What Was It Like To Live In The Wild West?

Have you ever thought about what it would be like to live in the Wild West?

It’s easy to think it was fun because of how simple life was on the frontier, riding horses, cooking food at campsites, sleeping under the starry sky, fetching food supplies and items from town, and more.

Or maybe having a general store or setting up a saloon would have been easy and fun.

However, if you’re a lover of old Western movies, you will have a glimpse of the dark side of life in the Wild West. For example, the films depict scenes of bloodshed and nasty instances in the old West.


“The Cow Boy”, taken near Sturgis, Dakota Territory Photo by John C. H. Grabill

Interestingly, attitude played a significant role in the stories we hear of the lawless West—a lot of which have been rewritten to help provide a clear status of the proceedings in the Wild West.

Life in the West was pretty complex. For example, Dodge City, one of the most lawless towns, is mischaracterized by gun violence and other myths. But it doesn’t mean it was safe to live there. On the contrary, it was dangerous—it’s just not what the movies show.

With many movies glorifying the life in the Wild West, many people wish they had grown up in a different era to have a taste of what it looked like. But what was it like to survive in the ancient days of cowboys and outlaws?

The West had Rampant Illnesses

When Dr. Jim Kornberg published an article about “The Fastest Killer in the Old West” in the True West Magazine, many people expected it to be gun violence.

However, to many people’s surprise, it was Cholera. After all, a bullet can only manage to kill a few people compared to Cholera, which would keep on taking many lives every day.

For instance, in 1873, a significant cholera pandemic swept across the Old West. During this time, the medical world knew how the pandemic spread—through bodily fluids—cholera poison.

This prompted Dr. John M. Woodworth to present a 1,144-page report to Congress, indicating that the only way to mitigate the spread was by disinfecting everything.

Unfortunately, getting your hands on a disinfectant in the West was daunting; so many lives were lost—and it was just one disease destroying lives and livelihoods. Even worse, according to the National Park Service, the West also battled other conditions, including dysentery, measles, pneumonia, scurvy, and Smallpox.

Smallpox was brought about by the Spanish, who migrated to the Wild West. Together with other European diseases, it killed nearly 90% of American natives in North and Southern America. Moreover, it led to horrifying instances, as David Dary, a historian, recounts the incident via The New York Times. He discovered that an Apache medicine man diagnosed two babies with Smallpox, placed them together, and shot them dead.

Numerous Killings

If you watched any Hollywood Western movie, you would understand that dead bodies were lying everywhere. Everyone was forced to flee or make do with the killings—no one was safe in the Wild West.

However, Terry Anderson, a Montana State University professor emeritus of economics, told LiveScience that the movies exaggerate some of the incidences in the Wild West. Further, he indicates that as much as people settled disputes with bullets, there were many instances where people solved issues using civil measures. 

Dodge City Kansas
Dodge City Kansas

The bottom line is that life in the Wild West was not all peaceful. According to the Ohio State University’s Criminal Justice Research Center’s research on homicide rates in the Wild West, residents of the Dodge City had a 1 in 61 probability of losing their lives between 1876 and 1885. The research center found that the homicide rate was about 165 per 100,000. Therefore, dying a violent death was real, and people lived with constant fear.

You were Lucky to Reach the Wild West

Before thinking about survival in the Wild West, you had to find the safest route to get there. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy, and there was a chance that you would die along the way.

Britannica indicates that 300,000 and 400,000 people used the Oregon Trail between the 1840s and 1860s. Out of these vast numbers, one in 10 died before getting to the West. People traveling through the Oregon Trail died in different ways, including accidents, diseases, gunshot wounds, harsh weather conditions, drowning, and more. 

Overturned Wagon on the Oregon Trail

Those were the common causes of deaths across the Oregon Trail, but there were other risks. Rattlesnake bites were deadly, and people inside wagon trains died because of a stampeding herd. Since most people traveled with their animals, including horses, horses, and oxen, riding accidents led to death. While people were kicked and killed in stampedes, the worse of it all was people getting crushed by wheels or other wagons.

Death of Many Native Americans

When discussing death in the Old West, it’s necessary to indicate the people affected the most.

The Native Americans who had lived for generations on their land died in great numbers.

Despite the lack of clarity on the exact numbers, North America is said to have hosted an estimated population of between 5 million to 15 million by the time Christopher Columbus sailed up. It’s intriguing how the numbers dropped to 238 000 by the end of the 19th Century, according to historical records.

It’s both complicated and challenging to explain what exactly happened. However, some significant causes are involved in those massive deaths. History suggests that Smallpox was among the essential contributors to those countless deaths.

According to history, a series of wars also decreased the number of people at a greater rate. There was the Battle of Tippecanoe, the 1812 War, and the War of Seminole. Also, the Sand Creek Massacre contributed immensely to the massacres.

In the 1830s, many Native Americans were killed through forced relocations, famous as the Trail of Tears.

The U.S. Government chose a land they forced many people to move into. As a result, people were forced to travel thousands of miles away from their homes. And, of course, several lost their lives along the way. Eventually, only the exceptional Native Americans were the ones who survived the Old West and were not the norm.

The Cures were more dangerous than the diseases.

In his book “Frontier Medicine,” historian David Dary deeply delved into the disturbing doctor situation in the Wild West. He discovered that the doctors made things up and provided prescriptions that caused more damage than illness or injury.

This left many patients with a few options: nursing their problems, relying on the doctors, or giving up. If the doctor came, he could possibly make it worse.

Because of the tricky treatment situation, many people resorted to self-medication to treat chronic conditions.

The Death of Many Chinese Immigrants Due To Racism and Xenophobia

According to the Library of Congress, the Gold Rush brought an influx of Chinese immigrants. It is said that in the year 1852, the City of California received 20,000 Chinese immigrants. There was serious conflict between the Chinese people, and it was somehow Government-sanctioned.

A piece of legislation known as the Foreign Miners License Law forced the Chinese miners into paying $20 ($675 in today’s currency) per month to allow them to work in the mines.

According to the National Geographic records, the most deadly events happened on the 24th of October, 1871, when L.A.’s most significant mass lynching was experienced, mainly targeting the Chinese. 

19th Century Chinese immigrants. Courtesy The Byrom-Daufel

After they entered the U.S., Chinese people were subjected to all sorts of assaults and abuses. Despite LA being a small place back in the 19th Century, violence and crime went unpunished. There was no Justice for the Chinese, Native Americans, and the Black people because they were banned from testifying against the whites (who were the majority) in court.

Then there were murder groups like the Ku Klux Klan, which was Formally-organized to champion murders, arson, lynching, and assaults. For any Chinese, living in the Old West was deadly as they would be killed anywhere.

Life in the Wild West was Hard

The challenges we face now cannot compare to the suffering in the Wild West. At the time, many people lost lives beginning from when they were immigrating to the Old West.

Even worse, the outbreak of diseases such as Cholera, measles, Smallpox, and dysentery led to massive loss of lives. On top of that, the risk of dying violent deaths was astronomically high, making people flee or live in fear.

What do you think? Would you have survived in the Wild West based on the tricky and dangerous circumstances? I bet many would have relished the opportunity to live during this era, but that’s if you are the kind who would put up with the dangers that existed.

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