Daily Life in the Wild West During the 1800s

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  • 0:03 The Wild West: Myths…
  • 0:58 Manifest Destiny and…
  • 1:50 Daily Life in the West
  • 3:28 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we'll learn about daily life in the Wild West during the 1800s. We'll explore the central themes and trends associated with the culture of the American West.

The Wild West: Myth vs. Reality

Let's think for a moment. What comes to mind when you think of the Wild West? Chances are, you might conjure up images of cowboys and Native Americans, lawlessness, gunfights, outlaws, cattle driving, and train robberies. These are some of the stereotypical themes associated with life in the American West during the 19th century and, for the most part, rightly so. Even though life in the Wild West has been highly romanticized and mythologized, on a daily basis, it was downright hard. Living in the West was definitely demanding.

The stereotypical image of the Wild West most accurately corresponds to life in the West during the second half of the 19th-century. It was primarily between the Civil War and the turn of the century that cowboy life, as we think of it, flourished. So between the 1860s and 1890s was really the heyday of the Wild West.

Manifest Destiny and Movement West

In 1803, the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France. This set in motion a trend that would continue throughout the century - westward expansion. Throughout much of the century, Manifest Destiny was a prevailing view. What is Manifest Destiny? It was the belief that the United States was destined to expand its territory from coast to coast. Some believed this was destined by God, while others believed it was destined by nature. Either way, it was a nationalistic sentiment that fueled American settlement of the West.

Settlement of the West picked up after the Civil War, thanks in part to the railroad industry. In 1862, Congress passed the Homestead Act, which gave away 160 acres of free land to each settler or family who promised to develop the land for a period of at least five years. Not a bad deal, right?

Daily Life in the West

So now let's talk about daily life in the Wild West. As you might imagine, society in the West was generally less structured than in the East. The rural nature of the West made it an ideal place for lawlessness. Gambling, drunkenness, brawling, and prostitution were common. For many men, the local saloon was an everyday hangout. Many towns did not have the resources to provide adequate law enforcement, leading to all kinds of crimes and social evils. Some sheriffs were pretty corrupt themselves, while others simply did not have the means to combat crime. Banditry was a common problem in the West. Jesse James was one of the most famous outlaws of the West. As the most famous member of the James-Younger Gang, James was notorious for his acts of murder, bank and train robberies, and other crimes in places like Minnesota, Missouri, and Texas. Billy the Kid and Black Bart were other infamous outlaws. Sure, bandits didn't necessarily strike every single day, but town locals lived under the everyday threat of violence and crime.

Dodge City, Kansas, emerged as one of the most well-known boomtowns of the West, thanks to the Great Western Cattle Trail that passed through it. If you had lived in Dodge City during this time, you might have seen large cattle drives come through periodically. Life in Dodge revolved around the cattle trade. Dodge City boasted an unusually high number of saloons and brothels and, over the years, was home to a number of famous outlaws. Again, drunkenness and lawlessness were a part of daily life in the West.

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