If you could go back in time, would you want to live in the Wild West? Hollywood has done a commendable job of portraying what life used to be like in the Old West. However, as we all know, producers and filmmakers love to exaggerate things to achieve optimal results. Yes, people rode horses everywhere while looking after cattle. Life was simple. For instance, people slept under the open skies after cooking food at campsites. And there was a lot of shooting going on. However, there was more to life in the western frontier than most movies display. Here is an accurate record from historians regarding what life was really like in the Wild West.

It Was Severely Affected By Diseases

Starting on a negative note, the Wild West was severely affected by diseases, chief among them being cholera. Contrary to popular opinion, gun violence wasn’t the leading cause of death in the Old West; cholera was!

In 1873, cholera ravaged the Wild West so bad that it forced Dr. John Woodworth to present a detailed report explaining how to mitigate this disease. The problem was that disinfectants weren’t readily available in the Wild West. Therefore, more people kept on dying.

Apart from cholera, the people were also affected by Smallpox, scurvy, pneumonia, measles, and dysentery. Most of these diseases were brought in by outsiders, such as the Spanish. As if that wasn’t enough, doctors during the Wild West were quite incompetent. They made stuff up, which only increased the number of deaths.

Gun Violence Was Rampant

In the Wild West, if you weren’t going to be killed by a disease, a bullet would have done the trick. Even though Old Western movies exaggerate the extent of the violence, a lot of people were killed during this era. According to Terry Anderson from Montana State University, violence was indeed high, but the people also found amicable ways to solve their problems.

From 1876 to 1885, people in the Wild West had a 1 in 61 chance of dying. The issue of gun violence started when the Appalachians began moving into the Ohio Valley. At that moment, a gun was a must-have tool for everybody. It was the first line of defense.

According to historians, though, most acts of gun violence were amongst settlers rather than with Native Americans. That’s because settlers were fighting for the newly found resources such as gold and cattle. The Old West had both law-abiding citizens and cold-blooded killers and cattle rustlers. Unfortunately, the latter happened to be more.

Getting to the Wild West Wasn’t Easy

Unless you were a Native American, getting to the Old West was not easy. Majority of the newcomers passed through the Oregon Trail. To put this into perspective, 1 out of every 10 travelers died on the way to the Old West.

The causes of death were either gunshots, disease, or bad weather. Even the Native Americans who had occupied the Wild West for many years were severely affected, and most of them died, too. Historians claim there were at least five million Native Americans in the 15th century. By the end of the 19th century, only 200,000 were left.

Factors That Contributed to the Native American Population Decline in the Wild West

Several reasons caused the decline of the Native American population in the Wild West. For instance, the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 led to the death of hundreds of Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians. Also, during the Trail of Tears, more than 60,000 native Americans were forcefully relocated from the Wild West.

Native Americans were not the only ones who felt the wrath of the Wild West. Chinese immigrants who had moved to California during the Gold Rush of the 1850s faced numerous violence. In October 1871, there was a mass lynching where many Chinese immigrants lost their lives.

Murderers in the Wild West were never brought to justice because of the vast expanse of terrain that existed. The federal oversight was minimal, and most people were focused on making money. However, the Wild West was not a state of anarchy as portrayed in the movies. There were long periods of peace, without which the settlers would never have been able to come together and enforce laws to govern their society. For instance, cattle owners divided the plots, which was initially free range.

What Was the Life of a Typical Cowboy Like in the Wild West?

It’s impossible to talk about the Wild West and not mention the life of a typical cowboy. Movies have romanticized cowboys but they didn’t have the best of lifestyles. The main job of a cowboy was to herd cattle, and they never had time to sleep because they were busy staying on guard. The two to three hours of sleep they would get was spent on transportable mattresses packed with bedbugs and lice.

Whenever they were in a new town, they would spend most of their time chatting with the ladies at a salon. They used a lot of metaphors in their language and would curse a lot. The dress code of a cowboy wasn’t designed to make him look sharp but was chosen on a practical basis.

Hats were designed to protect them from the sun. They wore boots with pointy edges to mount and unmount a horse quickly. Something Old Western movies are right about is how intelligent and strong cowboys were. Also, they would make a lot of money to compensate for their demanding lifestyle.

As interesting as duels at high noon or rodeos may seem, life in the Wild West was tough. Danger was always lurking, and the jobs were extremely difficult.

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General Knowledge, History,

Last Update: July 8, 2024