When you think of the ‘wild west’ – the immediate picture that comes to mind is of gun slingers, cowboys, gunfights and saloons, wagon loads of tenderfoots heading westwards, good guys and bad guys, Apaches, Comanche, Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and old Hollywood Western movies and TV shows that created the image of the “Wild West”. This is where much of American folklore began.

The Southwest is one part of the ‘wild west’ and is loosely defined as covering the states of Arizona, Utah, Nevada and New Mexico – bordering on Colorado to the north, what are known as the “four corner states” and Texas to the east. It is a vast area of land with a diverse landscape including plains, snow-capped mountains, deserts, cactus, canyons and isolation – a tough pioneer land where the harshness of the land was matched by the people who lived here.
There is no escaping the fact that much of this area, but certainly not all, is a harsh land, but it is also amazing too.


The Southwest has been occupied for thousands of years and evidence of the early civilisations of the Anasazi Pueblo people can be found in ‘Petroglyphs’ – rock and cave art that date back thousands of years as well as in the ancient ruins of their pueblos in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. The word ‘pueblo’ is Spanish for ‘town’.

It was in 1521 that the Spanish under the leadership of Hernan Cortés began its conquest of the Aztec Empire that had ruled over Mexico from around the 13th century. Having conquered the Aztec Empire the Spanish Empire gained control over the whole of the Aztec Empire, creating what they called “The Royal Administration of New Spain” (Nueva Espana), and ruling over this vast Kingdom for some 300 years until 1821.

The Spanish Empire also ruled and claimed ownership over most of South and Central America, as well as many the islands in the Caribbean, the Philippines and much of North America including California stretching north to Canada, as well as Florida and all the territories west of the Mississippi River.

In conquering the Empires of the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas, the Spanish acquired vast wealth in gold and silver, and had by 1535 implemented their vice-regal system of governance with control by the Viceroy over the different regions within the Empire.

In Mexico as could be expected, the further away from the center of control – Mexico City (the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan) the less control there was, and the more there was certain to be local resistance.

The American Indian tribes – Ute, Navajo, Apache, Comanche and others were nomadic, moving with the seasons and the availability of game for hunting. There were also tribal conflicts over hunting grounds and territories too, and with the Pueblo people too, who were more settled in Pueblo villages and settlements growing crops as well as hunting.

With the Spanish establishing forts, mission stations, ranches and haciendas they brought with them guns, the Catholic religion, horses, cattle, crops to grow and European diseases. The diseases, including cholera, measles and smallpox killed large numbers of Indians, but equally conflict between Spanish settlers and Indian raiding parties also resulted in many deaths on both sides throughout the 1700’s.

The Spanish had as early as 1598 established what they called “El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro” (The Royal Road of the Interior Land) from Mexico City all the way north to San Juan Pueblo in New Mexico (near Santa Fe), using old Pueblo Indian trails. This trail was 1600 miles long, and took around 6 months to travel the distance. As a trading route it continued to be used until 1882.

In 1821 after 300 years of Spanish control, Mexico fought for and obtained its independence from Spain, but the relationship between the new independent Mexican Nation and Apache and Comanche in New Mexico continued with on-going conflicts, raids, deaths and destruction of property on both sides.

In 1829 a new trading route, what became known as the old Spanish Trail was established between Santa Fe and Los Angeles in California crossing over the mountains, rivers, canyons and deserts that lay between the two settlements. This rough and dangerous trail enabled mule wagons and caravans, horsemen, traders, frontiersmen, ranchers and later gold prospectors and miners to cross the 2700 mile distance over some of the roughest country in the world.

In 1803 the United States bought all of the Louisiana Territory from France, the territory formerly controlled by the French (1682-1762) and then by the Spanish (1762 to 1800) before it came back under French ownership from 1800 to 1803. This purchase of Louisiana by the United States for $15 million became known as the ‘Louisiana Purchase’, and brought the Union States much closer to the Mexican held territories, including Texas.

During the 1820’s Mexico agreed to allow United States settlers to move into its Texas Territory on the basis that they swore allegiance to the Mexican Government, learnt Spanish and became Catholics.

In 1831 Mexico abolished slavery, by which time slavery had become a highly contentious issue in the United States, and there were a large numbers of slaves already in Texas by this stage. The Mexicans also imposed new taxes, restrictions on further United States settlers coming to Texas and restrictions on purchase of foreign goods and attempted to stop slavery. All this culminated in a cry for Texas independence, and in 1835 the Battle of the Alamo took place in San Antonio.
The Battle of the Alamo saw a group of settlers and frontiersmen take over the Alamo Fort, but then the Mexican Army brutally squashed the uprising – executing almost all prisoners that it captured. American heroes and frontiersmen, Davy Crockett and James Bowie both died in the battle.

The brutality of the Mexican response, rather than quashing the move for independence, led to it strengthening – and after a series of battles on March 2nd, 1836 the Independent Republic of Texas was formed, with Samuel Houston as the first President, and the ‘Texas Rangers’ which had first formed in 1823 by Stephen F. Austin becoming the legendary protection force.

The Mexican government refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Republic of Texas, and tensions and debate simmered over coming years as to the legitimacy of the Republic, however in 1845 Texas was admitted to the United States Union, becoming the 28th State.

War between the United States Union forces and Mexico started the following year lasting two years (1846-1848), with the war ending in the defeat of the Mexicans and a treaty, the ‘Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo’ signed by both parties in 1848. Under the treaty the United States agreed to pay Mexico $15 million and take over a debt to the USA of $3.25 million in exchange for all of Alta California and New Mexico and recognition of the State of Texas as US territory. The Alta Californian area encompassed much of California as well as Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. California then became the 31st State in the Union.

The inevitability of the United States having control over all territories from the East Coast to the West Coast – what was called the ‘Manifest destiny’ had been largely fulfilled.

The Gadsden Purchase in 1853-54, was another Treaty signed between Mexico and the United States whereby the United States paid Mexico $10 million for a section of land at the southern end o of Arizona and New Mexico followed.

With the recognition of Texas, purchase of the former Mexican territories, and creation of the new States, American settlers could move further west as far as California, building ranches, cities and towns along the way. Apaches, Comanche and other Indian tribes would continue to fight for their lands and try and stop the new settlers from taking their lands and hunting grounds. Conflict was inevitable.

The American Civil War (1861-65) over slavery also brought with it new battles and conflict, but with the war ending and slaves being emancipated, a new chapter would emerge in the west with more settlers heading westwards from the east in the hope of making a new life for themselves.

The discovery of gold in California added to the rush of people heading west and construction of the first transcontinental railroad, started in 1862 and completed by 1869 made travel westwards faster, easier and less risky. Now emigrants arriving in New York from Europe, after being processed at Ellis Island, could head west on the railroad to seek their fortune. For thousands of people this was the start of their American dream, and millions of people would follow leaving the old world for the new world that was America.

TODAY in visiting Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Utahyou will be able to see the ancient ruins of the Anasazi people; learn about the customs and traditions and see the craftwork of the Apache and Comanche Native American people; see the influence of the Pueblo Indians and Spanish in the architecture of buildings, names of cities, streets and towns; visit old forts and battlegrounds; see old frontier towns – the trails, wagons, saloons and sheriff offices and see ghost towns; homes that have been restored and other places that showcase the life and times of the missionaries, Native Americans, Spanish, ranchers, cowboys, wranglers, blacksmiths, railroaders, outlaws, Mormons, pioneers, miners and others who together built the west.

You will also experience the landscape – the desert areas, high mountains, rivers, plains, canyons, remarkable vegetation, and see animals, birds and wildlife that make the western parts of the United States such an interesting place to visit.

WHAT TO SEE – there is so much to see, it is hard to know where to start, but your starting point will largely be determined by where you have come from –landing at an airport or travelling by car or coach from the north, east, north or south. Remember that the distances between cities and towns can be big, and if you are in desert areas, it can be extremely hot in the summer months, so you need to have lots of water to carry with you and be prepared, particularly if you intend to do some hiking. Higher mountain areas can also get cold too, particularly at night, and there are also areas where there is snow and ski fields.

To help guide you to places you might want to visit, we have written information on a state by state basis –

Happy Travelling!
Geoff Stuart

Happy Traveller

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