A Look at the Old West


The times of the Old West are filled with stories of exploration, adventure, and discovery. Pioneers travelled west during the latter half of the 19th century, in search of more land and new opportunities for prosperity. Adventure seekers as well as many families headed west with dreams of striking it rich in a California gold mine. The open areas of the west held the promise of a fresh start for people of all ages and backgrounds.

The Old West also brings to mind particular ideas and famous personalities. For instance, the days of the Old West are often connected with the concept of Manifest Destiny. The growth of United States territory in a westward direction was thought of as an unstoppable occurrence. Furthermore, cowboys and Native Americans are just two of the figures that are inextricably paired with the times of the Old West. The names of outlaws such as Jesse James and, "Billy the Kid" also come to mind when the Old West is remembered. In short, the Old West was a tumultuous time of change and expansion. This article provides a look into the different aspects of a period known as the Old West.  

Geography of the Old West

The United States began with the thirteen original colonies. As the US flourished and grew prosperous, the term "manifest destiny" was coined. Manifest destiny represented the notion or idea that the United States was destined to expand west across the North American continent. A map of the United States during the period of the Old West reflects that it was a time of great change. For instance, the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 greatly increased the western territory of the United States. Additional territory was claimed by way of treaty or purchase. In the times of the Old West, the territorial expansion westward was well underway. It was only a matter of time before westward expansion began and the United States grew to the power house it is today. Take a look at the following maps detailing the geography of the west.

Early Territorial Claims

At this time, different countries laid claim to portions of the United States. In addition, many tribes of Native Americans occupied the land. The claimants of early America included Native Americans, France, Spain, and Britain. Issues would soon arise over who would inhabit these large areas of land. Checkout who originally owned the vast real estate we now call America.

  • Early Indian West: Look to this map to see Native Americans that inhabited territories of the west.
  • Central North America, 1755: This map shows how the United States was divided by territorial claims of the French, Spanish, and English.

The Louisiana Purchase

The Louisiana Purchase occurred in 1803. The tremendous amount of territory included land area that extended from the Gulf of Mexico up to Canada. The United States purchased this area from France for 15 million dollars. One of the reasons that President Thomas Jefferson acquired this area from France was to have shipping access via the Mississippi River.

Lewis and Clark's Expedition

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark are two of the most famous men who explored the west in the early 19th century. President Jefferson gave them the task of exploring the west and its environment. Their expedition began in 1804 and ended in 1806. Lewis and Clark travelled westward through many states including Missouri, Kansas, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Idaho.

Wars and Territorial Issues

Following the Louisiana purchase and the travels of Lewis and Clark, more territorial issues and feuds emerged. The War of 1812 represented Great Britain's tireless attempts to exert power over North America by seizing American ships attempting to trade with France and other European countries. This war culminated in the Peace Treaty of Ghent and left a message to the British that the Americans would challenge all future attempts for control.  Shortly after, issues between the British and Spanish over the territory of Oregon pursued from 1819 to 1845 when the Oregon territory was officially accepted into the union. Further land issues arose as the Mexico government was dissatisfied with the Texas borders, leading the US to declare war on Mexico which culminated in the American-Mexican Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. This treaty gave way to the newly southwest territories that are New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and California today.

Permanent Settlements in the Old West

People moved westward in a variety of ways. For instance, some travelled by wagon. Illness, lack of supplies, and wagon accidents were just a few of the hardships the pioneers had to endure. The construction of the transcontinental railroad gave a tremendous boost to westward travel.                    

African American Settlers

African Americans were among the settlers in the Old West. Many of them came from a life of slavery. They were interested in the promise that the undiscovered western territory had to offer. Fur trapper James Beckwourth was one example of a person who led a life of adventure during that period.

The California Gold Rush

In the year 1849, the rumors of gold in California were enough to make some individuals and families pack up and head westward. When gold was found in Sutter's Mill, it began the frenzy referred to as the gold rush. Stores and towns sprung up in areas of California where gold was found. People struggled in the exhausting work of mining for gold with the hope of making a quick fortune. 

Cowboys of the West

Cowboys are some of the most memorable characters that inhabited the Old West. They rode horses, worked on ranches, and endured the tough times of frontier life. Sometimes they had gunfights on the wild streets of the Old West. Among the more well-known cowboys were Wyatt Earp and Bill Pickett.

Law and Order of the West

Many notorious names are connected with the days of the Old West. Jesse James, the Dalton Gang, and, "Billy the Kid" are just a few of them. The restless atmosphere of the time brought forth many outlaws who robbed banks and killed. Fortunately, there were also individuals who were dedicated to the law such as Bass Reeves. He was just one of the individuals who helped establish order in the Old West.