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Documentaries You Need To Watch To Understand What The Old West Was Really Like

Updated September 14, 2020 10.9k views14 items

Documentaries are a great way to learn more about history. But what's the best Wild West documentary? The history of the American Old West sometimes seems more Hollywood than fact, with Westerns shaping the way we think about the era. And the real life of a Wild West cowboy certainly wasn't as glamorous as most movies make it out to be. Thankfully, documentaries on the Old West give a new perspective on the era and the people who defined it.

These documentaries shed light on legends of the West like Buffalo Bill Cody, Calamity Jane, and Billy the Kid. They unearth the lives of more mysterious figures like Doc Holliday and Annie Oakley. And the best documentaries about the Wild West also trace the stories of people who often don't appear in Westerns, like the African Americans who made up 25% of cowboys in the Wild West. Learn more about the Civil War's impact on the West, the lives of displaced Native Americans, and Wild West technology thanks to these documentaries.

  • Photo: The Real West / NBC

    Project Twenty: The Real West

    First aired in 1961, The Real West puts a familiar face at the helm of the documentary. Gary Cooper, known for his starring role in the classic Western High Noon, narrates the film.

    The Real West intentionally avoids the Hollywood version of the Old West by highlighting challenges like hunger and the horrific attacks on Native Americans. Even better: You can watch it for free, courtesy of Archive.org.

  • Photo: Outlaws & Gunslingers / Mill Creek Entertainment

    Outlaws & Gunslingers

    What was the Wild West like in 1865? Outlaws & Gunslingers argues that, even as America tried to recover from the Civil War, the conflict continued in the Wild West. 

    Dangerous crews from the South, including the Daltons and the Jameses, clashed with lawmen from the North like Wild Bill Hickock and Wyatt Earp. This documentary tells the true stories of men like Billy the Kid and Jesse James - and the lawmen who hunted them down.

  • Photo: The West / PBS America

    Ken Burns: The West

    PBS America and Ken Burns created The West in 1996. According to Burns, the documentary was inspired in part by a Kiowa poet named N. Scott Momaday, who described the American West as "a place that has to be seen to be believed, and it may have to be believed in order to be seen." 

    Burns tells the story of the West in his signature style, relying on diaries, letters, and autobiographical accounts to capture the experience of men and women of the era. The nine-episode documentary looks at the clash between white settlers and Native Americans while highlighting the contradictory myths that define our view of the West.

  • Photo: The Real West: Cowboys & Outlaws / The History Channel

    The Real West: Cowboys & Outlaws

    If you love dramatic reenactments, The Real West: Cowboys & Outlaws is made for you. The History Channel series puts the myths and legends of the Old West in the spotlight. 

    The series looks at the social world behind the legends - for example, few laws and even less enforcement meant a lot of vigilantism, but the same libertarian vibe let Black cowboys flourish. With wide spaces and weak networks of communication, lawbreakers could simply leave one town without fear of getting caught in the next. The series also examines the clothes and tools cowboys relied on in the Old West.