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Go West!

Everyone enjoys a good Western movie, but there’s more to the story of the American frontier than just cowboys and Indians.

The western half of the United States is a staggeringly large region that has been shaped by numerous events and phenomena. Though cowboys have indeed played a critical role in the history of the West, they are only co-stars in a drama that includes thousands of other people.

At Western heritage museums in places such as Texas, Nevada and South Dakota, visitors get a deeper look at the historic events and colorful characters that helped to make the West what it is today. Next time your group travels through the region, take them to one of these sites to learn some of the fascinating stories of the West that they may never have heard before.

High Plains Western Heritage Center

Spearfish, South Dakota

The Upper Plains states — the Dakotas, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana — often get less attention for their Western heritage than other states farther south. But this region has plenty of history all its own, and the High Plains Western Heritage Center in South Dakota exists to share it with visitors.

“We cover about half a dozen different areas, such as Western artifacts, art, mining and rodeo,” said executive director Peggy Ables. “The facility was put together by area ranchers to tell their stories.”

The two-story museum sits on 20 acres and features more than 20,000 square feet of exhibits. Highlights include an original stagecoach that was used to shuttle travelers between Deadwood and Spearfish up until 1913. The Pioneer and Frontier gallery has one of the country’s largest collection of spurs, and the mining room features artifacts from an area mine that once produced large volumes of gold.

“In our rodeo room, we have about 15 world championship trophies, as well as saddles and buckles, on display,” Ables said. “It’s the most of anyone around here.”

The museum holds a number of events throughout the year in its 200-seat theater, which is also available for private dining and presentations for groups.

Washington on the Brazos State Historic Site

Washington, Texas

A small, mostly abandoned town on the banks of a river may not seem to have much historical significance. But without the events that took place in the town of Washington, on the Brazos River, Texas wouldn’t be Texas.

“Washington on the Brazos State Historic Site is here because this is where delegates met on March 2, 1836, to sign the Declaration of Independence from Mexico,” said Houston McGaugh, director of the Star of the Republic Museum at the historic site. “Fifty-nine men representing all of the municipalities of Texas gathered here and decided to declare independence and become their own country, the Republic of Texas. They drafted a constitution, elected an interim government and set a date for public elections.”

The Republic of Texas operated as an independent government for about 10 years, after which it became part of the United States. The town of Washington survived until the 1850s, but faded away as residents left after the Civil War.

Throughout the 20th century, a number of efforts were made to memorialize the events that took place in Washington. Today, Washington on the Brazos State Historic Site has a re-creation of Independence Hall, where the delegates declared their independence and worked to form a new government, as well as a living-history farm and the Star of the Republic Museum.

“Our museum focuses on the Republic period of Texas history,” McGaugh said. “The exhibits start with the Native Americans and go back through the Texas Revolution and the Mexican War, which really set the current boundary between Mexico and Texas.”

At Barrington Living History Farm, staff members don period clothes and work with farm animals and livestock using the same techniques that Texas family farmers would have employed some 180 years ago.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.