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What is the Wild West?

Dan Cavallari
By
Updated May 17, 2024
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The term Wild West refers to area of the United States west of the Mississippi river, specifically during the latter part of the 19th century and into the early 20th century. Also sometimes called the Old West, the parts of the country included in the term Wild West vary depending on the historical context. Some historians consider the area of the United States from the Mississippi river all the way to the Pacific Ocean the Wild West, while others have a narrower definition, including only the southwest United States and California.

Before the Civil War, the United States had begun its expansion westward with the belief that the country was destined to do so. This belief was called Manifest Destiny, and it was popular in the middle part of the nineteenth century as the U.S. government began setting its sights on land controlled by Mexico. Expansion was slowed by the Civil War, but after the end of the war, the United States expanded quickly through what would later become the western United States.

The Wild West was noted for more than just its geographical location, however. Since the expansion of the United States westward toward the Pacific Ocean was often a hostile expansion — forcing Native Americans from their lands and traveling through and settling in harsh landscapes — battles, lawlessness, adventurous journeys, and life-threatening situations were a part of daily life. Expansion into the west by white settlers created tensions between the settlers and Native American tribes, which was one of the main reasons the Wild West was so wild.

Another reason was because of a new code of conduct that became prevalent as towns began to spring up. No longer did citizens of these towns believe that they should flee from a fight and avoid conflict, as was often the common behavior in the eastern states. Instead, people believed they should be able to defend themselves and their properties if they were provoked. This led to gunfights and other violence, but often, the real lawlessness was far less severe: town sheriffs spent a significant amount of time trying to keep drunks from hurting themselves or others.

Much of the hostility of the Wild West came from conflicts between new settlers and Native Americans, as well as Mexicans, who felt their land was being encroached upon and taken from them. The Indian Wars caused a significant loss of life from both Native Americans and new settlers. Outlaws and bandits roamed the Wild West, such as Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and Butch Cassidy, perpetuating the idea of lawlessness in the region.

UnitedStatesNow is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Dan Cavallari
By Dan Cavallari , Former Writer
Dan Cavallari, a talented writer, editor, and project manager, crafts high-quality, engaging, and informative content for various outlets and brands. With a degree in English and certifications in project management, he brings his passion for storytelling and project management expertise to his work, launching and growing successful media projects. His ability to understand and communicate complex topics effectively makes him a valuable asset to any content creation team.

Discussion Comments

By dega2010 — On Nov 12, 2010

@alex94: There are many accounts of Billy the Kid and you will rarely read the same thing twice. The information is different in every article.

One account is that Billy the Kid really only killed 4 men: Windy Cahill, Joe Grant, Jim Bell, and Bob Olinger.

Other accounts say that he killed 21 people.

By CarrotIsland — On Nov 12, 2010

@alex94: Billy the Kid, also known as Henry McCarty, William H. Bonney, William Antrim, Kid Antrim, and Henry Antrim was born in New York City in 1859. By most accounts, Billy the Kid was born by the name of Henry McCarty to parents Patrick and Catherine McCarty. However, it has also been said that he was born William H. Bonney to parents William and Catherine Bonney. We will probably never know which account is true.

Either way, Billy the Kid was quite a character. His outlaw career began when he was 15 years old. He became a fugitive and ventured to the Arizona territory. He was first called “kid” in 1877. He moved on to New Mexico and took on the name William H. Bonney and worked for John Tunstall who ended up being a father figure to the “kid”. Tunstall was murdered and the “kid” wanted revenge.

Billy the Kid and several others were sworn in as constables and formed a group known as “The Regulators”. Their sole purpose was to avenge Tunstall’s death. They went on a killing spree and were then considered dangerous fugitives.

The number of people killed by “the kid” has been said to be around 17.

By alex94 — On Nov 12, 2010

I am looking for some information on Billy the Kid. I know he was one of those "wild west gunslinger's" and I was told that I need to watch the movie "Young Guns" but I need a bit more info for a paper I'm doing in History. Thanks.

Dan Cavallari

Dan Cavallari

Former Writer

Dan Cavallari, a talented writer, editor, and project manager, crafts high-quality, engaging, and informative content for various outlets and brands. With a degree in English and certifications in project management, he brings his passion for storytelling and project management expertise to his work, launching and growing successful media projects. His ability to understand and communicate complex topics effectively makes him a valuable asset to any content creation team.
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