What Entertainment in the Wild West Was Really Like
So look here: the hot sun is shinin’ over wide-open plains. It’s noon, and you’ve spent the day workin’ hard, herdin’ cattle into the corral. As soon as you’re back at your ranch, you get news that someone done made off with your property.
Cattle Rustlers have stolen nearly all ’o your herd. You need to act fast and to catch those lowdown bad guys. You mount your horse and gallop for miles and miles, trackin’ them sidewinders through deserted plains into a small town. You pass by a Saloon, where you notice somethin’ strange is going on.
You dismount and tie up your horse, set your cowboy hat straight, and walk into the Saloon through the swingin’ doors. The people inside are all silent, as they observe your striking entrance into the building. “Howdy y’all,” you say in your lowest-toned voice. “I think we got ourselves quite a situation here.” Well, perhaps if you were born in the 1860s, this might have really happened to you. Or at least, a less romanticized version of it.
The Wild Wild West has taken over people’s imagination since Hollywood created its own version of what it was like to live the cowboy life. This included crowded Saloons, bounty hunters, and wearing a lot of leather clothing in extremely hot weather. Of course, Hollywood’s version of the West was more fictional than it was real. The day-to-day lives of the real American cowboys were a little less eventful than that. But it was still full of fascinating stories. First: Saloons. Yes, Saloons were as real as they could be. They worked as great social hubs of the time, where people from all walks of life could meet. Let’s say they were the social media of the day.
Life on the American frontier could be exciting, but it could also get a bit lonely. People lived in small towns and settlements, often miles apart from one another. So hanging out in the Saloons was a great way to chat and get to know what was new. Imagine settlers, locals, explorers, and cowboys, all meeting up to exchange and have a good time. Contrary to what popular culture has made us believe, violent encounters were not that common in Saloons. They could happen, but it wasn’t the rule.
Rather, Saloons would serve as a place to talk business, and even as a place to hold serious political events. They were multifunctional for sure! It was common that explorers would travel very long distances in the West, so people would often need a place to dine and sleep. Well, the Saloons had their back! Some places worked as Bed and Breakfast lodges.
They were also a great place for trading. Farmers from one region would come to meet with suppliers or farmers from other regions in the Saloons, and they’d trade everything they needed right then and there. Some Saloons were quaint and simple, more or less the image we get from John Ford movies. Made entirely of wood, with simple chairs and a counter that served as a bar. Now, the Saloons that started to brew in bigger cities such as San Francisco and Seattle were much grander! Some even had chandeliers and fine mirrors.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering why that cowboy at the beginning of the video got all worked up after someone stole his herd. Well, life in the Wild West wasn’t easy! They had to be resourceful, stocking their meats in a way they wouldn’t rot, and always keeping track if they had enough food for the season. Their cuisine might even seem strange to us today, with things such as sweet potato coffee and vinegar pie! Sound yummy? Yeah, me neither. Anyways, there was much more to the West than just Saloons and strange cuisine.
They were inventive with their hobbies and entertainment choices as well! For example, there was such a thing as ’The Tableaux Vivant’ (Ta — Blow Vee — Vaant), which translates to Living Pictures. People would gather in squares or small theaters and anxiously await this performance. Actors would dress up in old costumes and reenact a famous painting in real life. And the audience loved it! The performance was somewhere between a play and still life. With the right background music, the people watching would be completely hooked and mesmerized. I mean, who wouldn’t like to see a Leonardo da Vinci painting come to life right before their eyes?
Then, there were the circuses! People in the Wild West would excitedly await for the circus to come to town with its exotic animals and unique performers. Perhaps the most iconic show was put on by the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. The circus would parade through town, making sure everyone knew they arrived. There would be a line of cowboy gentlemen, dressed in the traditional clothing they are known for. Some would parade on top of horses, while others would choose to walk. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show would showcase historical reenactments and mesmerizing performances. It was fun for the whole family.
Besides the show, people would also come to see Buffalo Bill himself. The man was a legend of the Wild West! He is perhaps the closest to a Hollywood cowboy as it could get. I mean, look at the guy! He admittedly got this name due to the insane amount of buffalo had “gotten to know” during his lifetime. He got really good at riding horses over long distances in record time. Some say he was the personification of the brave and noble cowboy that Hollywood films were always talking about.
I’d say that more than that, Buffalo Bill was what we call today an entrepreneur! His show might have started in the West, but it toured all over the US and some places around the world. A whopping amount of Americans and Europeans saw his touring Wild West show during the over 30 years that it ran! Although, some say his show contributed largely to the mythologized idea of the Wild West until this day.
What else did people in the West do to pass the time? They went to ride...bulls! And that was the thing people loved! It got so popular, that it spread around several American states and is still going strong. People loved seeing humans trying to ride real-life bulls. But in addition to that, it was filled with many side attractions. The show became almost like a carnival. Over there, people could try lassoing cattle, horse racing, and steer wrestling. It was the type of entertainment, back then, that could last the whole day long.
Organized sports did exist in the wildness of the Wild West. And one of the most popular ones was boxing. The excitement surrounding a match was much like today.
The audience would often bet on and discuss who they thought would win and who would lose. The fighters fought for titles and prizes including trophies and money. Boxing matches were an attraction that stirred up a lot of excitement in the dullness of daily life in the not-so Wild West!
Hmm, you’ll certainly not think of baseball when you think of the Wild West, but the two did meet! Alexander Joy Cartwright Jr, one of baseball’s creators, decided to join the Californian gold rush that took him to explore the lands of the West, and, well....he took baseball with him!
The game had gained popularity in New York and New Jersey but began to sprawl across the wide West. It took a while until professional teams were founded over there, but by the time that happened, around 1869, baseball had already spread as a leisurely sport.
Just FYI, that was the time when teams such as the Eagles and the Red Rovers were founded and popularized in the West. There was so much more than just cowboys in the Wild West, huh? Like rattlesnakes....