The Wild West of Yester-Year

Independence Day in the Old West
By Rachel Kovaciny

Do you have any family traditions for celebrating the 4th of July? Special recipes, someone you invite over, or a favorite spot to watch fireworks from? Maybe you have a favorite parade to watch or take part in. When I was a little kid, we always watched fireworks in a small Iowa town with both sets of my grandparents. We brought beach towels for the kids to sit on and an old blanket or two to snuggle up under if we got cold—nights in Iowa in early July can sometimes be chilly.

Since moving to Virginia, my husband and I host a shindig at our house because we don’t enjoy fighting traffic to get to big fireworks displays or concerts—we tried that our first year and decided big fireworks weren’t worth hours of misery in the car with howling, overtired little kids. Maybe when ours are older, we’ll brave the traffic again. For now, we buy some small (legal!) fireworks, invite some friends and family over for a cookout, and set off the fireworks once it’s dusk. About the time we finish ours, a nearby neighborhood sets off some enormous ones we can see over the tops of houses and trees. By the time those wind down, our guests and their kids are ready to head home, and our kids are ready for bed.

Americans today take their 4th of July celebrations for granted. Everybody can find some fireworks to watch or set off. It’s a federal holiday. Many businesses close, so it’s a festive day of relaxation and excitement we can count on having. It was not always so. July 4 wasn’t declared a permanent federal holiday until the middle of the twentieth century, though it was sometimes designated as such as early as 1870. Sure, Americans celebrated the signing of the Declaration of Independence on that day starting in 1777, but celebrations for the next hundred years were sporadic, occasional, and scattered. When the country celebrated its centennial in 1876, these celebrations became bigger and more widespread, leading to the kinds of shindigs we expect today.

What would Independence Day celebrations have been like in the Old West? Like today, they were as varied and unique as the people hosting them. All across the country, some people celebrated the day while others used it as an excuse to socialize. Others ignored it or lacked the time and means to do much to mark it. Out West and Back East, some towns or communities would fire off a cannon, host a fair, or have a town-wide picnic. Lacking a cannon, folks might get together and fire off their rifles and pistols in a volley. If a town or city had a band, they would probably give a concert featuring patriotic tunes. Often, an important leader of the community would read a copy of the Declaration of Independence to whoever had gathered to celebrate. A minister might give a sermon. Some towns held a parade, and others had horse races. Dances were a common and popular way to celebrate just about anything, including the 4th of July. 

Native Americans also celebrated the 4th of July, at least those who lived on reservations. The government placed ever-stricter regulations on native ceremonies, whether religious or not, but they allowed many reservations to hold celebrations based around this national holiday. Native Americans would use that time to come together and hold what ceremonies they could manage. In the twentieth century, as the government’s regulations about native ceremonies eased considerably, many tribes have turned the 4th of July into a day to honor their military veterans or welcome home anyone who has traveled away from home or lives away from the reservation.


If you’d like to try celebrating Independence Day the way pioneers and ranchers of the past did, there are many places around the country that hold “frontier 4th of July” celebrations. A quick internet search will tell you if there’s one anywhere near you! I assure you that, if there were any such events around my part of the country, visiting it would become my family’s new tradition in short order.