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Why the American Wild West was a "hotbed of scientific discovery"

Not every advance in the Wild West was fashioned by a six-shooter. Some of its most colourful characters were actually pushing the frontiers of discovery rather than holding up stagecoaches. Writer Jamie Flook saddles up and heads for the real Old West

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Published: April 4, 2020 at 11:45 am
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The modern American West is one of the world’s great centres for scientific activity. Silicon Valley in California, for example, has long been home to the innovators of the information age. But when we think of the West of old, we tend to think of gunfights, cattle rustling, stagecoach robberies and all manner of other curiosities. However, alongside the outlaws, gunslingers, gold prospectors and saloon owners were pioneers of a different kind. As well as its legendary love affair with criminality and violence, the Wild West was a hotbed of scientific discovery, with characters every bit as adventurous as their gun-toting counterparts.


Bold explorer

One such individual was geologist Clarence King, who studied physics, geology and applied chemistry at Yale. He’s been described as the Indiana Jones of the geological world and it’s easy to see why. King made his name exploring the Sierra Nevada, becoming the first person to scale some of the region’s mountain peaks, and would go on to become the first director of the United States Geological Survey.

King was a geek with a penchant for flamboyance, which was evidenced by the way he dressed, wearing tight-fitting deerskin trousers and violet-coloured gloves. This is a man who attracted attention whether he wanted it or not; he stared death in the face a number of times.

He once survived being chased for two days on horseback by Mexican bandits, as well as an incident in a cave where it’s reported he came face to face with a grizzly bear. The story goes that the geologist was exploring a cave while surveying in Nevada and the grizzly bear wandered in, whereupon the animal was promptly shot by King.

King was a geek with a penchant for flamboyance, wearing deerskin trousers and violet gloves

In 1862, while hunting in Nebraska, King’s horse was killed by a herd of buffalo, causing it to collapse on top of him, crushing his leg in the process. The following year, an unarmed King was drinking in a saloon in El Dorado County, when a drunk approached his table and threatened to shoot the young scientist. King put his hand in his trouser pocket and used his thumb to create the shape of the muzzle of a gun whilst snapping a toothpick he had in the same pocket to mimic the sound of a gun being cocked. The drunk then ran away.

Photo of Shoshone Canyon
In the Shoshone Canyon on Idaho Territory, members of Clarence King's Geological Exploration of the 40th Parallel are surveying from a rock. In the background are Shoshone Falls. (Photo by CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

That same year, King was arrested for kidnapping three black people and selling them into slavery, but was released when he was found to not be the guilty party. In the summer of 1865, King survived numerous bouts of malaria but his greatest escape was yet to come.


Alice Fletcher

Anthropologist Alice Cunningham Fletcher grew up in a wealthy family in New York and, by the 1860s, was travelling across Europe, teaching in private schools. She returned to the United States and, in 1881, she went to live with the Sioux in Dakota. Fletcher’s aim was to study how the Sioux lived and try to improve relations between Native Americans and white Americans.

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has made some of Fletcher’s diaries available to read online and they give a fascinating insight into the daily lives of the Sioux. In one entry from 1881, she details riding with a young Native American friend named Wajapa. As they were riding, Wajapa pointed out some horses in the distance, which he recognised as being stolen from his tribe by white settlers. Despite this, he told Fletcher that the tribe had no legal right to claim them back. She would make a significant contribution to increasing public awareness of the problems faced by Native Americans.

In 1866, he was leading a cavalry unit on a survey through Arizona, riding some distance in front with a colleague when they came across an Apache tribe who took a dislike to King and his friend. This particular tribe was known to impale enemies to the ground with stakes, whereupon they would be tortured and set on fire. During a tense stand-off, King was ordered to dismount his horse. Instead, he pulled out his mercury barometer and explained how it was a recently invented long-range gun. This seemed to confuse and worry his aggressors in equal measure, buying King and his friend sufficient time for the cavalry unit to catch up, at which point the tribe dispersed.

Snap decision

While King was experiencing these high adventures, a young Englishman named Eadweard Muybridge was studying photography back in his homeland. He had returned to Britain having fled the Wild West following a horrific stagecoach crash in which he suffered a bad head injury, having been thrown clear of the vehicle and banging his skull on a rock. Those who knew him say the accident had a detrimental effect on his personality. However, Muybridge would eventually return to the Old West and make his mark on history.

Photo of a galloping horse
Muybridge's study of a horse galloping. (Photo by Eadweard Muybridge/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

By 1872, Muybridge was forging a reputation as a pioneering photographer and that year he actually worked with King in mapping the area around Yosemite Valley in California. This was a busy time for Muybridge, as he had also been commissioned by the former state governor, Leland Stanford, to prove whether or not galloping horses simultaneously lifted all four hooves in the air. Stanford had placed a bet with some acquaintances that they did indeed lift all four hooves, but in a time before moving pictures, this would be difficult to prove. So Muybridge set up a series of trip wires on a racecourse that would automatically trigger a burst of photographs. It was a valiant effort, but the results remained inconclusive. He would, though, continue to try to solve the question.


The Bone Wars

It wasn’t just gold that caused an influx of people into the American West during the 19th century. The Great Dinosaur Rush – also billed as the Bone Wars – was a period during the century’s closing decades when prospectors feverishly ventured westwards to discover dinosaur bones.

The Bone Wars were crystallised by the fierce rivalry between two paleontologists from the East Coast: Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. Each sought to outdo the other when it came to the quality and quantity of their finds. Between them, they discovered more than 140 different species of dinosaur across Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming.

Meanwhile, 1872 was another busy year for King, when he briefly achieved international fame when he exposed a diamond hoax. Unwitting businessmen were being sold land on the basis that diamonds lay underneath it. In fact, the jewels had been planted in the ground to give this illusion of diamond-rich land. King, along with some cohorts, travelled to the site in Colorado to reveal the fraud.

Wind forward two years and Muybridge’s life had taken a turn for the worse. But his connection with Stanford (who would co-found the university that still bears his name) would save his life. In 1874, Muybridge discovered – via a hand-written message on the back of a photograph – that his wife was having an affair with a Scot called Harry Larkyns, a drama critic who also passed himself off as a former British Army officer. Enraged, Muybridge paid Larkyns a visit to discuss the situation.

Muybridge's experimental track. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
Muybridge's experimental track. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

The testimony of those present recounts the photographer’s greeting: “My name is Muybridge. Here is the answer to the letter you sent my wife.” At this point, Muybridge shot Larkyns dead at point-blank range. With the photographer facing the death penalty, Stanford paid for Muybridge’s legal defence. His counsel made much of the fact that Muybridge had suffered brain-altering injuries in the stagecoach crash and, as such, was not entirely in charge of his faculties. Muybridge himself, though, rejected this plea in court and argued that he was right to shoot the major in revenge. Muybridge was acquitted on the grounds of justifiable homicide.

Double life

After the trial, Muybridge went back to work. In 1879, he invented the world’s first movie projector, a device called the zoopraxiscope. Using his new invention, Muybridge successfully proved Stanford’s suspicion that horses do, at times, have all four hooves off of the ground during their running strides. Accordingly, Muybridge can arguably lay a claim to being the world’s first cinematographer. In 1888, he showed his zoopraxiscope to Thomas Edison, the man whom history credits with inventing cinema.

Muybridge argued that he was right to shoot the major

At the same time that Muybridge was on trial, King was roughing it, living life on the edge as he always had. While undertaking surveying work that began at Yosemite, King crossed deserts, survived a terrible snowstorm and swam across a rain-swollen river on his way to Idaho.

In the late 1880s, King began living a double life after marrying a former slave. Interracial marriage was frowned upon, so King elected to disguise himself as a black man in everyday life, while continuing to go to work in the field as a white geologist. He kept up this charade for more than a decade before revealing all on his deathbed, where he died penniless in Phoenix, Arizona at the age of just 59. One could accuse King of being any number of things, but a meek yellowbelly would not be one of them.


The American West in the latter half of the 19th century was, in many ways, a brutal environment, one that dictated hard lives for geek and gunslinger alike. But for our scientific pioneers, the weapon that saved them most wasn’t one loaded with bullets. Instead, their brains were their weapons.

What do you think?

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This article was first published in the July 2017 edition of BBC History Revealed


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