The Wild West

The Wild West refers to a time and place in American history surrounding the settlement of the western states in the second half of the nineteenth century. Cowboys epitomized a unique type of Western character, and they figured prominently after the Civil War through the 1890s when transportation facilities were scanty. Cowboys had to drive cattle to shipping points over long distances, and they often had to keep the livestock safe from thieves and marauding animals. Because these hardy souls were tough at times, the cowboy figure reached mythical status, becoming legend. Songs and tales were based on cowboy escapades, as were motion pictures and television programs decades later.

Who was Buffalo Bill?

One of the most colorful figures of the Old West was born William Frederick Cody in Iowa in 1846. He earned his nickname for his hunting skill while supplying Kansas Pacific Railroad workers with buffalo meat. His Buffalo Bill's Wild West show featured real cowboys and real Native Americans portraying the “real West.” By the turn of the century, Buffalo Bill was one of the most famous and most recognizable men in the world.

Towns such as Abilene, Kansas, prospered in the late 1860s and throughout the next decade as cattle were loaded and shipped by rail to eastern markets. Cheyenne, Wyoming, was founded and became prominent as a division point for the Union Pacific Railroad. Dodge City, Kansas, was founded in 1872 with the arrival of the railroad, and developed into a major shipping point for trail herds.

Although the process of pushing Native Americans westward started much earlier, a number of skirmishes, otherwise known as the Indian Wars, occurred in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In 1868, Congress had recognized the Black Hills of South Dakota as sacred to the Sioux and Cheyenne, but the deal was called off when gold was discovered there. It became common practice for the government to move Native Americans onto reservations whenever their current settlements impeded so-called progress.

On June 25, 1876, federal cavalry with George A. Custer in the lead attacked the camp of Chief Sitting Bull on the Little Big Horn River in Montana. The Native Americans prevailed, killing Custer and his troops, but their victory was short-lived. Federal troops later forced the Native Americans to surrender.

In 1863, the Nez Perce were ordered to a reservation following the discovery of gold on their lands. Chief Joseph the Elder denounced the United States, destroyed his American flag and his Bible, and refused to move his band from the Wallowa Valley or sign the treaty that would make the new reservation boundaries official. After his death in 1871, his son, Chief Joseph, continued the resistance of the Nez Perce to the resettlement orders of the federal government. After a 1,400-mile march toward Idaho and then Canada, Chief Joseph and his band of 700 finally surrendered to federal troops numbering more than 2,000.

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