During the second half of the 19th century, western USA (which was considered any area west of the Mississippi River) became a major centre of growth for American colonisers. Cowboys and their cattle, horses and the small towns that revolved around them were the trademarks of the Wild West. This expansion led to the unification of the American independent states, making the USA what it really is today.
With the introduction of homesteading and pioneering, people began gravitating towards the western region looking for opportunities. The possibility of being a part of an entirely new venture attracted businessmen and scouts, outlaws and lawmen, and anybody else seeking the chance to make their fortune and explore somewhere different. The legends of the outlaws have survived the most and Billy the Kid, Jesse James and Curly Bill, as well as the lawmen that curtailed them including Wild Bill Hickok, Pat Garrett and Wyatt Earp remain household names.
The Wild West Show
People will always have a desire to be entertained, and in order to facilitate this need among the cowboys the Wild West Show was created by Buffalo Bill and consisted of rodeos and sharpshooting competitions. One of the show’s most famous sharpshooters was Annie Oakley, who attracted many patrons and has been featured in books and films about the period.
The Pony Express
Whenever the population enters new territory, there is always the need to maintain communication with family, friends and business associates in other areas. The Pony Express was the first solution to the distribution of mail along the western route. It consisted of men on horseback with saddlebags that would make the journey along the 2000 mile trail from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, with the first trip on April 3, 1860. The riders were able to cover up to 250 miles per day, and even though the Pony Express only last for 19 months, they were very efficient losing only one mail delivery during the entire period.
The Invention of Barbed Wire
Barbed wire is currently used everywhere for many types of fencing as well as other purposes. It was invented by Joseph Glidden who received a patent in 1874, in order to be able to fence cattle in, or out, of various properties. This revolutionised ranching and farmers were now able to ensure the safety of their livestock.
Towns in the Wild West
With the mass migration to the west, new towns appeared continuously so that people had places to socialise and fulfil any necessary requirements. Some of these were: Animas Forks, Colorado; Bannack, Montana; Bodie, California; and Rhyolite, Nevada. Other towns, such as Deadwood, South Dakota, encouraged mayhem because they were out of the reach of the law. Gold miners, as well as cowboys, ranchers and those just passing through would start fights which resulted in the premature deaths of several of their citizens. Some of the towns that have been given special historical mention because of the violence they encouraged are:
1. Dodge City, Kansas
Also known as ‘wicked dodge,’ by the time the town was 10 years old it had become legendary for its gathering of gunslingers. Businessmen would come here in search of protection for themselves and their investments. In spite of its reputation the death rate was actually a lot lower than would be expected; because many people avoided confrontation due to the known skills of the town’s gunslingers.
2. El Dorado Canyon, Nevada
During the 18th century Spanish explorers founded and named this city, which was located in a gorge on the Colorado River. In 1861, a vertical vein of gold was found here and the first mine, Techatticup Mine, opened. Many others followed attracting prospectors, entrepreneurs and even civil war deserters who had left to search for gold. The town’s only connection to the outside world was a steamboat which carried mined goods down the Colorado River to Yuma, Arizona. The nearest other town was 300 miles away and as a result of its isolation, the population suffered daily killings. In 1867 a military post was established nearby to protect the steamboats, and helped in maintaining order in the area.
3. Tombstone, Arizona
True to its name, Tombstone was a town which became known for dealing in death. The town was known for having the most gambling parlours and saloons in the South West, as well as the largest red light district. In 1879, lawman Wyatt Earp, followed by his brothers and friends, moved to the town and invested in a gaming parlour. At the time the area was being terrorised by the Clanton gang and the McLaury brothers. Eventually a legendary showdown between the lawmen and outlaws took place behind the town’s O.K. Corral. The gunfight, where three Earp brothers, Doc Holliday and Billy Clairborne went up against two Clanton brothers and two McLaury brothers, lasted about 30 seconds and resulted in three of the lawmen being injured and three outlaws killed. Tombstone, Arizona, still survives and is called ‘The Town Too Tough to Die,’ by its current residents.
4. Canyon Diablo, Arizona
This town was formed when workers laying railroad tracks came upon the edge of a canyon, which could not be crossed before they had built a bridge. The construction took ten years and during this time the town became a dangerous place to live in. Saloons, gambling houses, brothels and even grocery stores were open 24hrs. The closest US Marshal was situated 100 miles away and the lack of law enforcement mean that outlaws were attracted to the area. When the town’s 2000 residents decided that it was time to get a lawman, the first person to take the position had been killed within 5 hours. The others that continued to apply were all met with the same fate. Fortunately, after the bridge was completed most of the town’s citizens moved along and in 1899, Herman Wolfe, the last remaining resident died taking the horrors of Canyon Diablo with him.