In this Globe Trekker Special, Zay Harding, Sami Sabiti, Holly Morris, Justine Shapiro and Ian Wright explore the extraordinary history of America’s spectacular Wild West.
Sami Sabiti starts our journey by following Lewis & Clark’s 3700 mile journey of exploration in 1804, which took them all the way to the Pacific coast in modern-day Oregon. At the time the West was still populated only by Native American tribes, as yet untroubled by the wave of settlers, gold prospectors, gun slinging cowboys, and the fearsome US cavalry that would soon be unleashed upon them.
By 1840 a wagon route to the west had been completed, known as the Oregon Trail, and within 20 years more than 300,000 settlers from the east had travelled to the new frontier. Amongst the early settlers was a group of religious pioneers, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormons. Holly Morris follows their journey to Salt Lake City, Utah.
Further south much of today’s USA was back then part of Mexico. Zay Harding visits the location of the most famous siege in the history of the Wild West, which took place in 1836 at the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas.
A few years later, once the US had won the Mexican-American war in 1848, all of today’s south western USA was annexed from Mexico – including California. In the same year gold was discovered, precipitating the great California Gold Rush. Justine Shapiro visits the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park where the first discovery was made, and also the ghost town of Bodie, which was abandoned when the gold ran out and boom turned to bust.
In the decades after the Gold Rush, the population of the Wild West continued to grow rapidly. One way to travel out west was on the Butterfield Stagecoach, which from 1858 to 1861 carried passengers all the way from Missouri on the 3000 mile journey to San Francisco. Zay Harding travels part of the route, near El Paso, Texas, riding shotgun on a renovated stagecoach just like in the old days.
As well as passengers, the Butterfield Stagecoach also carried urgent mail. The long, southern route through Texas has been used as the trail was snow-free and passable all winter, but in 1860 a more direct route was pioneered, the famous Pony Express, which greatly reduced the journey time to just 10 days. Holly Morris joins in the annual re-ride of the 2000 mile Pony Express route, riding a couple of miles in Utah.After just 18 months in operation, the Pony Express was forced to close down as a result of the outbreak of the US Civil War. Surprisingly, it was during the Civil War that plans were made to build what would become by far the most significant transport route across the USA when it was finally completed in 1869 – the Transcontinental Railroad. Zay Harding visits the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, to see how the line was built through one of the most difficult sections of terrain on the route, mostly by Chinese labour.
The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad may have been a triumph for the USA, but it was a disaster for the country’s Native Americans, as the flow of settlers to the West now became a flood. On the Great Plains, Zay Harding meets a member of the Lakota tribe who speaks of the brutal extermination of the buffalo following the building of the railroad, and the many battles that the indigenous people fought in the vain attempt to defend their rightful land from the fearsome US Cavalry.
Very rarely, the Native Americans won a fleeting victory. Ian Wright heads to the Little Bighorn battlefield in Montana, the site of Custer’s famous Last Stand in 1876.
Just a month after the Little Bighorn, another famous Wild West shootout took place not far away, in the frontier town of Deadwood, South Dakota. Ian Wright hears how the legendary sharpshooter Wild Bill Hickok was shot here while playing poker.
One place in the US where such a deadly poker game is unlikely to have taken place was Utah, where gambling has been illegal ever since the State was settled by the Mormons. Holly Morris travels to Circleville, Utah to find out more about one of the Wild West’s more surprising outlaws, Butch Cassidy, who was a Mormon.
By the time that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were killed in a shootout in 1908, most of the Wild West itself was nearing the end of its days, becoming tamed. The remotest parts of the Pacific Northwest, however, still remained substantially unexplored – the Wild West’s final frontier. Zay Harding travels to Dawson City in the Yukon, Canada, which was transformed by the Klondike Gold Rush at the turn of the century.
Although prospectors are still searching for gold in the remotest parts of the West such as the Yukon, for most people today the Wild West lives only as entertainment, either at the movies, or best of all at professional rodeos, which showcase cowboys’ greatest skills. Zay Harding visits one of the biggest and best rodeos, the Calgary Stampede, which has been entertaining huge crowds since 1912, and which provides a dramatic end to our spectacular journey of exploration across the old Wild West.
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