As the United States began to rebuild after the Civil War, the idea of moving to the West—the far West—seemed appealing to some living in the war-torn South. Railroads were expanding during this period and provided more access to the frontier. During the mid-18th to early-19th centuries, the image of the Western frontier was shaped by newspapers and dime novels that often romanticized the bandits, lawmen, and free-wheeling nature of that place and time. The truth was something else entirely.
People saw opportunity, but many were more likely to have their horses and livestock stolen by rustlers, be swindled by traveling salesmen, or run afoul of crooked lawmen. The Western frontier was a harsh, decentralized world compared with the more-developed infrastructure of the East. In some places, residents themselves acted as law, judge, and jury. The West was wild in more than just name, and many took advantage of this environment to take a nibble from the good ole American pie: think Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, Charles “Black Bart” Boles, Etta Place.
This was a fitfully ruthless and lawless time, one that continues to stoke imaginations and curiosity, a time when people got by on a combination of preparation, wits, and luck, it’s full of names that are forever etched in the American consciousness. Here are some places where you can get closer to the myth and reality alike.
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