Some may find the American Old West an adventuresome place to live. But lack of indoor plumbing, epidemics, disease, a harsh environment, no modern conveniences, substandard medical and dental care, limited women's rights and a spotty justice system all conspired to make the 19th century American West a place to be avoided by modern folks.
The Old West has been romanticized in countless books, movies and television shows. In reality, the American West of the 19th and early 20th centuries could be a very inhospitable, foreboding and primitive place. Here are ten reasons why today's modern-day person would not want to reside in the American Old West.
Lack of Indoor Plumbing
Today's citizens take for granted the miracle of indoor plumbing. In the Old West, however, outhouses and makeshift outdoor latrines were the norm, making for a smelly, nasty and disease-infested experience, particularly in many of the mining boom towns whose public streets reeked with open sewage. Outhouses were still common in the 1930s, so ask some of the old-timers which they prefer, these odious wooden shacks or today's indoor facilities?
Old West Medical Services
In many parts of the Old West medical services were practically nonexistent. And if one could locate the services of a physician, the chances are he might do more harm than good, as medical knowledge was still in the primitive stages. Most of the medical equipment was Civil War surplus, with saws, knives and other devices seeing a lot of action in the amputation of arms, legs, toes, fingers, ears, etc. No sulfa drugs or antibiotics made amputation often the sole course of action in order to halt the spread of gangrene and other infections. As for chronic pain relief, doctors did possess morphine, but many people were rendered drug addicts, just like a number of wounded combat veterans during the Civil War.
Smallpox was a big killer in the 19th century, with the American West hardly being spared its deadly epidemics. Add to that diphtheria, whooping cough, tuberculosis, cholera and other infectious diseases which ravaged the people and one would quickly surmise that the Old West was no place for the weak. John Henry "Doc" Holliday, the infamous gambler, dentist and gunfighter, died of alcoholism and tuberculosis, the latter of which they called consumption. Today, smallpox has been eliminated from the planet, with only Russia and the United States possessing the remaining strains of the virus for research/historical purposes. But in period newspapers and letters of the day, it was abundantly clear that Old West inhabitants lived in mortal fear of smallpox outbreaks.
Tough Place for Women
The Old West could be tough on everyone, especially women. Lack of medical knowledge and services made the fairer sex particularly vulnerable, with many women dying while giving birth. Women were also pretty much treated as second class citizens or men's property, with very few rights, career choices and financial opportunities available. American women would not be granted the right to vote until 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified.
Leadville, Colorado / Wikimedia
Lack of Dental Care
If medical care in the Old West was spotty, then dental care was often nonexistent. Forget root canals, fancy crowns, dental implants and other hallmarks of modern dentistry, as extraction was usually the main route to relieving suffering from a tooth gone bad. And tooth pulling could be handled by anyone adept with a pair of tongs – no license needed – including blacksmiths, barbers and druggists. Things did get better towards the end of the 19th century, however, as dental science advanced, with some practitioners of the day sporting modern dental offices complete with a reclining chair, foot-treadle or electric-powered drills and nitrous oxide as an anesthetic. Take a look at photos from the Old West. Hardly anyone seems to be smiling. One of the reasons: most everyone's teeth hurt!
Sex in the Old West
Today's self-appointed moral arbiters who point to our past history as a kind of glorious beacon for the days of good, old-fashioned, God-fearing morality apparently never studied said history, particularly as it applies to the American Old West. Prostitution and brothels were common in many western cities and towns, with miners, cowboys, politicians, businessmen and anyone else with a wandering eye and a stiff member with no conscience frequently patronizing the oldest profession. But woe to the sexual adventurer of the 19th century, as syphilis, gonorrhea and other nasty STDs were prevalent, with no sulfa drugs, penicillin or other antibiotics yet invented to cure said diseases. Physicians of the day, however, did try to treat their suffering patients, generally through painful, multiple injections of heavy metals made directly into the opening of the penis.
Lack of Social Safety Net
If one managed to grow old in the American West – not a great occurrence, as the average life expectancy in the 19th century was 30- to 45-years-old – there was of course no Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid or other government programs as we know them today to help the elderly during their "golden years." Thus, dependence on family – provided one had that luxury – was paramount. Others who might fall by the wayside due to a lack of assistance were widows, orphans, the handicapped, the sick, war veterans, minorities and the mentally ill.
The Old West could be a very harsh place, plagued by severe heat or cold, storms, tornadoes, fires, floods, earthquakes and insect infestations. Sure, we are still plagued by these maladies today, but heat/central air conditioning, better built homes and buildings, professional fire departments, accurate weather forecasting, federal/state government response/assistance and instant communication can often prevent or alleviate the suffering.
On the original United States maps, the high plains were labeled on all maps as the Great American Desert. It was dry and dusty and with only a small amount of rain. Heat in the summer, and sudden blizzards were the normal during the fall, winter and even during the spring. Hail was also the normal that would ruin any crops a farmer planted. During the summer, temperatures would soar above 100 degrees F, and in the winter, plunger to as low as 40 degrees below zero, and lower.
It is amazing that anyone in the old west and the high plains ever survived these weather conditions.
Map of the western US in the early 1800s. / Wikimedia Commons
Spotty Old West Justice System
The American justice system is often criticized today as being too slow or plodding, but for the most part it does work. In some cities and towns of the Old West, however, justice was sometimes nonexistent or very slow in coming. Vigilantes were often the order of the day, especially in early boom towns like San Francisco. That notion may sound attractive to certain absolute law-and-order types today, but probably not to the innocent westerner who was denied due course and found himself hanging from the end of a rope for a crime that he didn't commit.
Old West Incarceration
It was best to follow the straight and narrow on the American frontier, as jails and prisons could be abominable places. Capital punishment of course was in full force – and given the horrible prison conditions, it might be preferable to some – with the Old West hangman doing booming business. One thing, though, the hangman didn't always get it right, with some "customers" dangling by their necks for ten minutes or more, with their feet first ticket to eternity put on hold as they waited to mercifully expire.
No Modern Conveniences
Just getting through everyday life in the Old West could be extremely taxing. No washers, dryers, cars, refrigerators, microwaves, hot water heaters, air conditioners, telephones, computers and, heaven forbid, cell phones. Dialing up the Old West on your iPhone time travel app? Nope, you wouldn't want to go there...
Okay, I listed eleven reasons, but there are many more, including a substandard educational system and poor hygiene where the monthly bath was more the norm.
How Things Have Changed
Amazingly, the western United States has become the most desired place to live today. Denver, Colorado, a portion of the Great High Plains is today one of the fastest growing cities in America. States like Colorado, Montana and Wyoming are showing large increases in population growth. Denver has one of the best economies in the entire United States.
While the central United States, known as the Rust Belt is losing people, the original Great American Desert is growing. What once started out as misery, and a miserable place to live, has now become one of the most desired places to live in all of America.
- The infamous mining and ghost town of Bodie, California - The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry
Copyright © 2012 William J. Felchner. All rights reserved.