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Need to Know


Some call it the Old West, some the Wild West and others, the Wild Frontier, but what exactly was it?

2.8 The price per acre, in cents, that the US paid for the French territory in the Louisiana Purchase

The images that ‘Wild West’ conjures up – cowboys, outlaws and gunfights at high noon – mostly originate from just a few decades in the 19th century. A male-dominated and largely lawless time, it has become an iconic part of American folklore, finding popular expression in its own enduring genre of books, movies and TV shows.

Values and ideas espoused in Westerns – concepts of liberty, justice (often administered through violence), self-reliance, independence, bravery, honour, and the right to bear arms and protect property – remain a powerful part of the modern American psyche.

But this is just one element of the American Old West, an era that refuses to be tidily filed between two chronological bookends and which began, confusingly, in the East. The West’s wild origins are found two centuries earlier, on the opposite side of America, when English colonists on the Atlantic coast started to move into the interior, in search of land, creating a fluid ‘frontier’ that crept west across the continent like an incoming tide.

BREAKING AWAY Governor William Henry Harrison later became the ninth US President

French and Dutch settlers also set themselves up along the North Atlantic American coast, but the English displayed a greater hunger for land, having typically been denied access to property ownership back in Britain. This was in plentiful supply in the New World, just beyond the pale of the embryonic colonies.

BREAKING AWAY At the Battle of Bunker Hill, the British won a pyrrhic victory over the American Revolutionists

While land-grabbing agriculturists gradually pushed the main frontier west, fleeter-footed mountain men went ahead, pursuing valuable beaver pelts along adventurous routes. Hunters and trappers pioneered paths across the Appalachian and Rocky mountain ranges, which would later see the mass migrations of those chasing gold or simply seeking a new life.

ON THE RIGHT TRACK The First Transcontinental Railroad, c1869, stretches across America


The average speed of migrants trekking along the Oregon Trail in Prairie Schooner wagons was about 15 to 20 miles a day.

LIFE COACHING With their life’s possessions packed up in wagons, a group of settlers rest in the foothills of the Rockies


All this took place against a backdrop of constant conflict and shifting boundaries. Between 1688 and 1763, British and French colonies went to war four times. This partly reflected wars between the parent powers in Europe, but tensions also mounted over control of the lucrative fur trade. Britain was the eventual victor, swiping much of Canada and territories east of the Mississippi from France.

Before the dust settled, however, the 13 battle-hardened British colonies on the Atlantic coast began to resent their tax-happy motherland, and started pushing for independence, which ultimately led to the American Revolutionary War 1775-83 and the birth of the United States.

Alarmed at the rapid expansion of the US after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase (see right), the British allied with tribes against the US during the War of 1812, promising to halt the westward advance of settlers by establishing a Native American state. They were outdone, however, by frontier militiamen under the leadership of commanders such as General Andrew Jackson and Governor William Henry Harrison.

By this time, the Lewis and Clark Expedition had reached the shores of the Pacific Ocean and the South Pass through the central Rockies had been discovered. Wagon wheels started to roll in earnest and ‘Manifest Destiny’ – the concept that the US could and should span the entire continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific – looked like it would be self-fulfilling.

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June 2015 issue of History Revealed