Weird History

How People In The Wild West Spent Their Free Time  

Melissa Sartore
1.2k views 13 items

Have you ever wondered what people did in the Wild West for fun? Life on the American frontier was hard, without question, but cowboys, pioneers, settlers, miners, and the like also had a fair amount of time to enjoy their surroundings. At the very least, they needed some outlets to blow off steam. 

Many pastimes in the Wild West took place at well-known sites like saloons and brothels; however, as various sporting events and recreational activities spread across the country, people in the Wild West were also able to take part in some unique experiences as they came along. Entertainment in the Wild West might not be your idea of fun, but men, women, and children out on the frontier had a fair number of options for ways to spend their free time. 

Attending Medicine Shows is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list How People In The Wild West Spent Their Free Time
Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Attending Medicine Shows

Medicine shows featured traveling salesmen who provided entertainment while touting the curative properties of elixirs and tonics. Ointments and liniments were often said to contain snake oil, a general cure-all for countless afflictions. Medicine shows made their way around the country, using wagons to carry their wares, claiming they could cure aches, pains, illnesses, and chronic diseases with "proprietary" or "patent medicines." 

At a medicine show, onlookers would be treated to amazing feats of strength by "muscle men," "professors" giving lectures about efficacy, and audience members - who were often actors and actresses positioned before the show began - magically being cured after one dose of medicine.  

Shows could be put on by individuals or companies, with many of the latter appropriating Native American "cures" to sell their medicines. Kickapoo Indian Medicines, founded by John Healy and Charles Bigelow, was well known for its Kickapoo Indian Sagwa. The elixir was a mixture of herbs, roots, and animal fat - mixed in with alcohol - that was marketed as a long-standing cure-all that had been passed down over generations. Although Kickapoo Indian Sagwa was supposed to cure everything from kidney and liver diseases to arthritis, it functioned as more of a laxative than anything else.

Attending 'Living Picture' Shows

"Living picture" shows featured real-life presentations of paintings and sculptures using actors or models, first presented in major cities like London and New York. The first "living pictures" were educational in nature but, as their content became more and more risque, they transitioned into a form of popular entertainment.

Living picture shows also included orchestral music and could be more hybrid in nature, blending living and still artistic elements. 

This wasn't without criticism, however. Concerns over immorality and the threat to public decency prompted groups like the Women's Christian Temperance Union to protest living picture shows, claiming they were "degrading, and vulgar, besides having no artistic value whatever."

Other observers, including many of the participants in the shows, saw living pictures as a positive influence - increasing "the general knowledge of art."

Attending Minstrel Shows is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list How People In The Wild West Spent Their Free Time
Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Attending Minstrel Shows

Originating in the early 19th century, minstrel shows featured white performers performing musical and comedic acts while wearing black face paint. Actors used movement and dialogue to present exaggerated African American characteristics and culture, intended to be humorous for white audiences. 

Minstrel groups toured the United States, traversing the same circuits as medicine, variety, and other contemporary traveling shows. 

Not all minstrel show performers were white and many African American musicians composed songs for minstrel shows. W.C. Handy and Ma Rainey - known as the "Father and Mother of the Blues," respectively - were part of the minstrelsy phenomenon, with the former noting

It goes without saying that minstrels were a disreputable lot in the eyes of a large section of the upper-crust negroes... but it was also true that all the best talent of that generation came down the same drain. The composer, the singers, the musicians, the speakers, the stage performers - the minstrel shows got them all.

Another prominent black performer, James Bland, was known as "The World's Greatest Minstrel Man" and drew in African American audiences with his compositions and musical performances.

Watching Prizefighting is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list How People In The Wild West Spent Their Free Time
Photo:  Francis, Valentine & Co./Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Watching Prizefighting

European boxers like Jem Mace arrived in the United States in the mid-1800s and helped popularize boxing throughout the growing country. Mace put on boxing exhibitions, demonstrating his skills for audiences. As the "father of modern boxing," he fought in numerous bouts in California and Nevada. In 1876, Mace fought Bill Davis in Virginia City, NV, winning $1,000 and a gold trophy belt in front of a large crowd.

The growth of prizefighting in the American West was largely due to the influence of immigrants, especially the Irish, who had a long tradition in the sport. Not all boxers were from abroad, however. Successful American fighters John Shanssey and Mike Donovan famously went up against each other in a match refereed by Wyatt Earp in 1869.

Bare-knuckled and ready to fight, pugilists became so prolific through the late 19th century that the federal government enacted an anti-prizefighting bill in 1896.