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Twelve Ways People Spent Their Free Time in the Old West
The Old West is a place of legend and lore. We’ve all read the tall tales about outlaws, gunslingers, shootouts, and skirmishes from the Great Plains to the Southwest and places farther west. Many of the shocking stories are real. Many others are embellished. For more than two centuries now, the myths of the frontier remain in American culture. But what about how life really was back then? After all, there were far more people in the Great West than just sheriffs and train robbers. How did these regular folks live? What did they do for fun?
Bandits be damned—everyday laborers, ranchers, cowboys, and saloon workers needed an outlet too. And their diversions ranged from the mundane to the fascinating to the disturbing. The relative lack of law enforcement on the frontier allowed more freedom than people in other areas of the country. Many of their leisure activities followed accordingly. Today, you’ll learn about twelve things everyday folks did for fun in the Old West.
What self-respecting list about life in the Old West would neglect to lead with alcohol? Drinking culture was the center of frontier life. Saloons were community centers and regular hangouts in every tiny town. For the men, that is. Women weren’t allowed in saloons unless they were there as working girls selling sex. And the atmosphere was bawdy, rowdy, and dangerous.
All sorts of men from varying backgrounds descended as often as they could to drink. Soldiers, miners, and farm laborers of all kinds met in the saloon. Outlaws and sheriffs always showed up too. Many bars had music on hand, much like those today. Others offered card games and gambling. Many more served as brothels. The working girls plied their trade upstairs while customers got drunk, then shelled out more money for pleasure.
There was never a shortage of alcohol-selling establishments to visit. At one point, the small frontier settlement of Livingston, Montana, boasted 33 saloons. Considering the ramshackle town had just 3,000 residents, that’s quite a ratio. But customers always came, and barkeeps always seemed to make out well. Whiskey was usually the drink of choice in these places. But it wasn’t like the whiskey we know today.
The stuff back then was brutal. Most commonly, it was raw alcohol fermented with burnt sugar and chewing tobacco. Some saloons served “cactus wine,” which combined tequila and peyote tea. Others offered straight rye liquor and room-temperature beer. And the most adventurous drinkers had the option to swig “rotgut.” That disgusting beverage was 100-proof liquor, usually mixed with some combination of turpentine, ammonia, pepper, and even gunpowder. Cheers? 
Brothels were a common sight in frontier towns. Prostitution was technically illegal throughout the Old West in the 19th century, but that didn’t seem to stop anybody. Lawmen were often few and far between. Laborers, miners, and itinerant workers were rough-and-tumble men. They sought a good time after a hard day’s work, and they were willing to pay for it. The “soiled doves” and “sportin’ women” who populated the brothels were happy to comply if it meant taking in big bucks.
As the west was won, brothels became town centers in much the same way as saloons. Migrant laborers, cowboys, and outlaws alike gravitated to them. For a little hard-earned cash, pleasure was easy to find. The women who ran those establishments did big business. In fact, it was one of the only ways frontier women could make money and assert themselves in an otherwise male-dominated society.
By the end of the 19th century, many boomtowns made no show of hiding their red-light districts. In one infamous instance, the 1895 Travelers’ Guide Of Colorado explicitly listed out brothels operating in the state. Traveling men could pick out any establishment from 66 pages of information. It was like Yelp for the old days—with an adult angle.
That’s not to say the sex industry was healthy, of course. Countless women died from childbirth and venereal disease as a result of their work in brothels. Others were at the mercy of careless, violent, and sadistic men. In the best-case scenarios, some madams became extremely wealthy. But that was rare. More often, women were used for men’s pleasure in these not-so-halcyon days on the frontier.
Rodeos may have originated centuries ago south of the border. But while conquistadors and natives in current-day Mexico started the practice, it kicked up a notch in the Old West. In 1852, a group of Texans put on the first public rodeo in America. Immediately, it was a hit. Frontier townspeople showed up in droves. Soon, they never stopped coming. Westerners loved attending rodeos through the rest of the 19th century. Formal shows and informal outings were both popular in boomtowns. Events allowed frontier men to congregate and be merry. Some fought. Most drank. They all took in bullfighting, roping, steer wrestling, and all kinds of other cowboy-inspired attractions.
Of course, the notorious bucking bulls were the main selling point. Even from those humble beginnings in Texas, promoters sold bull riding as the ultimate show. But through the years, other ranch tricks evolved into rodeo competitions. The aforementioned roping and wrestling were central. Lasso tricks, horse racing, bullfighting, and bronco bucking filled the card.
After decades of Old West tours, rodeos began traveling. Refined audiences back east coast grew to love the rugged shows. Frontier legends like Bill Pickett and Buffalo Bill saw this spread as a money-making opportunity. They hit the road to put on rodeo shows all over America. The dollars rolled in. Over the years, rodeo became a favorite show for millions nationwide. Its legacy continues in the rodeos and stock shows of today.
Wherever men gather in large numbers, certain vices seem to often follow. As we’ve already seen, drinking and sex were at the top of that list. And in the Old West, one other pastime was there, too: gambling. Saloons were serious about promoting gambling because it kept patrons buying drinks. Some bars even hired employees to keep card tables in order so customers would stay seated all night. Men spent their hard-earned dollars on high-stakes blackjack and a host of other card games.
Depending on the region and time period, all kinds of different games flourished. Some were known by humorous names. “Chuck-A-Luck” was a common card game, along with “Three Card Monte,” “High Dice,” and “Faro.” Through the decades, boomtown saloons embraced gambling. Local sheriffs even looked the other way—until issues got too violent to ignore. As you might expect, gambling often led to deadly disagreements. Arguments over card games were common in the Wild West. Disputes would bubble up over a hand of cards, a cheating accusation, or a misplaced bet. Men were quick on the draw—literally—and many of the worst spats had fatal endings.
Today, historians view gambling as a logical part of life in the West. After all, the men who settled the frontier often left behind relatively calmer lives back east. Whether mining, prospecting, or ranching, they hoped to strike it rich overnight in these boomtowns. So they showed up with a gambler’s mindset. Combine that with the presence of guns, and the atmosphere at card tables was electric. And in countless instances, gambling proved to be a very deadly diversion.
8 Animal Fighting
The Wild West was a cruel place. As we’ve already learned, countless women in brothels were mistreated. Saloons were places of wanton violence and cruelty. And the barbaric nature of the frontier extended to animals too. One of the most sought-out diversions in the Old West was animal fighting. Dog fights were common, as were cock fights.
In some boomtowns, event promoters made a big show of it. Builders would cobble together wooden grandstands to attract paying customers. The fighting arena was outlined by chicken wire. The aggressive roosters were brought in and left to unload on each other. The fights were usually short, often brutal, and always deadly. But their popularity was never in question. Promoters made a proverbial killing in ticket sales from fans wanting to watch killings inside the ring. Of course, gambling and alcohol were widespread at these events too. Are you sensing a pattern in some of these Wild West pastimes yet?
Out in the Far West, bull and bear fighting were the 19th century’s popular sports. Pioneers across California thought roosters and dogs were too insignificant to bother with. So they put together big bear pits and caught California grizzly bears in the wild. Once the bear was in the pit, promoters would send in a raging bull. The two massive animals battled it out to the death. Bear fights like this weren’t invented out west. In fact, ancient Romans used to stage similar battles—although it’s unlikely American pioneers knew that. Still, California’s bear and bull fights were historically brutal. Pioneers trapped and killed so many bears in the awful sport that the state’s grizzly bear population went extinct because of it.
7 Minstrel Shows
Across the Old West, American settlers clashed with native populations. American Indians on the Great Plains and Hispanic locals in the Southwest were pushed out of their homelands by expansion. Along the way, American pioneers brought with them some serious racial prejudices. The pastime that best exemplified this was the minstrel show. Modern historians define minstrel shows as “the comic enactment of racial stereotypes.” These circus-like acts were very popular at the time. They weren’t invented out west, but they reigned supreme there. Traveling actors wore blackface makeup and acted out unflattering Black, Hispanic, and Indian stereotypes. Today, the shows are seen as a troubling vestige of a dark period in American history. But at the time, pioneers in boomtowns flocked to see the cheap entertainment.
Minstrel shows first became popular in the 1830s back east. But what started in New York spread like wildfire on the frontier. By the mid-19th century, western shows played to the lawlessness of the land. Unique costumes and makeup promoted particularly harmful stereotypes of Indian and Hispanic cultures. Many of the performances were technically intricate. Most included songs and choreographed dances. Some even boasted burlesque sequences and opera performances. But the racially abusive nature of the content is shocking to consider today. Thankfully, minstrel shows long ago fell out of favor. Still, their cultural reign in the Old West is another reminder of how cruel life was back then.
6 Medicine Shows
Minstrel shows weren’t the only traveling entertainment out west. Along with those troubling performances, medicine shows also had a unique place on the frontier. At the time, healthcare was hard to come by in the west. So whenever a doctor or quack rode into town promising a miracle cure for common ailments, people were bound to listen. That’s how medicine shows drew attention.
Traveling charlatans and quasi-medical salesmen would pitch a tent and promote a product. People would come out to see what the new drug supposedly did. Quickly, the salesmen’s pitches ratcheted up in intensity. Soon, they became far more entertaining than the product itself. Over the years, frontier settlers attended these shows in droves just to see the spectacle.
As settlers spread further west, the traveling salesmen followed. Over the years, these events became more intricate. Some included things like burlesque shows. Others offered pie-eating contests. Even the proverbial “dog and pony show” became standard fare under the medicine tent. Settlers seeking diversion in their small community flocked to the shows. Entertainment wasn’t the only purpose, though. There were sales going on throughout the era. In fact, one modern historian published research claiming these traveling health revivals pulled in nearly $100 million annually across the west during the 19th century. That’s not chump change!
Combine rodeos, minstrel shows, and medicine shows, and what do you get? Circuses! The Old West was one of the earliest supporters of circus acts. What we know today as the “Greatest Show On Earth” swept quickly across the frontier. Different circuses had different attractions, but many became stereotypical of the later industry. Russian cossack horsemen rode around rings under the big tent. Trapeze artists always wowed western crowds. Animal acts were a particular attraction too.
Traditional circus outfits like the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey developed iconic acts for pioneer audiences. Western settlers showed up in droves when one of these companies rode the rails into town. Nearly two centuries later, circus acts like these still conjure up a very particular image in the American psyche.
They weren’t the only shows available to western settlers, though. In the late 18th century, Buffalo Bill took the circus idea and gave it a pioneer spin. The longtime cowboy brought exotic animals, rodeos, and Western culture together under its own big tent. More than most former cowboys of the dying era, Buffalo Bill promoted pioneer values to the rest of the country. He hired Native American performers to re-enact moments in frontier history. Ranch hands showed off horse tricks, bison runs, and more for stunned eastern audiences. Slowly, the frontier was becoming more settled and civilized. But Buffalo Bill leaned into the era’s nostalgia. He traveled around performing Old West reenactments with his troupe well into the 20th century.
4 Public Hangings
Public executions have been a popular part of civilizations down through history. Rulers have always relished the opportunity to show subjects what happens when one breaks the law. And ancient peoples have forever been attracted to this vigilante justice. The lawless nature of the Old West felt similar to these ancient times. So it makes sense that public hangings were a common pastime on the borderless American frontier.
Sheriffs relied on hangings to boost public morale amid their often-inconsistent enforcement of the law. Nothing was better for a local lawman than catching and killing a violent train robber or hated horse thief. Settlers were often left without law enforcement nearby for long stretches of their lives. So they appreciated this frontier justice from a practical standpoint. Seeing a convicted criminal strung up in the public square made their towns safer. It also gave Westerners a grisly, macabre diversion from their boring daily lives.
In the Wild West, public hangings were elaborate rituals. Processions would follow the condemned man beginning at the jailhouse. Lawmen surrounded the bound convict. Still, local citizens hurled everything from insults to cabbages at the shamed man. By the time the group reached the gallows, the procession was often at a fever pitch. There, the sheriff would read the man his last rights. A specific hangman’s noose was made from the strongest bit of rope available. As the crowd cheered on mercilessly, the convicted man was hanged. And with his death, another measure of justice came to a lawless place.
Public hangings were common across the West during the 19th century. Dozens of legal hangings and dozens more lynchings have been recorded. In the 1850s, one California town even briefly changed its name to “Hangtown” to celebrate all the public executions that took place there. This justice was swift and shocking. But it proved very popular among frontier residents.
3 Manly Competitions
The Old West was a manly place. As we’ve already learned, women were relegated to the fringes of society. So when it came time for fun, men engaged in stereotypically masculine pursuits. As pioneer culture developed, manly games and competitions surged. These intense affairs took on all sorts of different styles. Some men pursued rock drilling competitions. Others engaged in steamboat racing. The most common sports of the day included ax throwing, rifle and revolver shooting, and log rolling. Wagon racing was a popular daredevil activity too. And when those rickety contraptions didn’t move fast enough, men ditched the wagons and opted for old-fashioned horse racing.
The competitions were fun for the men involved. They were fun for spectators too. Alcohol always flowed at these events, and plenty of cash was laid out to gamble. The manly sporting endeavors also fostered an early sense of community in fledgling frontier towns. Some men were locally famous for their sports stardom. Towns became well-known for developing icons in one sport or another.
Legends were born, and myths were made over many friendly frontier competitions. Amazingly, many of these sports have been passed down through time. In February 2022, hundreds of modern cowboys traveled to Phoenix, Arizona, to compete in a shooting challenge first founded in the mid-19th century. Clearly, the glory of the Old West remains a draw to modern men.
Boxing was one of the perfect outlets for fun in the Old West. It needed no equipment and used limited space. No playing fields had to be cleared. The rules were remarkably simple. Two men could always be found willing to duke it out for money. And the era’s wanton violence fostered aggression in frontier men. So it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn boxing was one of the most popular pastimes for pioneers.
Boxing matches were often sold out. Even legends of the Wild West took part. OK Corral participant Wyatt Earp began refereeing boxing matches late in his life. He even grew to be the face of the West Coast boxing circuit. By the end of the 19th century, California towns were routinely selling thousands of tickets to quasi-legal boxing matches.
As you might expect, bouts often turned into raucous affairs. Attendees drank heavily and wagered money. When they got too out of control, crowd skirmishes broke out. Suddenly, boxing was going on in the ring and all around it! At various points in the 19th century, sheriffs tried in vain to rein in boxing promoters.
Various frontier towns moved to make the public fights illegal. But promoters didn’t care, and neither did fans. People still flocked to illegal bouts. And the most creative promoters took the opportunity to work within the law. If boxing was illegal in a town, event organizers would host a play in a theater. As luck would have it, one of the play’s “acts” involved two men duking it out on stage. The loophole worked, and crowds got their fill of (legal) organized violence.
It seems hard to believe America’s pastime was a pioneer pursuit, but baseball did (partially) overlap with the age of the Wild West. After Alexander Cartwright invented the game in the mid-19th century, he set his sights on the frontier. Hearing about the discovery of gold in California, Cartwright joined thousands of other men on the journey. Naturally, he brought baseball with him. The sport had already been growing back east, and Cartwright found western settlers loved it just as much as their more refined eastern neighbors.
Frontier towns didn’t offer pro ball as eastern cities did. But in the late 19th century, settlements cobbled together amateur teams. Barnstorming baseballers traveled across the west to compete against teams in other tiny towns. Local pride was on the line—and a good bit of gambling money too. Soon, amateur baseball clubs sprouted up in places from San Francisco to Kansas City. Even gunslingers like Will Bill Hickok grew to love the game.
In 1869, baseball surged in popularity on the Great Plains. That year, the Cincinnati Red Stockings became America’s first professional baseball team. They set out on a nationwide tour to play for money. In towns across the east, fans flocked to see the new sport. Then, the Red Stockings turned west. When they got to St. Louis, they settled in for a series of exhibition games.
Teams from as far as California showed up to play against the Cincinnati nine. The barnstorming series was a smashing success with fans. It also proved critical to the future of baseball. The Red Stockings’ popularity spurred the growth of what later became Major League Baseball. And out west, settlers started spreading the game among each other until it was played practically everywhere.