Living in the Old West: Photos from the early days of the United States

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The US National Archive is a genuine treasure trove of amazing imagery from times gone by, a huge set of documentation that acts as a testament to how things used to be, in all different walks of life.

Its images from the Old West are some of its most impactful, showcasing how the modern nation was born, and both upending and validating our preconceived notions of what life looked like on the frontier and in towns and cities.

We’ve been trawling through its list of photographs for weeks now, gathering together some of the most interesting and arresting shots, like those below. 

US National Archive

A spot for lunch

There’s nothing like heading out for a picnic in the shade of what is a frankly enormous cactus – the sort of cactus you remember from Looney Tunes. These guests of the garrison at Fort Thomas in Arizona look like they’re having a delightful day, despite the guns everywhere. 

US National Archive

Rudimentary

It might not be easy to make out at first, but these men are actually gathered for the solemn occasion of a game of poker – it looks like they’ve got plenty of work to do, but there’s never really a bad time to sit down for a few hands, right?

US National Archive

Hillside views

This is another image where it might not be immediately obvious what’s actually going on – it’s recreation, again, although with a side of skillful practise, as these men work on some target practise with their firearms.

US National Archive

Water, water everywhere

This photo shows that getting water circulating around a new town was hardly a simple matter (not that we’d assume it would be). The water tower being erected here in Oklahoma would be a key part of the initial infrastructure for the area. 

US National Archive

Hustle and bustle

It’s amazing to us that this photograph was taken in the same year as the last, 1893 – it demonstrates just how far ahead some territories could be based on immigration and growth. This bustling cotton market is a far cry from the badlands it once occupied. 

US National Archive

Someone’s got to build it

Of course, those towns don’t just pop up out of nowhere – they had to be built, and before the days of industrial tools and automation that meant hard work and an absolutely huge bucket of elbow grease. 

US National Archive

Family life

This photograph showcases another side to the American West – the family life, in a house that’s clearly recently built, and to be fair is nice and chunky, giving plenty of space. The photo’s a little underexposed, giving one side of the house that menacing dark look, which we think increases the image’s impact. 

US National Archive

Business goes on

A key part of the growth of these towns is, of course, the arrival of business and commerce, and in the early days many businesses would have to cater to multiple diverse needs. If you had a supply of wood, for example, you might set up shop selling both furniture and coffins, as this shop has. 

US National Archive

A sight for sore eyes

Where people settle, food follows, and people will almost always be interested in spending their disposable income on some food they don’t have to prepare themselves. It might be a little strong to call this a restaurant, but the English Kitchen certainly looks like an early one.

US National Archive

I am the law

You couldn’t necessarily rely on having a huge list of lawyers to choose from if you wanted some legal work done back then, but you’d hopefully be able to find help from the likes of J. W. Craig and others who ironed out disputes over land in particular. 

US National Archive

Cosy

Another delightful picture of a place that must have been treasured by many, The Bijou saloon would indeed look like a jewel if you were particularly thirsty for a drink – although we’re amused to see how tiny it is given how many people are stood outside it!

US National Archive

Photo day

Another great group shot, this is a reminder that growing up in the West still meant going to school, unless you were really rural – this shot of a class full of kids is a great one that echoes down to the similar class photographs still being taken all over the world today. 

US National Archive

Airs and graces

This is about as fancy a building as we’ve seen in the Archive from this period, photographed in around 1897 or 1898, and it’s no surprise to learn that it’s the home of an early university, which would want to house its students in something a little more sophisticated. 

US National Archive

Quite a clan

This image shows another type of educational institution – a local church’s sunday school in Oklahoma, which explains why everyone’s dressed up quite so fancy. It’s a diverse group and shows the sort of communities that would spring up and centre around faith. 

US National Archive

Vice

Faith couldn’t repel all vices, though, and gambling was an early arrival in the United States, becoming a staple for movies about the West, too. This table’s playing Faro, which isn’t quite so popular anymore, but still feels characteristic of the feel of a saloon. 

US National Archive

Beachside

How’s that for an imposing location? We can’t help but feel that building such a huge structure quite so close to ocean is asking for trouble, but it doesn’t half look picturesque. This was taken near San Francisco in 1902, and we’re really fond of the choice to have the family outing in the foreground to lend a sense of scale. 

US National Archive

Patience personified

This cow looks like it’s fairly used to having to cart around the youngsters on its back, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. They look like they’re having a whale of a time, and it’s a lovely image of a happy time. 

US National Archive

Rustic

This church is a great reminder that not all buildings at this time were something you could call impressive – it’s got a character to it, for sure, but also looks more than a little rustic. The scorching heat of the New Mexico day is almost palpable, too. 

US National Archive

The high street

In many small towns across the country, this is what a high street looked like a for a very long time – some shops with porches, many without, and huge lettering on signs to let you know where to head to pick up your supplies. 

US National Archive

Shamrock Saloon

We’ve seen plenty of images of saloons in this collection, and our final image is another, showcasing the Shamrock Saloon, which looks to also be advertising itself as a restaurant if you were feeling brave. It’s just a shame for the owner that his face is shadowed out of the image! 

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