When you think of the Wild West, visions of cowboys, Indians, and outlaws most likely come to mind. It was a time of untamed potential in a land that was known for its endless possibilities. However, the truth of the Wild West is less glamorous than the Hollywood depictions on the big screen. During the days of the Gold Rush and wagon trains, poverty ran rampant, crime was on the upswing and you needed real grit to survive. It was a time of great reward but also unbelievable sacrifice. These photos represent a new point of view of the Wild West…a dark and unsettling side that reveals death, hardship and the struggle to survive.
Captive and Enslaved
Olive Oatman’s life was turned upside down at the age of fourteen. As she was just blossoming into a young woman, a tribe of Native Americans stormed her family’s home and killed her parents. Olive and her sister were taken by the tribe as slaves and lived in constant fear for the next year. The tribe would eventually trade them to another tribe (the Mojave), and Olive’s younger sister would die from starvation. While Olive eventually was freed for from her captors, she was tattooed on her chin which would remain a constant reminder of the horrors she had to endure.
This photograph was taken after the death of William T Anderson, aka. Bloody Bill, the leader of a gang known as the Quantrill’s Raiders. Born in 1840, Bill unleashed a fury of rage during the Civil War, killing Union soldiers that happened to, unfortunately, cross his path. He killed over 20 soldiers with his gang and over 100 soldiers on his own in an event known as the Centralia Massacre. During a battle in 1863, Bill would be killed leaving behind a blood-soaked legacy that would leave historians debating whether he was a psychopathic killer or a desperate man trying to survive.
Body of Tom Ketchum
This photo was snapped after the hanging of Tom Ketchum, also known as “Black Jack.” While he started life on the right side of the law as a good ‘ole cowboy, things would take a turn toward crime in 1890 when he worked in the Pecos River Valley of New Mexico. What started off as smaller bank robberies, would soon escalate into full-blown train robberies and murder. After he was captured, he was sentenced to death and hanged in Clayton. Unfortunately, no one had experience conducting hangings and they used a rope that was too long and didn’t calculate Ketchum’s weight gain. When he dropped through the trap door, he was immediately decapitated. His final words were, “Goodbye. Please dig my grave very deep. All right, hurry up.”
Mountain Spirits: The Apache Dancers
This photograph depicts Apache Indian spirit dancers, all dressed in their ceremonial pieces. Creepy and unsettling, this costume was used as part of the tribe’s ritualistic storytelling and welcoming of healing from the “Mountain Spirits.” This photo was taken in 1887, but the ritual continues to live on through the tribe and its dancers to this day.
The Bison Graveyard
During the 19th century, bison were hunted for their skins and little much else. What would be considered a tragic waste today, the animal was hunted so much during this time it almost went extinct. This photograph was taken in 1882 and shows a swath of bison skulls, all that remained after a massive slaughter. As horrifying as this is, what’s even worse is the remains of the animal were simply left to decay and rot on the ground. Think about how all that meat could have helped starving families?
Frozen in Time Saloon
In over 150 years, saloons haven’t changed much. This saloon from the old west located in Michigan wouldn’t look out of place in many of today’s bars. Saloons were quite popular during the 1800s and were places you could go and drown out your troubles by sipping on savory spirits and handcrafted ale.
Outlaws Not Heroes
Known as the Sundance Kid, Harry Alonzo Longabaugh was a member of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch after he was released from prison in 1896. Cassidy worked with the gang for years, where he helped perform the longest string of train and bank robberies in the history of the United States. Cassidy would soon find himself being pursued by the Pinkerton Detective Agency and would flee with his partner, Etta Place to Argentina and then Bolivia. Eventually, the law caught up with him and he was killed in a shootout in 1908.
The Eskimo Medicine Man
This photograph is definitely something out of our worst nightmares. Taken in the 1890s by Frank G. Carpenter, it depicts an Eskimo Medicine Man as he performs a ritual in Alaska. Apparently, he was performing an exorcism of a young, sick boy who had become possessed by evil spirits. Honestly, we feel like the medicine man is scarier than the actual sickness the boy suffered from. We certainly would be running for the hills if this guy came our way.
The Mystery of Belle Starr
Belle Starr was one of the greatest female outlaws during the Wild West. She’s best known for her associations with the James-Younger Gang. Starr’s reputation always proceeded her, she’d ride side saddle while dressed in black velvet. She always carried two pistols and a cartridge belt across her hips. She moved around the country quite a bit and was eventually caught and convicted of a bank robbery in 1873. Starr would be shot and killed on February 3, 1889, just days before her 41st birthday. According to reports she was ambushed riding home from a friend’s home. She was shot in the back with a shotgun and then shot again to make sure she was dead. The reason for her death and who killed her continues to remain a mystery to this day.
A merciless killer, James Butler Hickock, also known as Wild Bill, was considered to be the fastest gun in the west. It’s believed that he killed well over 100 people in his hay day. Known for working across the frontier as a wagon master, soldier, spy, and gunfighter, there are many outlandish stories regarding his life. Hickock would be shot and killed in a saloon during a card game by a man he embarrassed the previous night before while in Deadwood, Dakota Territory.
Wild West Duo
This photo reveals the famous Wyatt Earp with his best friend, Bat Masterson. Best known for his gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Earp took on four outlaws with his brothers Morgan and Virgil, and good friend Doc Holliday. A hunter, businessman, gambler and lawman, his legacy revolving around his endless pursuit for outlaws has been immortalized in the media over the years. His most known for the 30-second gunfight at Tombstone, his mining ventures and involvement in the gold rush. He would die in 1929 at the age of 80 from chronic cystitis.
Ned Christie was a Cherokee statesman and member of the Cherokee Nation senate. He’s best known for his fights with U.S. lawmen and being falsely accused of the murder of U.S. Marshal Daniel Maples. Maples had entered into Indian Territory on May 3, 1887, in the pursuit of illegal whiskey sellers. After a day of failed searching, he was ambushed in the Cherokee Nation by an unidentified man and shot. Ned Christie was falsely accused of the murder and resisted arrest, taking refuge in his home and standing off with the lawmen in what would become known as “Ned Christie’s War.” He would eventually be killed in 1892 by a posse of lawmen who attacked his fort.
Post-Mortem George Curry
This disturbing photo is of a post-mortem, George Curry after he was killed in Grand County, Utah by a Sheriff Jesse Tyler for rustling. Working as a criminal and mentor to Harvey Logan, he would rob banks for several years before becoming a member of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch. After his death, friend and co-gang member, Harvey Logan vowed revenge on Tyler and road from New Mexico to Utah and shot him in a gunfight, along with his deputy.
The Grisly Frontier
“Big Nose” George Parrot was known just for that…his big nose. This photograph is pretty disturbing. The shoes on display were made from his skin, and the mask made from his face. He’s best known for murdering two law enforcement officers with his gang in Wyoming. He stole frequently from wealthy merchants. Eventually, the law would catch up with him and he would face murder charges. Sentenced to die, he would hang on April 2, 1881. After his lynching, his remains were desecrated, as you can see above. In addition to the mask and shoes, his nipples were sent to a tannery, the skin from his thighs were turned into a medicine bag and his skull an ashtray. Talk about giving zero respect to the dead.
If you wanted to survive the western frontier, owning a gun was a must. They were considered an integral part of defense and survival during those times. When cameras were invented and photography was still in its infancy, cowboys were quick to have themselves photographed with their guns as seen here. Photographs with their guns instilled a sense of pride in the cowboys and became tokens to show off their prized possessions (and their dog of course).
Old West Rogues
Photographing dead outlaws was quite popular during the late 1800s. This was mostly due to the fact that these men (and women) terrorized so many people. The Wild West truly was “wild” and untamed. Many men, woman, and children died at the hands of outlaws, so displaying their bodies and preserving their deaths via photograph was something that was done quite often. It’s incredibly creepy seeing a photo like this of two men who appear to simply be sleeping, but they are actually corpses.
Woman of Crime
Laura Bullion was also known as “Rose of the Wild Bunch” and was a notorious outlaw who rode with Butch Cassidy. She consorted with the likes of the Sundance Kid and Kid Curry before becoming involved romantically with outlaw Ben Kilpatrick aka “The Tall Texan.” She played a crucial role in the Great Northern Train Robbery and was arrested in 1901. She was sentenced to five years in prison but was released early where she went off to Memphis and posed as a war widow. After giving up her life of crime, she died in 1961 of heart disease.
Creepy Woman of the West
Now this photo is quite horrifying, isn’t it? The date of the photo is unknown and the reason for this white ensemble is baffling, but we do know it’s quite eerie. There’s not much history behind the photo either. It’s just another haunting reminder of a strange and wild time in our country’s history.
A Short-Lived Gang
One of the deadliest gangs (and also one of the most short-lived) was formed by Rufus Buck, an outlaw whose multi-racial group was made up of part African American and part Creek Indian members. They roamed the Indian Territory of Arkansas and Oklahoma for only a year, where the murdered several people including U.S. Deputy Marshal John Garrett. The gang’s reign of terror came to an end as quickly as it had started, and they were captured and hanged on July 1, 1896.
The Soft Side to Outlaws
While outlaws were known as hardened criminals it doesn’t mean they didn’t have families or people they loved. Jesse James was known for being an unstoppable force of nature in the west, and crime was his passion. However, he also was a husband and father. His two children Jesse Jr. and Mary were the keys to his heart and while he may have been a dangerous man his love for his children was pure…the only thing innocent about him that’s for sure.
The Infamous Jesse James
Speaking of Jesse James, this photograph is a rare depiction of him at the age of sixteen. Taken on July 10, 1864, this was one year after his family was attacked by Union soldiers. This would be a turning point in young Jesse’s life, leading him to join the confederate guerillas. He would go on to rob banks and trains while leading the James-Younger Gang. After his gang was wiped out, James would end up being betrayed and killed by a good friend named Robert Ford. His death would become national news due to his notoriety.
While the men tend to take the limelight when it comes to the gunslingers of the Wild West, women also played a huge role as outlaws. One of the most famous was Big Nose Kate, who also happened to be Doc Holliday’s wife. She helped assist in his escape from jail. What did she do? She set the entire building on fire. According to historians, in order to get ahead and survive during those times, women had to be rebellious and know how to ride with the boys.
The Dalton Brothers Deaths
Sometimes when honest employment doesn’t pay, you turn to a life of crime. For the Dalton brothers, being screwed by their employer and constantly owed their wages led to growing frustration with the “system.” Deciding they wanted to finally get ahead in the rough and tumble world of the Wild West, the brothers decided to become outlaws and formed a gang in 1890. They specialized in bank and train robberies, and successfully robbed four trains between May of 1891 and July 1892. Unfortunately, after two short years of crime, their reign would come to an end when they tried to rob the Coffeyville bank on October 5, 1892. Residents armed themselves and when the gang left the bank they were ambushed. Two of the brothers were killed, one was shot 23 times and managed to survive only before being sentenced to life in prison.
Girl Gone Wild
Known for being a stagecoach robber, Pearl Hart was a female outlaw that you simply didn’t mess with. She would dress like a man along with keeping her hair short so she wouldn’t stand out or be noticed, especially when her crime sprees began gaining national attention. Hart would spend time in and out of jail, and escaped from prison in October of 1899. However, she would be captured only two weeks later. When Hart eventually went to trial for her crimes, she was sentenced to five years at the Yuma Territorial Prison. After serving her sentence, Hart would fade from the public eye and live her life peacefully running a cigar store in Kansas City.
You may not realize this but traveling during the days of the Wild West wasn’t easy, in fact, it could be downright dangerous. With no major highways or roads connecting the territories, families moving west had to contend with rocky cliffs, harsh climates and of course, the human dangers. From outlaws to Native American tribes, the west could be a very deadly place.
The Long and Tiring Journey
We’ve seen depictions in the movies, we’ve read about the long and arduous journey to West in books like Little House on the Prairie. Heck, most of us have made the journey ourselves via the popular game The Oregon Trail. However, to actually experience such an adventure was not as glamorous as the media likes to make it out to be. It was a long journey, thousands of miles via wagon and horse. This picture shows a young couple stopping to take a break. The trip could be mentally straining, going long stretches at a time without seeing a single soul. The dangers of being robbed or ambushed were also quite real.
Less Than Glamorous Life on the Frontier
Living life on the frontier was a hard existence. This photograph of Charlie Nebo and Nicholas Janis shows what life was really like as a true frontier man. The harsh heat, the blistering sun, and miles of the desert would take a toll on the normal man, but for these men, there was no other way of life.
Buffalo Bill’s Exploitation
One of the biggest shows and attractions during the wild west was Buffalo Bill’s. Touring the country, he and his cowboys would put on gunfight re-enactments, with some of the best sharpshooters being the highlight of the show. Unfortunately, this also led to the exploitation of many Native Americans to serve as a source of entertainment; however, all of the men who worked for Buffalo Bill were paid well and didn’t have to worry about finances during such down and out times. Beyond touring the United States, he would end up taking his show to Great Britain, as well as travel across most of Europe. He died on January 10, 1917, with most of his fortune long spent. The show would end up being sold for just over $2 million.
The Dark Side of the West
At the young age of twelve, Santiago McKinn was abducted from the Lower Mimbres Valley in New Mexico by a group of Chiricahua Apache led by the famous Geronimo. His older brother Martin was killed during the confrontation and Santiago would end up joining Geronimo’s band. After years with his “new family,” he chose not to return to New Mexico and the family he left behind. During that time, his parents were killed by Mexicans. This lead Santiago to work his way up the ranks and become a war chief where he vowed to attack any Mexican village he came across. Leaving behind a trail of bodies and blood, Santiago was able to thwart the law for many years before eventually being captured. Unfortunately, he would die a short time later from pneumonia.
Fashion trends during the Wild West days were questionable at best. It was a time of extreme poverty, materials were scarce and most people had to work with what little sources they had. This photograph of two women working in a saloon shows that the glamor Hollywood likes to display on the big screen is an extreme exaggeration of what clothing during that time was really like.
We’re guessing no one took measurements back then. These ladies are looking a hot mess.
The Wounded Knee Massacre
Spotted Elk, also known as Big Foot was a chief of the Lakota Sioux Tribe. Respected and beloved, he was also known for being a very skilled diplomat who approached all things from a peaceful perspective. He’s known to have helped settle many wars and found himself in high demand when it came to resolving conflicts between tribes and the lawmen. Sadly, Big Foot died in the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. It was a cold day on December 29th, when a regiment led by Major Samuel Whitside tried to disarm the Lakota tribe. This attempt would end with several hundred of the Lakota Indians, including men, women, and children brutally murdered, including Big Foot.
An Old Western Mental Hospital
Not all photographs need elaborate stories to be haunting and this photo of a mental hospital from the old West is a chilling reminder of our past. From the ivy-lined walls to dark and desolate windows, mental hospitals during the days of the frontier were not fully equipped to handle most patient’s needs. The first “insane asylum” opened in 1861 in Austin, Texas followed by another in 1883 and a third in 1892. According to historians, mental patients during this time were constant victims of neglect and absolute cruelty. They were subjected to procedures like lobotomies and electric shop therapy, even if it was deemed unnecessary. Thankfully, our mental health facilities have changed over the years.
Maiman the Mojave
During the 1870s, a Mojave Native American known as Maiman worked as an interpreter and guide in Colorado. This rare photograph was captured by photographer Timothy O’Sullivan, who utilized Maiman as a guide thanks to his knowledge of the land. O’Sullivan was able to scout out incredible locations for his work thanks to the Indian guide, who would go on to service other pioneer men during the late 1800s as well.
Table Bluff Hotel and Saloon
Located in Humboldt County, California, this snapshot was taken of the Table Bluff Hotel and Saloon in 1889. A typical scene from the Wild West, saloons were at their height of popularity during this time period. The Table Bluff was built by a pioneer named Van Aerman in 1852 and was eventually transformed into a ranch for a Christian group in the 1970s.
Death Valley Search
During the 19th-century, the mineral borax was a hot commodity. Businessmen would form wagon trains, and ride through Death Valley in search of this precious mineral. It was a brutal business to be in since Death Valley is considered one of the hottest places on earth. In fact, it can reach a record-shattering 134 degrees Fahrenheit during some periods of the year. This is just another aspect of the harsh reality of trying to make a living in the Wild West.
The Eureka Ghost Town
During the Gold Rush, the town of Eureka, Utah was a thriving business hub. Founded in 1870, it is best known for its mining of silver and other precious ores that were in demand in the time. In 1892, the city became the financial center for the Tintic Mining District. Unfortunately, when the demand died down and the deposits ran dry, so did the town. It was eventually abandoned, becoming a ghost town of the Wild West. However, there are still people living there today. A recent census in 2016 counted that 682 people still live in Eureka.
Sad State of Native American Families
The Wild West was not kind to the Native Americans living in the United States at the time. During the westward expansion, Indians, especially the Navajo were robbed of their homelands and forced to live in makeshift encampments. This photo was taken in 1873 outside of Fort Defiance, New Mexico. They were dispossessed of their homes during what is known as the “Long Walk” which occurred in 1864 involved the deportation and ethnic cleansing of the Navajo where they were forced to walk from Arizona to New Mexico. The traumatic event would change the Native American landscape forever.
Dark Room Wagon
On the frontier of the Wild West, cameras were a rarity. This is why the photographs and documentation during this time are pretty sparse. One of the most famous photographers during this time was Timothy O’Sullivan and he traveled with his own darkroom on a wagon. This photo is of his darkroom wagon that’s being pulled through Carson Sink, Nevada. A typical day on the frontier for the hardworking photographer.
The life of a cowboy was far from glamorous, in fact, bathing was not really a regular thing due to the hard work life on the frontier. Cowboys would go through very long stretches of time without a bath due to the length of cattle drives. Sometimes they could go up to three months without washing. Therefore, this snapshot of cowboys enjoying a bath shows off a rare (and much appreciated moment) for these men.
A Looming Sand Storm
Besides having to battle outlaws and the dark side of human nature, the elements were also a force to be reckoned with in the western frontier. This stunning photo shows a farm about to be engulfed by an approaching sandstorm. Sandstorms were so bad in the late 1800s that by 1934, the Great Plains had turned into a desert that would become known as the Dust Bowl. This was mostly caused by a horrific drought.