This is a photograph of a pioneer homestead in the Oregon Territory, taken around 1890. The west had not yet been tamed, and American settlers faced hostile Indians and outlaws. Here we can get a glimpse into the kind of hardscrabble existence that these pioneers lived.
The man on the left is holding his rifle, a necessity in the Old West. The woman and the man on the right stand near the door of their home, a ramshackle hut made from rough lumber and odds and ends of whatever they could find. It looks extremely small and cramped. There are no windows to be seen and if there were any they would have been small and likely without any glass panes. There is a little path made out of wooden planks leading to the door of the house, so that they don’t have to walk through the mud. For some reason there is a metal stove sitting at an angle outside of the house, which may be because they had just recently arrived and had not yet had time to install it.
Their prized possession, a dairy cow, is eating from a bucket next to the house. In the background you can see piles of odds and ends, including some lumber. The roof of the house seems to be a tarp. Can you imagine living through a harsh winter in a house like that? Yet the people in the picture are proudly posing next to their “mansion”. We can guess that they were proud of the freedom and self reliance that they could find on the American frontier.
However life on the frontier was far from idyllic or even healthy. Our image of Old West Towns has been distorted by Hollywood. In fact, most farmers lived an unhealthy existence marked by boredom, hardship, and loneliness. There were a lot fewer trees on the prairies than there are now, and no roads. The grass fields stretched on forever and there was nothing to see for miles and no neighbors.
When winter came, settlers in the Old West were shut in to their cramped unhealthy shacks for months at a time. Their homes were cold and poorly insulated. The only area of warmth was around the kitchen stove or fire pit where the housewife slaved to cook for the family in front of a hot fire which sucked up all the oxygen and made the air in the settler’s hut unhealthy and full of smoke.
Their diet was also poor, consisting almost exclusively of barely edible corn and cornmeal. The animal’s barns and corrals were built close to the house for the sake of convenience, as was the outhouse, and as a result foul smells invaded the settlers’ homes while human and animal waste seeped into the ground water and contaminated the well, which was usually dug dangerously close to the latrine and animals, for the sake of convenience. Outbreaks of disease were common.
Boredom was another challenge faced by the American settler on the frontier. There was nothing to do, and no neighbors to socialize with. One man who grew up on the American frontier recounted how as a boy his only source of entertainment was reading and rereading the newspaper pages that his father had used to wallpaper their shack.
Even so, the people in this photograph seem happy. Below is a magnified view focusing on the woman and the man to her left.
The woman is dressed in a pretty skirt and patterned shirt. She is holding a pail, perhaps planning on milking the cow in the picture. Her hair is made up. Despite their bleak living conditions, she is smiling and happy. Her smile seems genuine and not just for the camera. The man, perhaps her husband, seems happy as well though he is not smiling. He is holding a revolver in an unusual way, with the barrel pointing away from the camera and towards himself in a dangerous way.
This is a wonderful glimpse into a bygone part of American life.
This article featuring a vintage photo of the American Old West, was last updated on April 16, 2021.