wild West

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Wild West is a - geographically and historically roughly limited - colloquial term for the areas roughly west of the Mississippi of today's United States , which in the era of the 19th century, also known as the "pioneering era", was not yet a state in the Union of the United States were included.

In the course of the advancing land grabbing and urbanization , the settlement of these regions increased continuously , especially by Anglo-Americans - or immigrants from Europe - until the areas were absorbed into the organized territories of the United States around 1890. The opening of the last Indian territories in what would later become the US state of Oklahoma for settlement by colonists in the Oklahoma Land Run in 1889 and the massacre by the US Army of around 200 to 300 Lakota Indians at Wounded Knee Creek / South Dakota in December 1890 are symbolic for the end of the times of the Wild West . These events were the Indian wars as well as complete as the colonization of the hitherto claimed by the United States territories (Engl. Territories ) by the immigrant from Europe settlers .

Since then, the concept of the Wild West , which was largely shaped from the point of view of the Anglo-American conquerors, has been associated with a certain transfiguration up to the present day: Imbued with ideas about freedom , masculinity , the right of the stronger , the struggle for property and similar clichés , mythologization emerged and trivializing the pioneering days of the United States, where the lines between historical facts, legend formation and fictitious stories are often blurred.

United States map. The Indian tribes are shown (their coherent cultural areas highlighted in color) in the area of ​​today's United States when they first came into contact with immigrants from Europe


First explorations

Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia , painting from 1905 by Charles Marion Russell

Explorers like Lewis and Clark , who between 1804 and 1806 were the first to find a continuous overland route from the Atlantic to the Pacific , pioneered the later colonization of the North American West by immigrants mainly from Europe ; or hunters, trappers and fur traders such as B. Jedediah Smith , who advanced beyond the so-called frontier (border to the Indian area) and also entered into trade relations with the Indian groups, which were still undeveloped by the colonists and inhabited by various Indian tribes . Due to the experience of these trappers in terms of local knowledge and a relative familiarity with the language and culture of individual Indian tribes, some of them - including Jim Bridger - later led various settlers' treks (covered wagon columns ) to the west as scouts (scouts or pathfinders in the actual sense of the word) or served the US Army during the Indian Wars as advisers, interpreters in negotiations or trackers.

Jedediah Smith's travels in the western United States. The western half of the green route from 1824 - between South Pass and Columbia River - is already very similar to the later Oregon Trail.
Oregon Trail and California Trail

Natural barriers and first trails

For a long time the Missisippi represented the approximate limit of civilization. There are several natural barriers between this limit and the west coast: First of all, the Great Plains as a supposedly uneconomical prairie landscape. To the west of it the Rocky Mountains . Again to the west of it the Blue Mountains and the Cascade Range in the north and the desert-shaped Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada in the south.

After the discovery of the South Pass , as well as a route through the Rocky Mountains suitable for covered wagons, the Oregon Trail established itself from around the 1840s . This crosses the Great Plains along the Platte River , the Rocky Mountains through the South Pass and the rest of the way along the Snake River towards Oregon, through the Blue Mountains to the Columbia River which ultimately flows into the Pacific.

Soon after, the California Trail established itself . After crossing the Rocky Mountains, this branches off from the Oregon Trail to the southwest and soon meets the Humboldt River , which crosses at least part of the otherwise inhospitable desert landscape of the Great Basin . Then the trail is divided into different variants, but all of them lead through more than 60 km of desert and then through the Sierra Nevada. The tragedy of the Donner Party played out on this trail from 1846–47 .

Historic features of the Wild West

Advertising poster from 1849 for ship passages to California for the gold rush

The era from around 1850 onwards, known as the Wild West in the narrower sense, was characterized by a spirit of optimism, out of which more and more people from the increasingly densely populated east of the United States set out for the west, including a large number of immigrants in particular from Europe - but also former slaves from the southern states of the United States who had fled primarily from the African continent or were formally legally liberated as a result of the war of secession . The latter fact was only very rarely taken into account in the later trivialization of the Wild West .

The new religious community of the Mormons settled in what is now Utah from 1846 in order to be able to live according to their beliefs undisturbed.

The motivation of the other pioneers was shaped for different reasons. For most of them, settling in the East was unaffordable. When gold was found near San Francisco in 1848 , the California gold rush triggered the largest “ gold fever ” in the history of the United States up to that time, which significantly swelled the treks through the west to California.

Cowboy, South Dakota , photo by John CH Grabill circa 1888

Due to the vastness of the country, especially in the fertile plains of the prairie , where the region of the Great Plains merges into the Midwest , in addition to grain cultivation, broad-based cattle breeding in large areas became an important economic factor. Along with it, the cowboy profession achieved the status that made him a central symbol of the Wild West. However, the importance of this profession also decreased from the middle of the 1870s after - due to the expansion of the railway lines and the spread of the barbed wire fence - on the one hand the long cattle drives to the meat markets declined and on the other hand the keeping of the herds of cattle due to the possibility of more effective fencing rapid rationalization of animal husbandry and, accordingly, a social decline in the cowboy profession. The unemployment of former cowboys marked the path to lawlessness for quite a few of them, which was expressed in the relative spread of bandit gangs - especially in the 1870s and 1880s. The number of cowboys involved in various so-called pasture wars of that time, which were mainly about the division of the land, contributed to the creation of legends about this profession - for example in the Lincoln County Cattle War of 1878.

William H. Bonney, known as " Billy the Kid "

Especially after the end of the war of civil secession between the northern and southern states (1861–1865), many people who had failed because of the war and were sometimes brutalized looked for a new beginning in the West. Soldiers of fortune and adventurers often found legal freedom in the relatively undeveloped areas of the United States, which encouraged the development of a pronounced bandit system in some areas .

"Wild Bill" Hickok

Legendary names such as Frank and Jesse James , who gained a notorious reputation through bank and train robberies, or “ Billy the Kid ” refer to the widespread lawlessness in the Wild West, just as the names of their opponents do; the partially corrupt law enforcement officers - sheriffs or US marshals - who often acted as so-called gunslingers in the gray area between law and crime, for example Pat Garrett , Wyatt Earp , "Wild Bill" Hickok and others. a.

The aforementioned notions of supposedly “wild” and “lawless” life, which are partly shaped by Hollywood films, have been relativized by recent research. So they moved the change in Indian policy more into focus.

Effects on the Indian tribes

Indian mass grave at Wounded Knee 1890

With the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave practically all Indian land to settlers, the government had turned more and more away from the policy towards the Plains Indians, which had hitherto been characterized by negotiations and treaties. The vastly increased army was increasingly used after the Civil War to enforce the land interests of the large railway companies, which in turn had good relations with the government. On the side of this alliance, which wanted to oust the Indians from their land, gold prospectors, farmers and cattle breeders found themselves in a climate of constant violence. The starting point was therefore not the absence of a state monopoly on the use of force, but its implementation through military force.

Infrastructural development

Completion of the first transcontinental railway line between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Photograph presented to the press of the solemn meeting of the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad on May 10, 1869 at the Promontory Summit in Utah .

The trails have been steadily expanded and new routes established, such as the Bozeman Trail and the Old Spanish Trail . At the same time, a postal and transport system developed in the 1860s, characterized by the stagecoach lines of the Wells-Fargo Company and the Butterfield Overland Mail , as well as the Pony Express . However, in the same decade, the construction of transcontinental railways and the establishment of telegraph lines resulted in faster, cheaper and safer alternatives for overland transport and information transmission.

The end of the frontier as the habitat of the Wild West

Population density of the western US around 1910. Areas with <2 people per square mile are considered unpopulated Frontier Territory.

The United States Census of 1890 announced the end of the frontier . To draw this border between the populated east and the unpopulated west had become increasingly difficult, after large contiguous settlement areas z. B. had formed in Utah and Colorado, so that settlement there was now the rule, not the exception. By 1910 several settled corridors connected the east with the west coast: in the north along the Northern Pacific Railway ; southerly, directly north of the Great Salt Lake, mostly along the Oregon Trail .

Politically, by 1889 and 1890, the northern territories of the west had all become federal states. The Southwest followed later: Utah 1896. Arizona and New Mexico 1912.

This ended over 200 years of Anglo-American exploration and expansion in North America. The US " Manifest Destiny " had come true. But the supply of unpopulated new land as a breeding ground for the Wild West had dried up.


Promotional poster from 1899 for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show
Sculpture of a horse rider by Frederic Remington from 1909

As early as the late 19th century, the pioneering era was transfigured and romanticized as the “Wild West”. The pioneers were the dime novels ( Groschenhefte ) about " Buffalo Bill " by Ned Buntline in the 1870s ("Buffalo Bill Cody - King of the Border Guards"). Inspired by the obvious populist success of these booklets about his glorified life and some of his own appearances in the plays of Buntline, the former bison hunter , who was actually called William Frederick Cody , recognized his business opportunity and developed a Wild West show based on these penny novels, which too went on tour internationally.

Especially in trivial literature , but also in the film industry , initially mainly in the United States itself, the era of the Wild West experienced a cultural boom. The clichés that are still forming today were cultivated and expanded in particular by Stuart N. Lake in 1931 with “Frontier Marshal”, a biography of Wyatt Earp , through the marshal and sheriff myth , which appeared in the film Twelve Noon (original title: High Noon) reached its stylistic climax in 1952.

Representation in the fine arts and photography

With the American painters Charles M. Russell (1864–1926) and Frederic Remington (1861–1909), the United States provided two (still) contemporary artists who, with their realism- oriented romantic-transfiguring paintings, literally continue to this day the predominant “pictorial” conception of the Wild West .

The photographer William Henry Jackson (1843–1942) captured the scenery of the time and landscapes of the western United States in his famous photos. Edward S. Curtis (1868–1952) was a well-known photographer who portrayed various famous Indians and who documented the everyday life and culture of the Indians at the end of the 19th century in his pictures. Other photographs that document everyday life in the Wild West come, for example, from John CH Grabill .

Literature and film

Book cover of a German edition of the first volume of the “Lederstrumpf” saga ( Der Wildtöter , translated from the original American title: The Deerslayer ) from 1888

In film and literature (primarily entertainment literature), works that depict the time of the Wild West - mostly in the form of fictional (adventure) stories - are often referred to as westerns . A pioneer of the literary form of the Wild West novel was already in the first half of the 19th century James Fenimore Cooper with his leather stocking novels. The writer Zane Gray was one of the more well-known American authors of the 20th century who thematized the Wild West in novels.

The western got its heyday - especially as a film genre - in the 1950s in the United States. Many television series also took up the genre, such as the TV productions Bonanza and Rauchende Colts as examples of two of the most successful and well-known television series in German-speaking countries, which were usually continued at weekly intervals for two decades with self-contained episodes.

Examples of American genre-forming classics of the wild west films produced for the cinema are:

Movie poster for the first Western movie in film history: The Great Train Robbery ( The Great Train Robbery ) 1903
John Ford's Point in Monument Valley , popular filming location for Western in the border region between the US states of Utah and Arizona , in the background of Table Mountain Merrick Butte

Sub-genres of the Wild West film that are not always literally related to the Wild West are:

The lavish 6-part US television feature film Into the West from 2005, produced among others by Steven Spielberg , shot by various directors, depicts a fictional family story of an Anglo-American and his wife from the Lakota people the history of the Wild West between 1827 and 1890 with the claim to historical detail . In the form of an epic , the essential historical cornerstones of the Wild West are presented with special emphasis on the confrontation between the culture of the prairie Indians and that of the "white" colonists. With a total duration of more than eight hours, this multi-part series is the most comprehensive "film adaptation of the Wild West" under one title ever to be presented as a feature film.

European interpretations

In Europe, too, there were different forms of fictional preoccupation with the US pioneering days, for example in the form of part of the adventure novels by Friedrich Gerstäcker as early as the middle of the 19th century and by Karl May towards the end of the 19th century, later up to the present through dime novel , comics and cinematically by the so-called Euro Western and Italowestern .


Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich wrote the novel cycle The Sons of the Great Bear , which was particularly successful in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and still has many followers today.

The wild west in video games

In addition to the representations in film and literature, there are also computer and video games that are set against the backdrop of the Wild West . Examples of this are the strategy game Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive or - those in the 3D shooter segment - action games such as Outlaws , Call of Juarez and Red Dead Redemption .


See also

Portal: Wilder West  - Overview of Wikipedia content on the subject of the Wild West


  • Dee Brown : Bury my heart at the bend of the river. Hoffmann and Campe, Hamburg 1972, ISBN 3-455-00720-1 (history of the Indian wars between 1860 and 1890).
  • Dee Brown: The sun rose in the west. The conquest of the American continent (= Heyne books. No. 7105 Heyne non-fiction book ). Approved, unabridged paperback edition. Heyne, Munich 1980, ISBN 3-453-01057-4 .
  • Thomas J. DiLorenzo: The Culture of Violence in the American West: Myth versus Reality. In: The Independent Review. A Journal of Political Economy. Vol. 15, No. 2, Fall 2010, ISSN  1086-1653 , pp. 227-239, online .
  • Wolfgang Ebert: Wild West. vgs, Cologne 1994, ISBN 3-8025-1285-5 .
  • Alexander Emmerich: The Wild West. Myth and History. Konrad Theiss, Stuttgart 2009, ISBN 978-3-8062-2271-5 .
  • Joe Hembus : The Story of the Wild West 1540-1894. The stuff westerns are made of. Chronology - Mythology - Filmography (= Heyne Books. 19: Heyne-Sachbuch. 487). Extended new edition. Heyne, Munich 1997, ISBN 3-453-11776-X .
  • Paul O'Neil: The Departure to the Wild West. Pioneers, settlers, adventurers. Naumann and Göbel, Cologne 1998, ISBN 3-625-10760-0 .
  • Martin Weidinger: National Myths - Male Heroes. Politics and gender in the American western (= series "Politics of Gender Relations". Vol. 31). Campus-Verlag, Frankfurt am Main et al. 2006, ISBN 3-593-38036-6 (also: Vienna, University, dissertation, 2004).

Web links

Wiktionary: Wilder West  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Evidence / Notes

  1. Martin Weidinger: National Myths - Male Heroes. 2006.
  2. ^ Forty Mile Desert - Virtual Tour . Oregon-California Trails Association. Archived from the original on July 25, 2011. Retrieved July 26, 2011.
  3. US Census Bureau The Website Services & Coordination Staff: Following the Frontier Line, 1790 to 1890 ( EN-US ) Retrieved February 1, 2020.
  4. ^ Statistical Atlas of the United States: Based Upon Results of the Eleventh Census, 1890 . Retrieved July 19, 2020.
  5. Collection of Grabill photographs from the 1880s and 1890s on Commons