What The Wild West Was Really Like, According To The People Who Were There

The Wild West has been known by many names - the Old Wild West, the American Frontier, and even simply the Old West. But what is the true story behind the westward expansion across the lands that made up the newly acquired western territories of the United States of America? Was it really just full of rifle-toting, whiskey-sipping, rabble-rousing cowboys doing whatever they pleased and Native American peoples defending the lands of their ancestors, or was there more to the Wild West than meets the eye? When it comes to life in the Old West, which officially spanned from the end of the American Civil War in 1865 and ended only 30 years later in 1895, the individual experiences were as varied as they were dramatic, with each day bringing with it an unpredictable array of awe-inspiring views and terrifying encounters.

These accounts of life in the Wild West era show that living in the plains of the deep western countryside was anything but easy. This was a time dominated by one nation's obsession with maintaining their self-proclaimed Manifest Destiny and other nations' determination to retain as much of the land inherited from past generations as possible. As a result, daily life in the Wild West was anything but simple and, for time immemorial, it has continued to mystify and intrigue children and scholars alike. Each of the accounts below offers only a small glimpse into what life was really like in the Wild West, according to the people who actually lived it.


  • 'We Were Suddenly Startled By The Alarm Cry, "Indians!"… They Were Charging Around Us On Their Horses, Yelling And Firing Like Demons'
    Photo: Alfred Jacob Miller / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    'We Were Suddenly Startled By The Alarm Cry, "Indians!"… They Were Charging Around Us On Their Horses, Yelling And Firing Like Demons'

    The year was 1853, and the era that would become known as the Wild West was establishing its very first footsteps across North America before it had even officially earned its name. A little-known man by the name of James M. Fugate had been employed with the task of conducting a group of wagons filled with goods and merchandise for sale from his home in Missouri to New Mexico via the Old Santa Fe Trail.

    Much to Fugate’s dismay, along the way his group eventually crossed paths with a group from the Chamanche tribe (also spelled Comanche) in the Arkansas Valley, and they fell into a heated, bloody clash. The Chamanche, who were known for their warlike tendencies, frequently patrolled the Southern Plains. Fugate later retold his perception of the encounter in his journals: 

    Our first serious trouble began after reaching the Arkansas Valley, at a point near where Hutchinson now stands, and where we had gone into camp about noon of May 21st. While at dinner we were suddenly startled by the alarm cry, “Indians!”

    Before we had got our teams and wagons fairly in corral, they were charging around us on their horses, yelling and firing like demons. Taken at such a dangerous disadvantage and surprise, we were just in that position which makes men fight with desperation, and instantaneously our rifles were pealing forth their notes of defiance and death to the dusky murderous foe. 

  • 'I Shouted To Him To Lie Still And, Drawing My Rifle, Fired At The Beast'

    James Capen Adams, who later fittingly became known as "Grizzly," used his writings to recount the wilder side of the Wild West. While much of the frontier landscape became known for its tumultuous encounters between cowboys and various Native American tribes, people like Adams who were residing in the deep wilderness found themselves contending with a far different threat: wildlife.

    After venturing west in 1849 in search of gold, he left California nearly penniless and began living his life in the Rocky Mountains selling the rare animals he encountered to people residing in the city. Adams shared one of the closer encounters he had while in the company of a friend:

    Solon and I started out very early; and, coming to a spot where two ravines came together, he started up one and I the other. I had not gone more than a quarter of a mile before I heard Solon cry out from help. I bounded up the ridge which separated us, and, upon reaching the top, saw him lying under a large tree in the other ravine, and a panther on top of him, apparently gnawing into his neck. I shouted to him to lie still, and, drawing my rifle, fired at the beast; but in my anxiety to shoot wide of my comrade, I did not strike the panther fair and he bounded off into the bushes, and escaped.

    Apparently, the panther had leapt upon Solon when he was looking the wrong way and pinned him down in the depths of the ravine.

  • 'When I Arrived At Cold Springs, To My Horror I Found That The Station Had Been Attacked'
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    'When I Arrived At Cold Springs, To My Horror I Found That The Station Had Been Attacked'

    Before the invention of the telegraph, much of the United States relied instead on the Pony Express to deliver important messages quickly between as far as Missouri and California. However, operating the Pony Express was anything but simple and came with its fair share of obstacles. During its rather short heyday from 1860 to 1861, the Pony Express employed around 183 people with jobs offering upward of $100 per month - at a price.

    One rider by the name of Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam eventually became the record holder for the longest round-trip Pony Express ride and earned the title with the help of 13 horses and a fractured jaw, courtesy of numerous flint-head arrows.

    Haslam had taken on a high-paying job that many deemed too risky to undertake; he rode over 190 miles to deliver a message only to promptly retrace his steps in order to return home, at which point he encountered an ominous sight:

    After remaining at Smith’s Creek about nine hours, I started to retrace my journey with the return express. When I arrived at Cold Springs, to my horror I found that the station had been attacked by Indians, the keeper [slain], and all the horses taken away. I decided in a moment what course to pursue - I would go on... It was growing dark, and my road lay through heavy sage brush, high enough in some places to conceal a horse... I was prepared for a fight, but the stillness of the night and the howling of the wolves and coyotes made cold chills run through my at times; but I reached Sand Springs in safety and reported what had happened.

  • 'I Was Standing Out In Front Of The Hotel Hugging An Awning Post, Wishing I Had Something More Human-Like To Hug'
    Photo: Ladies' Home Journal and Practical Housekeeper / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    'I Was Standing Out In Front Of The Hotel Hugging An Awning Post, Wishing I Had Something More Human-Like To Hug'

    While it may be somewhat rare for stories of the Wild West to conjure up anything but images of conflict, campfires, and countrysides brimming with cattle and men on horseback, a few love stories made their mark in the retellings of the era. In at least one case, a cowboy retold the story of his falling for a young woman while visiting Las Cruces, NM:

    I had a little love scrape while loafing in Las Cruces. I don't mention it because my love scrapes were so scarce, but because it was with a Mexican girl, and under curious circumstances, that is, the circumstances were curious from the fact that we became personally acquainted and never spoke to one another, except by signs, and through letters.

    I first saw her one Sunday morning when she and her grandmother were going to church. I was standing out in front of the Hotel hugging an awning post, and wishing that I had something more human-like to hug, when they passed within a few feet of me. The girl looked up, our eyes met, and such a pair of eyes I had never seen. They sparkled like diamonds, and were imbedded in as pretty a face as was ever moulded... I immediately unwound my arms from around the post and started to church, too.