A lawless time of discovery: Early photos from the Old West

We’ve been having an absolute whale of time over the last few weeks perusing the US National Archive’s extensive collection of digitized photos from the American West – it sure beats sitting in lockdown being miserable. 

From how the West was mapped to what it was like to settle there as a small family, we’ve seen telling images that showcase what life was like for folks back then, and acting as a testament to the very earliest forms of camera technology. Well, we’ve delved into the archive again, to pull out some more amazing images for your browsing pleasure – enjoy!

Moving in 

The process of settling in the old West shouldn’t be underestimated – it involved family units braving adverse conditions to secure land that they were by no means guaranteed, and often meant that they might be living without a permanent or built home for long periods of time. 

Packing light

Of course, many people came who had no families to speak of, and it was no easier for them. This man scours the campsite that’s sprung up to secure himself a plot of land in what will eventually be a town, he hopes. 

Getting ready to build

Once you found a lot, you’d best keep hold of it – that’s what these folks are doing, ensuring that they don’t lose out on their hand-picked and hard-won patch through a bit of laziness or naivety. 

Trading without a shop

As towns began to take shape, and lots were assigned, commerce would already be starting in whatever way it could, as demonstrated by this blacksmith working without a shop of any sort, just a makeshift furnace and bellows. 

Tent cities

As towns expanded, these scenes of tent encampments and new arrivals would repeat, allowing for more residents to arrive and stake their claim to lots while the town carried on next to them. 

Time to move

Of course, a town’s survival was often tied at the hip to its links to other towns and cities, and the railway was as symbolic of this struggle as anything else – when the tracks arrived, it could spell the future salvation of a town. 

Grab your plot

When it came to registering your parcel of land, people could often find themselves at the back of extraordinary queues at the Land Office, as demonstrated here – each man a hopeful prospective landowner. 

Temporary lodgings

Meanwhile, it’s easy to overlook how grim it could be in these tent camps, which were hardly the image most people would have had in their minds as they moved to the frontier. 

Rustic hotel

If you wanted temporary lodgings, meanwhile, it wasn’t exactly easy to find established hotels – this set of outdoors beds shows that people would often take what they could find. 

The Land Office

The Land Office had a crucial role to play, and it’s no surprise to see how big their staff was, along with the Clerical Force and local Marshalls – these men were very much the bureaucratic backbone of new towns. 

A town takes shape

This wider, more zoomed-out view shows how the arrival of timber and the erection of shacks and barns could start the process of a camp converting into a town, but it must have seemed a daunting process to those living through it. 


Of course, it’s far from the case that you could happily just pick a plot and rely on no one else contesting it, in which case auctions were often used to decide who would take the more desirable plots. If that already sounds unpleasant, this image shows how sweltering and stressful it must have really been. 

The high street

As towns got closer and closer to being, well, towns, shops would pop up, of course – many of them catering cannily to the needs of the settles around them, like the paint and hardware stores in this image.


These shops would generally form a high street around a central thoroughfare, as in this, the town of Deadwood (a name that all HBO-lovers will pay attention to). 

Middle of nowhere

Many of these towns, though, sprung up in truly adverse places, with basically nothing around them on any horizon – this is the isolated nature of what life could herald for those who moved to them. 

Humble beginnings

If you want to talk about starting from the bottom, this photograph of Oklahoma City in 1889 is about as basic as it gets, a few building comprising the whole place. As a reminder, Oklahoma City now has more than half a million residents. 

Industry comes

Again, the arrival of the railway could be huge for a town, bringing much-needed supplies and provisions to help a town grow – and the town in this image looks like it could sorely use the help. 

From the dirt

This street view looks like something out a quintessential Western flick, but the brickwork betrays the fact that time is creeping on, and the turn of the century is approaching fast. 

Nature’s wrath

Meanwhile, it once again shouldn’t be forgotten that times could be tough – how would you know that you’re settling in a place prone to enormous sandstorms until you’ve already committed?


Quickly, though, as a city expanded beyond its main street, it could start to resemble a much more modern settlement, as in the case of this view of Nogales, Arizona. What you might night realise is that the empty space between two neighbourhoods is actually the border with Mexico. 

A new age

Of course, with the advent of the industrial revolution and the discovery of oil came prosperity of a sort. This is a view over Cleveland, in Oklahoma, and it’s clear to see why it was called “The City of Oil Derricks”.