The American Old West: Ten Reasons Why You Wouldn't Want to Live There
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The American Old West: Ten Reasons Why You Wouldn't Want to Live There

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 Epidemics

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. 

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.

Harsh Environment

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.  

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.  

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  • The infamous mining and ghost town of Bodie, California - The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry

Copyright © 2012 William J. Felchner. All rights reserved. 

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Comments (10)
Ranked #35 in History

very interesting, thanks so much

Ranked #94 in History

Excellent presentation! But, I think I still prepfer it to what we have today.

I live very near to an amish community here in Ohio. Theirs is a hard life to be sure and they don't even come close to the type of life you talk about here. Nicely done.

Bob Jackson

There are some accurate statements here and some gross inaccuracies. Everyone seems to see the historical West in stereotypes. This author is trying to debunk the more rosy good old days stereotype with the harsh and brutal one. The truth is in the middle, but both extremes existed. The primitive disease ridden description given here was not the norm, except in certain places, many of which did not deserve to be called towns in the first place: mining camps, temporary "boom towns," etc. It sounds like the author has an ax to grind concerning the "good old days" concept. But he also generalizes, uses too broad a brush, and is therefore wrong. Unfortunately (or fortunately) those "good old days" existed; just depended on where you were and what you wanted.

Bob Jackson

There are some accurate statements here and some gross inaccuracies. Everyone seems to see the historical West in stereotypes. This author is trying to debunk the more rosy good old days stereotype with the harsh and brutal one. The truth is in the middle, but both extremes existed. The primitive disease ridden description given here was not the norm, except in certain places, many of which did not deserve to be called towns in the first place: mining camps, temporary "boom towns," etc. It sounds like the author has an ax to grind concerning the "good old days" concept. But he also generalizes, uses too broad a brush, and is therefore wrong. Unfortunately (or fortunately) those "good old days" existed; just depended on where you were and what you wanted.

It sounds like Mr. Jackson has his own ax to grind – maybe from the comfort of his outhouse which, if in flames in many Old West locales, would burn to the ground for lack of a professional fire department. There's nothing "wrong" in this piece. Smallpox was deadly, STDs were largely incurable, dental care was primitive, women couldn't vote, etc. As for disease, it's no secret that far more soldiers in the Civil War died of disease than were actually killed in battle. I presented eleven valid reasons why today's citizens would not want to live in the Old West.

Bob Jackson

Diseases not yet curable at the time were not the fault of the place (Old West), as they weren't curable all over the world at that time, even in the fancy salons and estates of Europe. Out houses weren't demonic. I've used them in my day, real ones. They are very similar to a port-a-potty. In fact they are the same thing. Port-a-potties have their chemicals, outdoor johnnies their lime. Medicare & Medicaid were started in the 1960s by Lyndon Johnson's administration, Social Security in the 1930s by FDR. We had gotten along fine without them, and family structure has been hurt to a degree with them, as people now shirk the responsibility of caring for their own more. Whether you agree or not with that, they are a distant issue from the Old West. The Civil War is not the Old West. It was fought almost totally in the East. As with disease (see above) dental care issues were a function of their time in history, not place. The harshest frontier justice was in the wildest, least normal towns. Once a place became the least bit organized, it became a bit more like we would expect in regard to law and order. Famous cowboy and Pinkerton detective, Charles Siringo is said to have been an expert shot who never killed anyone in his life. Charles Ingalls, father of Laura, used his gun only once, in warning, against a person in all the family's frontier years, the one exception being to calm a crowd of railroad workers demanding their pay. The harsh environment of the West is the same today with regards to weather, and locale also if you go far enough. There are many today who rough it in the outdoors, even those who recreate the conditions in historical times. They vary in their intensity when doing this of course, some more primitive than others. My uncle had a ranch in Montana in the 1950s and 60s, and his stories of blizzards and such were pretty similar to Laura Ingalls accounts of S. Dakota. The vote for women, again, is a historical point that had nothing to do with the West per se. It was true all over the U.S. As far as prisons being bad places, they should be. People of the era lived more comfortable in cities to an extent because they did not have to transport or build everything; it was there in the city. But throughout history, before modern times, people had to do more for themselves. That is not necessarily a negative. We are fatter today because we labor less. We also have a lot more worthless, sometimes degrading things we do, with all of that spare time. Famous British authors, J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) and G.K. Chesterton (The Father Brown Mysteries, and much non-fiction) were both critics of industrialization and modernity. They particularly pointed to the breakdown of the family structure. In the Old West era you saw those negative factors in the cities, while the family was strong on the frontier among the normal settlers. One cannot judge the West by the lawless types alone. They were not the bulk of the settlers of the West, and they were not as dominate as the movies would have one think.

Bob Jackson

Just for the record, I like the author's writing. It is the black and white generalized judgement that I have a problem with. The author has a lot of interesting stuff out there, and covers stuff that interests me too. I just believe that people dealt with many of the issues he derides better than he realizes. If disease vaccinations and some more modern medical procedures were available back then, that is all it would take for me to go back if it were possible.

Well Bob Jackson what you have just said was better than the article in question. I think using what we know now as a civilization and combining that with the old west would make a very healthy world to live in, combine the healthy free and peacefullness of the west and combine it with what we know from modernisation, we know our limits now and we know if we take it to far we end up like the way we are living now, we are to focused on going fowards to tight the wrongs of our present day, we need to focus on taking knowledge we know backwards with us until we find a happy medium that meets all.

I read somewhere dying from starvation was not that uncommon. Whole Indian tribes dying and these were some of the best hunters around. I love all the old Clint Eastwood western movies but would be the first to admit not a realistic picture of how extremely hard daily life actually was. Can't blame Hollywood,it would be too depressing to watch how it really was.
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