These old photos from the American West will make you yearn for a better time

There’s nothing like a dose of nostalgia in the morning. Ancient photographs, from the very earliest days of the technology’s use, can often act as portals into times we find hard to properly imagine. 

We all know stories and movies about the old West, America’s semi-lawless lands of prospecting and exploration, but it’s fair to say that these works of fiction can only do so much to paint a picture of what life was like. Luckily, there are hordes of photos out there, showing the idiosyncrasies of real life back then. 

We’ve gathered some of our favourites right here for your browsing pleasure – enjoy!

Journalism in the West

This photograph shows the staff of a Utah journal called the Daily Reporter at their office, a tent in an encampment. It shows just how rugged the conditions for many were when settlements were being established, but also how people got on with their lives nonetheless. 

A real character

We love this photo for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the cheeky grin on Fred Loring’s face – this is him showing off his mule, named “Evil Merodach”, which for our money has to be in the running for greatest pet name ever. Just two days later, Loring would be killed by Apaches – it was that sort of time.

Distant threat

This image shows a correspondent from the San Francisco Bulletin taking notes on the battlefield, and we like the contrast between his studious air and the armed wariness of the soldiers to the left of him.

A nice place to stop

This member of an expedition takes a break to sketch by a dried-out canyon bed, before a stunning cliffside. The parasol he’s sitting under gives the scene a lovely sense of calm.

Wooded seclusion

This image actually shows a photographer in action – John K Hillers is inspecting one of his negatives while camping on a geological surveying trip. 

Natural Beauty

This photograph shows a natural vista in what is now Idaho, and it really is stunning – it might take you a little while to even notice the human figures checking it out for themselves in the foreground. 


This desert scene might look extremely remote, although it’s actually in the Carson Desert, Nevada. Still, the heat shouldn’t be underestimated. The photo shows the ambulance wagon that doubled as a portable blackroom for photographer Timothy O’Sullivan.


This photo shows one of many geological surveys on a break for lunch as they travelled the land, and the ragtag nature of the bunch looks like something straight out of an adventure novel. 


This is what you’d call a proper convoy, with dozens of horses and riders walking along the edge of this river near Yellowstone, an apparently typical portrayal of how people travelled. 

Changing times

This images shows directors from the Union Pacific Railroad company on the 100th meridian, far west of Omaha, before a ride to celebrate the railway’s opening. It’s a great portrait of how times were moving quickly as technology advanced. 

For contrast

Meanwhile, elsewhere travel was still entirely rudimentary, relying on ramshackle bridges and infrastructure like this one, pictured at Beaver Head River five years after the last image. 

Moving people

Even with the coming of the railway, most big groups moved in the traditional way, as evidenced by this column of cavalry and weapons under General George’s Custer’s command. And, yes, he is indeed that Custer.

Means of travel

This riverboat, pictured in 1878, is the Rosebud, which travelled up and down the Missouri river, taking people with it. 

An old-school coach

This stagecoach is an example of the sort used by express delivery companies in this time period – complete with the armed guards riding atop the carriage. 

Challenging terrain

While the trains and boats were speeding up supply links all over the US, some places still need proper rugged explorers to chart them – such as this expedition up the now-famous Pike’s Peak, which looks a lot like hard work to us. 

Laying tracks

If you’re talking about hard work, though, we’re not sure anything beats actually laying railroad tracks in the sweltering heat of Arizona, as these workers are toiling away at. 

Some assembly required

When you see a stagecoach, through modern eyes, it’s easy to forget that they didn’t just pop out of some factory ready-made for most people. This deconstructed version reminds us that they needed maintenance and, often, assembly. 


When it comes to covering challenging areas, slippery rocks under high sun isn’t too nice either, as this party is discovering in Utah in 1909, some time later than most of the photos we’ve shown so far. 

Charting a course

Another image that shows just how difficult it could be moving around the country, this trail on the Pike’s Peak road in Colorado in 1911 shows that even into the 20th Century it was still a proper challenge. 

A new world

Never mind that elsewhere in the country people were no longer relying on horses and carriages – the automobile had arrived in America, as shown by this image from 1912. Road signage, sadly, wasn’t up to scratch for some time. 

People change

This image shows a test drive of the new route between Denver and Salt Lake, to see how stable and drivable it was – one of the cars is from the Denver Motor Club, showing how quickly motor cars gained fans in America. 

The old lingers on

Our final image for this collection contrasts the time period that we end in, having started in the era of horses and carriages – here, a car waits to let a carriage pass on the road, illustrating how much has changed.