Originally Published September 4, 2009
All our lives, we have heard about the Wild West. From cowboys to miners, to the “savage natives” who steal innocent white women, the lawless gangs who think of nothing but drinking, gambling, robbing banks and trains and shooting up town to the detriment of the few innocents who live there – foolish them. Stories of glorious gamblers and beautiful prostitutes with hearts of gold. Dime novels of the time thrilled and horrified our eastern counterparts, and eastern newspapers never hesitated to scoop up any story that showed the “wildness” of our western states. The Wild West became a big business starting in the 1880s and lasting through today.
Modern movies like Tombstone, Silverado, and Pale Rider, depict towns run by power hungry dictators who are feared by the locals and allowed to do pretty much what they like, until the hero or heroes come to town and give the bad guys their comeuppance. These add to our view of the West as a lawless, dangerous place.
Now some of the stories we have heard about the west are true, like the cattle wars between the free range ranchers and the farmers who fenced off their property. The cattle drives from the plains to Mexico and back. Most mining towns had more brothels and bars per capita than they did general stores and even houses. Train and bank robberies happened, and the reaction of the Native Americans to settlers moving into and taking the land they thought of as theirs was often violent.
But there is a side of the West most people don’t hear about. The cemeteries of the towns tell the story; filled with the graves of families. Families we often see in the background of the western movies but whom we rarely hear anything about because, like the average family today, their lives just weren’t dramatic, even if they lived in somewhat dramatic settings.
Even in the wildest mining towns like Leadville, families came in and lived around all the hubbub and noise of a 24 hour town. They ran the businesses every town needs – the general stores, the banks, the doctors, the lumber mills, laundries, legitimate boarding houses, restaurants, dry goods, and kitchens. They brought with them Victorian proprieties and values, and as the mines became prosperous, more families came to fill the needs of a growing town. Single women of good character came West with hopes of marrying, and within months, they were. Schools were built, and as the families came, so did the law. Gambling and prostitution were deemed immoral and their practices toned down. Eventually, these common sights were deemed illegal and the gamblers and many of the prostitutes moved on to greener pastures. As the mines started to play out, the markets got glutted, the miners left to find better places to mine, returned to the east or settled into new careers in the West. What was left were those families who came West and set the foundations of towns down out of a collection of buildings and people.
Without these regular families, these common folk, the towns and even the state of Colorado wouldn’t exist. And while they came at the height of Victorianism, bringing those ideas, they were also a breed of their own.
Proper, staid Victorians would have never considered moving West – none of the amenities of Eastern life, all the dangers you could imagine. It wasn’t an easy trip either. At the time the Homestead Act came into effect n 1863, railroads didn’t reach out into the plains very far. Wagon and horse or oxen was the only way to go. Supply stops were few and far between and the way just wasn’t easy. But land for such a small fee, with the only stipulation that you must live on and work the land for a period of five years, seemed like a way to fulfill a dream that couldn’t be fulfilled in the East, where land was becoming scarce and expensive.
Even these journeys West were filled with dramatic stories-the Donner party comes to mind, as does the dramatic story of Alferd Packer and his unusual dining choices. More dime novels were written about the Native Americans and the lady’s magazines were filled with stories from women who had supposedly been kidnapped and held hostage, treated to indignities no Victorian woman should be able to bear.
The real dangers came from sudden changes in weather, starting out too late in the year, from runaway horses and wagons, and to women, the biggest threat to them was the sunbonnet. Yes, that’s right, the sunbonnet. In doing its duty to block the sun from the woman’s face and neck, it also acts as a blinder and also muffles the ears, so in the case of a startled horse or a broken wagon, they would not be able to see to get out of the way, and may not have been able to hear shouts directed at them. Many women on the trail were injured or died in this way.
Photos have been taken of the items taken out of wagons and left to the wayside as the wagon trails entered the mountains, left behind of necessity to lighten the burden on the horses or oxen, to ensure everything else, especially the family, made it safely to their destination.
This took a certain type of person to be able to travel this way, to land in an area where nothing existed, or where the current lifestyle was much different from what they were used to. It took a certain type of man to able to bring their families out West, to take the risk to start over with a potentially high risk of failure. But it took an even different kind of woman to be able to accompany her husband on this endeavor, leaving behind the familiar comforts of the East, or in some cases, to come alone or with female companions, planning to homestead on their own. This type of woman flaunted all conventions of the Victorian era – they were not the frail, dainty, skill-less and thoughtless ideals of femininity. These women were quickly viewed differently, and were soon seen to be the mental, if not physical, equals of the men. It was these women that provided the impetus for the Western states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Idaho to give women the right to vote long before any other area of the country considered it. It was women like this that laid the foundation for Colorado as it is now, and who, even while living in soddies or rough hewn log cabins, found away to bring the more genteel aspects of life to the area. It was these women who were the impetus for the laws and “civilizing” of the West.
These common, everyday folk – the foundation of the West, of Colorado as we know it today. We need to remember them and celebrate these not so wild aspects of the West.