however, rumors of his survival.
Billy The Kid – Live Fast, Die Young
Billy the Kid was born on September 17, 1859 and lived to be 22 years old. Throughout his short life, he had a few names. Born as Henry McCarthy, the infamous outlaw also went by William Bonney. While he may have claimed to have killed 21 men in his life, others estimate that he only gunned down around 8. This was believed to be the only authentic photo of Kid until recently, when a photo of Kid in his youth emerged.
Buffalo Soldiers were African American cavalry soldiers that fought with U.S. forces in the Indian Wars. They were originally members of the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments. From 1866 until the early 1890’s, Buffalo Soldiers battled Indians and protected settlers throughout the Great Plains and southwestern United States. Buffalo Soldiers earned a strong reputation for themselves, but also faced systematic prejudice from other members of the U.S. Army. This photo was taken in 1890 and shows a Buffalo Soldier in Colorado.
Gambling was a very popular profession among outlaws in the Old West. Historically, gamblers came from lots of different backgrounds and for a while, gambling was considered a reputable career. As the west became increasingly more populated, gambling became more dangerous and society began to view it as an illicit activity. State and territorial legislatures began passing anti-gambling laws. Because most gamblers by then were already breaking the law in other ways, new laws didn’t exactly prevent them from gambling.
Pearl Hart – Canadian Convict
Pearl Hart was a Canadian-born outlaw known for attempting one of the last stagecoach robberies of the Old West in 1899. When her husband left to fight in the Spanish-American War, she teamed up with a gambler named Joe Boot and planned a robbery. Her plans of returning to Canada following the robbery to see her dying mother were cut short after she was captured and imprisoned. Hart served just 2 years of a 5-year sentence, after being pardoned by the governor due to her pregnancy.
Dodge City Peace Commission – Fighters In A Bloodless War
When Dodge City mayor, Lawrence E. Deger, called on Luke Short to shut down his Long Branch Saloon and leave town, Short reached out to Wyatt Earp and other friends to support him in the confrontation which became known as the Dodge City War. Deger wanted to get rid of saloon gambling and other illicit activities. The Dodge City War was eventually resolved without bloodshed because the town couldn’t afford to take the economic loss which came with closing the saloon during cattle season.
John Wesley Hardin – An Unpredictable Outlaw
While John Wesley Hardin may not have been the most famous wild west outlaw, he was certainly one of the most deadly, claiming to have murdered 42 men. Hardin became notorious for one particular killing in 1871. Hardin and some friends were staying at the American House Hotel following a night of drinking and gambling. Hardin became upset when Charles Couger wouldn’t stop snoring from the room next door. Hardin fired several bullets through the shared wall, killed Couger, and fled through the hotel window.
Calamity Jane – Frontier Daredevil
As a famous American frontierswoman and professional military scout, Martha “Calamity” Jane claimed to have received her nickname following an ambush during a campaign in 1972-1973 in Goose Creek, Wyoming. According to her story, her captain was wounded by a gunshot and she was able to lift him onto her horse and bring him to safety. Her story was met with skepticism. A more common belief was that the nickname came from her warning to men that to offend her was to “court calamity.”
Dallas Stoudenmire – Lawman Of El Paso
Dallas Stoudenmire was a lawman and a very skilled gunfighter. As town marshal of El Paso, Stoudenmire gained infamy following his involvement in the “Four Dead in Five Seconds Gunfight” on April 14, 1881. While he was eating dinner across the street from a saloon, Stoudenmire heard a volley of gun shots and immediately rushed outside, running and firing his gun at the same time. Within seconds, the lawman had killed the men responsible for the shooting along with an innocent bystander.
John Salmon Ford – Showing Mercy In War
John Salmon Ford, also known as Rip Ford, served the Confederate fighter during the Civil War and a member of the Texas Rangers. He then became a congressman for the Republic of Texas, a Texas state senator, and the mayor of Brownsville, Texas. During the Civil War, Ford became known for speaking up on behalf of African American POWs. While other confederate fighters wanted to either kill or send the African Americans back to slavery, Ford demanded that they be paroled with the white POWs.
Cowboy – Symbol Of The Frontier
Originating in Mexico, Cowboys of the American Frontier established their own unique style and reputation. They were some of the most important figures of the American Frontier, and their iconic lifestyle has been portrayed in books, movies, and tv shows. In reality, Cowboys lived a lonely and grueling lifestyle, working on ranches, and herding cows while riding on horseback. Many Cowboys were veterans of the Civil war but there were also a handful of African American freed slaves looking to escape the Deep South discrimination.
John Coffee Hays – Captain Of The Texas Rangers
John Coffee Hays was a captain of the Texas Rangers and military officer of the Republic of Texas. He most notably served in numerous armed conflicts during the Mexican-American War. Following the war, Hays lead a group of 49ers from New York in a journey from Texas to California. His group established a well-known shortcut which became known as the Tucson Cutoff. When they reached California, Hays became sheriff of San Fransisco County and remained active in politics until his death in 1883.
European Homesteaders – A Future At The Indians’ Expense
In 1862, the Homestead Act allowed settlers the right to own 65 hectares of land in the American old west in exchange for a minimum of 5 years of farming work. For the most part, these settlers, who became known as ‘homesteaders’, were of European descent, but freed slaves were also offered the opportunity. The Homestead Act is now seen by many as an ethical travesty because the land which was claimed by the homesteaders had originally belonged to the Native Americans.
Andrea Edelman was one of the most well-known and fierce women of the Old West, noted in numerous articles for her distinct and forward fashion throughout those years. In this photo, she can be seen wearing a simple, yet well-put together dress while standing in the doorway of her (and her husband’s) bar. The belt definitely adds a little something dominant about this look, wouldn’t you agree?
Jow Lefors – Lawman Of The West
Joe Lefors was a Lawman during the heydays of the American Wild West. While he was known for tracking the Wild Bunch, his most notable accomplishment was the 1903 arrest of Tom Horn, a man accused of killing a 14-year-old sheepherder. The famous arrest has been under contention, as many people believe that Lefors falsified evidence in an attempt to convict the wrong man. Lefors ended up writing a book about his life and was even referenced in the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
W.H. Simms – Elite Gambler
Some of the wealthiest members of society in the Old West were elite gamblers. While gambling may have been profitable, it wasn’t exactly the safest profession. Most gamblers were also well-known gunfighters and outlaws. This is an autographed photo of W.H. Simms and was given to a performer named Eddie Fox at the Jack Harris Saloon. Gunfighter Ben Thompson also gave Fox an autographed photo in 1879. In 1882, Thompson killed Jack Harris and in 1884, Simms in turn killed Thompson is the very same theatre.
“Bloody” Bill Anderson – Confederate Fighter
Bill Anderson was one of the deadliest Confederate leaders of the Civil War. Born in 1840 and only living to his early 20’s, the young Anderson was an integral member of Quantrill’s Raiders. After the Union imprisoned his sisters and one was killed in custody, Anderson swore revenge. He would later be given the nickname “Bloody Bill” when he massacred 23 off-duty union soldiers. When Union forces came after him, “Bloody Bill” staged a successful ambush and killed another 125 soldiers.
Wild Bill Hickok – Old West Icon
The legendary Wild Bill Hickok was born in 1837 and lived to the age of 39. A jack-of-all-trades, Hickok was a soldier, spy, scout, drover, wagon master, gambler, showman, lawman, and gunfighter. A gunfight between Hickok and David Tutt was likely the original source of the iconic one-on-one quickdraw concept. In 1876, Wild Bill was shot in the back during a game of poker. At the moment of his murder, he was holding two pairs of aces and eights, which later became known as the Dead Man’s Hand.