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How did people live in the Old West...their habits, dress, survival skills, maintaining their weapons, rigs for horses, living in harsh weather, surviving on the landscape?

Hello everyone,

Ever since childhood I have wondered about the way people survived in the west. Since I can be considered an easterner dude my knowledge of the old west is at best superficial.

So lets talk about the old west and educate me and anyone else who wants to watch this discussion about the real life that was lived in the old west.

If you can, when you make a statement add footnotes of where to find the original information so all of us can discover a lot more pondering the places you direct us to study.

I look forward to learning volumes of facts from all let us begin on a journey to relive the old west through sharing what we know of back then.

Your friend, Dave 'Bat' Chapman

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Excellent photo there, Bat.  I hope there will be some participation in this thread.
You hunted & fished for meat, either planted crops for vegetables or traded meat for them. One of the most important men on the frontier was the bee hunter. Sugar was almost impossible to come by. Honey, which was called 'long sweetenin'' in Texas, was the only source of sweetening for many years.

Mostly, clothing was hand-made on the frontier. Almost any source of cloth could be used to make shirts or dresses. One of the reasons floursacks, for many years, were made of patterned cloth, was the fact that women collected them to make shirts or dresses, for themselves, their husbands, & their children. I can remember when I was a kid--abt 60 yrs ago--farm ladies using white flour sacks to make children's underwear.

A lot of furniture was hand-made on the premises. I can recall seeing rawhide-bottomed chairs still in use on farms & ranches.

One of the things visitors from the east commented on was 'luxurious poverty.' A family from the 'old states' may have brought with them fine china, fine table linen, & silver tableware. The table might be made of splits off a log, the benches cobbled up from split logs, maybe 1 or 2 chairs for the head & foot of the table, but the table would be covered with fine white linen, set with fine china, and have silver tableware. A haunch of venison might be set on the table on a silver platter, & home-made mustang grape wine might be in crystal glasses. All of this might be in a 2-room saddlebags house made of hand-squared logs chinked with mud, with the cooking done in the fireplace.

Keeping warm was a chore in winter. About the only thing folks had to burn was wood. There was a woodpile or a woodshed associated with just about every house. There were no iron stoves in early Texas--they didn't start coming in until late in the Republic period. Heat came from a fireplace, & it generally wasn't very effective. Along the Rio Grande, especially in the poorer regions, there were no fireplaces in houses. That's because Spain & later Mexico taxed chimneys. Those people cooked out-of-doors. Because they mostly built of adobe, their house-walls were very thick, so even a small fire indoors would keep the place fairly warm. In summer going into a properly-built adobe house is like walking into a cave. They stay fairly cool even on the hottest days. I spent several hours in an adobe in Sierra Blanca, in Hudspeth County--the next county west is El Paso--on a day when the thermometer outside said 105. All the folks had in the adobe was electric fans--no A/C, no swamp coolers. We were comfortable because the adobe walls were about 2½ feet thick.

There were vast herds of wild horses in early Texas. The horses were considered an excellent source of meat. Many of them were shot for food. Others were captured, but if a horse resisted being tamed and saddle-broke, it usually wound up on the table.

Leather--deer hides, horse hides, coon hides--was used for just about everything, & rawhide was very useful. It used to be called 'Mexican iron.' The stuff is stiff as a plank, but if you put it in boiling water for a while, it becomes pliable. You can then use it in place of nails to tie a corral's stringers to the posts. As it dried it would shrink, holding the stringers as effectively as nails.

A broken gunstock could be repaired with rawhide. The wet, pliable hide would be stretched over the broken pieces at the break, then either laced or nailed in place. As the rawhide dried it shrank, holding the broken stock together as effectively as if it had been replaced.

I hope this has given you a start, anyway.
Hello C.F. 'Charley' Eckhardt,

Your contribution to this discussion is very informative from the stand point that you personnally lived these experiences. Your description of living in Texas almost takes into those times.

Question; Was Texas a greener state back then...meaning trees, plants, the landscape. today above Fort Worth and Dallas the terrain was arid and dry right down to the grass. When my wife and I have traveled throughout the southwest we have noticed a lot of dead cactus as well...are things changing as far as the climate?

Your friend,

Dave ' Bat' Chapman
Hello C.F. 'Charley' Eckhardt,

Your contribution to this discussion is very informative from the stand point that you personnally lived these experiences. Your description of living in Texas almost takes a person into those times.

Question; Was Texas a greener state back then...meaning trees, plants, the landscape. Today above Fort Worth and Dallas the terrain was arid and dry right down to the grass. When my wife and I have traveled throughout the southwest we have noticed a lot of dead cactus as well...are things changing as far as the climate?

Your friend,

Dave ' Bat' Chapman
Good post, Bat.  There are two books which I think give a good feel for life in the Old West. First is "Tenderfoot in Tombstone: 1879-1882, The Turbulent Years." This is the personal diary of George W. Parsons, who was a businessman and iron investor in Tombstone during that time. While he refers to the clash between the cowboys and Tombstone lawmen, those are only mentioned in context of daily life. Its a good read for values, thinking, and living in that era. Also I recommend (and I hope I have the title right) "Tombstone Times." This is a collection of newspaper articles and ads published in Tombstone during that time. It is a good reflection of life in the town above and beyond the conflicts,ie everyday life. Hope this is helpful.
Hello Steve,

Thank you for the comment and the reference to books on the subject. I hope we all will discover more information of the old west. Recently "Dirtrider" gave me some links and resource information that led me to even more information on Bat Masterson. I thank you all for adding reference information when you can...

Your friend,

Dave " Bat' Masterson-Chapman

While this is interesting, it is also a very wide-ranging topic. We could devote an entire week to discussing just one of the listed issues.


A point if I may; in asking those questions, one must consider the locale. What may have applied in Texas may not apply in Nebraska for instance, or vice-versa.



Hello Stan,

I would suppose around the areas of the Dakotas, Kansas, Texas, and southern Arizona to limit the field a bit....but how about around Kansas and Texas to begin a conversation on.

Thank you, your friend,

Dave 'Bat' Chapman
I watched Kate Blanchett in The Missing this weekend, her role to me shows what the women of the west had to endure, be as tough as any man and fight the fight when necessary, things where rough back then and the women of the  west helped win the west
Hello Patrick,

Sorry, I have not seen this motion picture yet...from what I have learned from my great grandmother and other family members...most women were not active citizens and had very few rights or privileges as Americans.

My great grandmother landed at Ellis Island in New York from Germany around not know the exact date.
She described her life as a lady who lived taking care of home and the children but had little opportunity to contribute to the family in any decisions. I guess just like in the west, women worked very hard without much recognition or reward from life other than leaving future generations of children with the family name.

My family has been here in America since 1630, two brothers of the Lane family landed in Bedford, son fought in the Battle of Lexington and Concord...five generations of children have stemmed from that lineage. Of course, Molly Pitcher was an historic heroine of the American Revolution...not related.

We have a very large collection of western movies like many of you do....every story contains the trials and challenges women have had to face. In high Noon, when Grace Kelly come to the aid of her husband
sheriff, confronting three outlaws, she bravely with a great deal of devotion helps to put down one of the outlaws. A moment in movies that is hard to forget. A great performance by a very talented and beautiful actress.

We have a lot to be grateful for, all women, they are and always have been major contributors to our western history and our national history.

Your friend,

Dave 'Bat' Chapman
Let me add a couple more books: Shillingberg's "Dodge City." While this can be a little dry and academic it is a very thorough account of the development and life in the town. It gives a very compelling account of Bat Masterson's life in the town and his courage at The Battle at Adobe Walls, and the desperation of that fight. Also DeArment's recognized Bat Masterson biography (if you are a Masterson buff, you probably have already devoured this one). By all accounts he was every bit as "brave, courageous and bold" as any other recognized Old West figure.

Texas has a varied environment.  The only things you will find in any other state that you will not find in Texas are rockbound coasts & year-round snow-covered mountains.  In the eastern part of the state you could as easily be in Mississippi or Alabama as in Texas.  I live a little southeast of Austin, in the south-central part of Texas.  Less than 40 miles to the east of me is a palmetto swamp much like those you'd find in southern Georgia.  Less than 100 miles to the west of me the land is semi-desert. 


In Texas you can drive your car to a point higher than the highest point east of the Mississippi River.  The highest point in the state is in Hudspeth County, in the Guadalupe Mountains.  It's Guadalupe Peak, which is over 8000 feet tall.  The highest point east of the Mississippi is Clingman's Dome in eastern Tennessee, which is about 6600 feet high.  Mt. Locke, in the Davis Mountains, is the location of McDonald Observatory, which is nearly 7000 feet high--& you can drive on a paved road up to the gates of McDonald Observatory.


In the panhandle, the most northerly part of  the state, there's a division in the land.  The western half of the panhandle is the llano estacado--the staked plains.  This land is so flat, if you dropped a marble it'd lose its mind trying to figure out which way to roll.  The only changes in elevation are 'blowouts,' which are old, abandoned buffalo wallows.  On the east side of the panhandle are the canyonlands--one of the most broken landscapes in the US.


Just to the northwest of me is the hill country.  This is a granitic uplift--one of the oldest surviving granitic uplifts on the earth.  Pink granite--& all around it limestone--hills & valleys abound.  Where I live there is a blackland prairie.  The soil is so rich that the saying is, if you wet your finger & stick it in the ground, if you don't pull it out immediately it'll take root.  However, less than 2 miles south of me, across the Guadalupe river, the land is sandy.  It'll grow peanuts & watermelons, but not much else.


Outside the cities & their immediate environs, about the only parts of Texas that have changed significantly over the last century & a half are the western half of the Panhandle & parts of the area beyond the Pecos River.  The western half of the panhandle was farmed extensively, mostly for grain crops & cotton, for most of the 20th century.  However, the farms were irrigated from a vast, but not inexhaustible, supply of underground water, the Ogalala Aquifer.  That aquifer has almost been exhausted, so that area is returning to dryland ranching.  Parts of the Trans-Pecos were formerly extensive grasslands, but using them to raise horses--horses are destructive grazers--for the US Cavalry has turned the area into semi-desert.


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