The Wild West

Last Updated on November 25, 2020 by Janet Frost

The American West is often characterized as the Wild West. Explorers and early settlers, heading west, were the fringe of civilized society back East. They were restless souls, opportunists, isolationists and misfits of many forms. Today, you can revisit the stomping grounds of these figures, famous and infamous. Let’s explore the footsteps of the characters upon which the Wild West legends are based.

Let’s Go! Learn Things in The Wild West…

Indigenous Peoples

The history of the American West was deeply influenced by the Indigenous Peoples of the region. In the past, these original inhabitants of North America were called Indians, more recently Native Americans, in Canada, First Nations and around the world, Aboriginal People. The Wild West legends are replete with “Cowboys and Indians” stories. These archaic stereotypes don’t begin to do justice to the rich history of the American West, especially the original tribes that called this rugged terrain home.

Red Mountain Eagle Pow Wow
Powwow dancer
Photo credit to SRPMIC

Tribes of the Southwest

Archaeologists and anthropologists identify ancient tribes by studying dwellings and artifacts. In addition, linguists study the common language patterns.

Ancestral Pueblo

Archaeologists define the Ancient Pueblo culture by their distinctive “pueblo” dwellings. Scattered across the Four Corners area of Southern Colorado, Southern Utah, Northern Arizona and Northern New Mexico, these dwellings are examples of their phenomenal engineering skills.

Linguists find these tribes had very diverse language origins. Today the regional Hopi, Zuni, and Acoma tribes have distinct languages.

Let’s Go! Learn Things about the Ancestral Pueblos…

Mesa Verde National Park in Southern Colorado

Pecos Pueblo National Historical Park in New Mexico

Ancestral Desert Peoples (Hohokam)

These tribes settled along the sparse waterways of the Sonora Desert. Archaeologists initially labeled this culture as “Hohokam”. As archaeologists and anthropologists advanced their studies of this culture they have revised the name to Ancestral Desert Peoples. It is interesting to note that while these tribes lived in close proximity of each other, they maintained two distinct languages. A typical example are the Pima and Maricopa who still coexist in the Phoenix, AZ area. Other descendants include the Tohono O’odham near Tucson and the Yuma in western Arizona.

The Ancestral Desert Dwellers were ingenious canal builders. Remains of their canals run throughout the Phoenix and Tucson regions.

Let’s Go! Learn Things about the Ancestral Desert Dwellers…

Hohokam, Ancient Ancestors of Arizona

Celebrate Pima/Maricopa culture at Salt River

Mesa Grande Cultural Park

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Athabaskan Language Peoples

Poignant mural art by local Dr. Chip Thomas, dots the Navajo Nation
Navajo woman demonstrates the traditional weaving
Navajo Trunk Show

A third cultural group encountered in the Southwest were the Athabaskan-speaking peoples, migrants from the Alaska region. Their tribal descendants are the Navajo and Apaches. These tribes were located in the Arizona/New Mexico area. As history progressed, the Navajo and Apache cultures diverged.

The Navajo adopted agricultural skills and shepherding. The Navajo Nation is known for their intricate weaving and silversmithing skills.

On the other hand, the Apache culture remained predominantly hunter-gatherers, engaging in brutal warfare. Many of the Wild West stories center around these notorious native warriors. The notorious Apache Chief, Cochise, is remembered for his years of raiding from the Dragoon Mountains in Southern Arizona.

Let’s Go! Learn about the Navajo and Apache Cultures…

Arizona Sky Islands: Dragoon Mountains and Cochise Stronghold
Navajo Weaving
Heard Musuem
Hubbell Trading Post
Navajo Nation on the road to Grand Canyon

Spanish Missionaries

Early American history is dominated by the English colonization. The truth is, from 1492 when Spaniard, Christopher Columbus, landed on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, until the mid-19th century, Spain was also busy colonizing South America, Central America and western North America. By the time Sir Walter Raleigh was struggling to build the Roanoke colony on a North Carolina barrier island (1585), Hernan Cortes was slashing through the Aztec Empire of central Mexico.

San Xavier Mission Tucson, AZ
San Xavier Mission founded by Father Kino south of Tucson

The Spanish model of colonization was a three-pronged sweep. First, conquistadors would claim the land for Spain, subdue the indigenous peoples, and build a military installment, known as a Presidio. Then the Catholic missionaries would follow, creating missions that would basically enslave the natives in the name of conversion and salvation. Finally, the third wave would be European and Hispanic settlers to establish a pueblo.

There are remains of presidios and missions across the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. California State Parks sponsors the California Mission Trail which includes 21 missions. Father Junípero Serra established the first mission in California, Mission San Diego de Acala on July 16, 1769.

Father Juan Bautista de Anza was part of the third part of the Spanish colonization. He lead a group of Spanish and Hispanic settlers from central Mexico to San Francisco, CA. You can follow his historic trek across the Sonora desert and up into California. The group stopped at many of the existing missions and presidios for support and shelter.

Let’s Go! Learn Things about Spanish influence on The Wild West…

Juan Bautista de Anza Trail, Tubac Presidio,
New Mexico
California Missions Trail, 3 Days in San Diego
San Antonio Missions National Park (Alamo)

Gunslingers and Lawmen of The Wild West

Famous Fredrick Remington bronze of gunslingers

The legends of The Wild West were fueled by real-life gunslingers and lawmen . Names like the Earp Brothers, Billy the Kid, Sheriff Pat Garrett and John Chisum have filled movie scripts and dime-store novels for a hundred years.

As I explore the American West, I am surprised by how recently these stories and legends transpired. For some perspective, the colonial settlement of Williamsburg, VA was founded in 1690, Washington D.C. became the Capitol of the U.S. in 1790, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing by 1890, New Mexico and Arizona became states 47 and 48 in 1912. The rootin’ tootin’ gunfightin’ era was mostly during the decades between 1870-1890.

Let’s Go! Learn Things about The Wild West…

National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, OK

Earp Brothers

Wyatt Earp is one of the most recognized names of The Wild West. Along with his brothers; James, Virgil, and Morgan, Wyatt criss-crossed the West. Wyatt and best friend, Doc Holliday, spent their lives on every side of the law. They were drifters, gamblers, speculators, deputies, and murderers(?). Like so much of the Wild West history, the line between good guy and bad guy was very grey. Always on the hunt for a “get rich quick” scheme, Wyatt found plenty of trouble. Wyatt Earp exploits are legendary in towns like Dodge City, KS and Tombstone, AZ. It is fun to visit these spots but the true story of Wyatt Earp takes some digging to get beyond the legends and hype.

Let’s Go! Learn Things in Tombstone and Dodge City…
Tombstone, AZ
Dodge City, KS

Lincoln County Wars

Another notorious legend of The Wild West is Billy the Kid. Billy the Kid was born Henry McCarty and was orphaned at 14. His initial criminal episodes were thefts for survival as a lone teen. But he soon escalated into a larger than life outlaw chased by authorities across New Mexico and Arizona. His best known escapades were during the Lincoln County War in New Mexico in 1878.

Fort Stanton sat 10 miles west of Lincoln, NM. The fort was built in 1855, to provide military fortification against the raiding Mescalero Apaches. It served in this capacity until 1896. The fort was a bustling enterprise in the county and at the heart of the Lincoln County War. As with most “wars”, it all boiled down to money. Prior to 1876, Lincoln County was dominated both economically and politically by Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan, the proprietors of LG Murphy and Co. They monopolized and grew rich on fat government contracts for beef and supplies to Fort Stanton.

Competition Comes to Town

In 1876, John Tunstall arrived in Lincoln and created a competing cattle ranch, store, and bank in partnership with the young attorney Alexander McSween and cattleman John Chisum. “And the rest is history” as they say. Each faction brought in gunfighting gangs and the bodies started to pile up. Billy the Kid was in the Regulators who were backed by the Tunstall faction. Tunstall was killed by the competing Evans gang and the Regulators retaliated by killing Sheriff Brady. Everything culminated in the 5 day shoot out, Battle of Lincoln. McSween was killed and the Regulators scattered. The last legendary player in this drama was Pat Garrett who was appointed as Sheriff, and spent the next 3 years chasing Billy the Kid.

Lincoln County New Mexico
Fort Stanton offers a patchwork of history.

Let’s Go! Learn Things in Lincoln County New Mexico…
Fort Stanton, probably one of the most authentic and informative historic sites of The Wild West
Discover Lincoln County and Ruidoso,


So after all this talk of outlaws, there are naturally prisons in The Wild West. Wild West outlaws were often shot or hung. But there were still plenty of bad guys to warrant a Territorial Prison. The Yuma Territorial Prison was established in 1876 when Arizona was still a territory. This prison sat on the Colorado River in the brutal Arizona sun. It held men and women, including many Mormon leaders imprisoned for polygamy. Local history has it that the Yuman citizens resented the “modern conveniences” provide the prisoners. After touring the site, I cannot imagine that there was anything resembling luxury in this facility.

Today the Colorado River is a dry river valley and Yuma remains one of the hottest spots in Arizona. Popular myth claims it is also one of the best haunted sites. If you are one who loves such things, you can spend an evening of “ghostly entertainment” in the cells.

The Wild West

The Southwest is packed with opportunities to relive The Wild West. Some sites are action-packed but cheesy, and other sites are very rugged and authentic to the original history. The Southwest is also scattered with ghost towns, abandoned mines, wagon ruts and stagecoach rest stops. These remnants of a rugged and wild history are fascinating to explore. It is no wonder that The Wild West was so readily romanticized and exaggerated by artists and storytellers.
Come discover for yourself the unique world of the American West…

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