The Wild West was all sheriffs, gunslingers and saloons, right?
While there’s some truth to the movie stereotypes, the real Old West differed in many ways from what you might think, featuring camels, cannibalism and more celebrities than it would be practical to count.
Read on to discover 10 facts about the Wild West that shed new light on frontier life.
1. The Wild West was once part of Spain
From the 16th to the 19th centuries, the areas encompassing Florida and the states of the US southwest – including California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and Texas – belonged to the viceroyalty of New Spain and were governed from Mexico City.
Florida was the first to cede to the US, in 1819. The other areas followed in 1848 after the Mexican-American War. Under the peace treaty, Mexico (which inherited responsibility for the regions after gaining independence in 1821) recognised the US annexation of Texas, and agreed to sell most of its territory north of the Rio Grande to the US for $15 million.
2. Horses weren’t the only means of transport
In 1855 Secretary of War Jefferson Davis allocated $30,000 for the army to import camels from the Mediterranean and Middle East to use for transporting supplies. By 1857 the US Camel Corps was looking after around 75 camels at its base in Camp Verde, Texas.
While the camels proved effective at lugging materials across the desert – one group even made the 1,200-mile trek from Texas to a Los Angeles outpost – the Civil War disrupted the experiment and many of the animals were auctioned off, ending up working in circuses, mines and rail construction, while others escaped and roamed free.
3. Western hero Buffalo Bill Cody was a global superstar
One of the heroes of the Old West, Buffalo Bill Cody had a talent for self-promotion. His exploits as a soldier and bison hunter were published in books, magazines and newspapers and he also recreated them on stage, starting his own Wild West show in 1883.
The open-air spectacular featured a cast of hundreds – including sharpshooter Annie Oakley and Native American chief Sitting Bull – reenacting buffalo hunts and stagecoach holdups, alongside displays of horsemanship and marksmanship. The show made Buffalo Bill a global celebrity and even Queen Victoria declared herself a fan.
4. A quarter of cowboys were black
You wouldn’t know it from your average Hollywood western, but an estimated one in four cowboys was black.
American ranchers settling in Texas brought slaves with them, later relying on them to mind their herds when they left to fight in the Civil War. After the abolition of slavery, the newly freed cowhands became much in demand.
One of the best-known African-American Old West heroes was Bass Reeves, the first US deputy marshal west of the Mississippi river, who arrested over 3,000 criminals in his three-decade career.
5. Geronimo escaped his reservation three times
After many years fighting the US Army, Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo and his band were captured in 1877 and taken to a reservation in Arizona. But he struggled to adapt to settled life and ended up escaping three times: in 1878, 1881 and 1885.
Five thousand soldiers – a quarter of the US army – were involved in the last pursuit, but it still took over a year to bring Geronimo into custody. He was the last Native American leader to formally surrender to the US.
6. Wild Bill Hickok won one of the first quick-draw duels
One of the few recorded instances of a classic fast-draw duel took place on 21 July 1865 in Springfield, Missouri, between Wild Bill Hickok and the gambler Davis Tutt. A row over gambling debts brought rivalries between the two former friends to a head, leading to a showdown in the town square.
Standing sideways to each other around 70 metres apart, the two fired more or less simultaneously. Tutt missed, but Hickok hit the mark, killing his rival. Hickok was later acquitted of manslaughter. An 1867 Harper’s Magazine article recounting the incident helped establish his legend.
7. The Pony Express lasted just a year and a half
A famous symbol of the Old West, the Pony Express postal service only operated for 18 months, between April 1860 and October 1861.
The service was devised to get national news faster to the west as tensions rose before the Civil War. A team of 80 or so riders carried the mail day and night between St Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California – a 1,900-mile journey. Riders stopped every 10 miles or so at carefully placed station houses to swap horses and maintain full gallop, shrinking delivery times from 24 days to 10.
However, the arrival of the telegraph, which made communications almost instant, rendered the service obsolete.
8. Billy the Kid was a New Yorker and Jesse James was the son of a preacher
Two of the most notorious Wild West outlaws had origins you might not expect.
Billy the Kid, real name Henry McCarty, was born on the East Side of New York in 1859 before moving west to Kansas and New Mexico. Only after his mother died when he was 15 did Billy begin the life of crime that led him to kill eight men and end up gunned down by Sheriff Pat Garrett at the age of just 21.
Meanwhile, outlaw Jesse James was the son of Robert James, a Baptist minister and slave-owning farmer in Missouri, who died when Jesse was three. After a life spent robbing banks and trains, James was killed by one of his own men aged 34.
9. Dodge City was (kind of) dodgy
An important stop on the Great Western Cattle Trail, Dodge City in Kansas attracted money, saloons, gambling halls, brothels and a whole lot of trouble. The annual recorded murder rate there was 165 adults killed per 100,000 people, meaning that someone living in Dodge City between 1876 and 1885 had a one in 61 chance of getting offed.
In comparison, the most violent city in the world in 2021, Tijuana, Mexico, has a murder rate of 138 adults killed per 100,000 people.
However, you need to bear in mind that the tiny population of Dodge City distorts the statistics somewhat – it only takes a small number of killings to produce a high murder rate. In 1880, for example, just one person out of a population of 996 was murdered. So how dodgy was Dodge City? It depends on how you look at it.
10. Only two families survived the ill-fated Donner Party unscathed
The Donner Party was a group of settlers who in 1846 undertook the epic journey from Missouri to California by wagon train. Crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains, they got trapped by snow for four gruelling months.
With supplies dwindling, some are reported to have survived by eating the flesh of those who perished. Of the original 87 who set out, only 48 were rescued and only two families emerged without suffering a loss.