The Myth of the West: Reality, Fiction, and an American National Mythology
It is nearly approaching a century and a half since the end of the American Frontier in the continental United States and yet its vision of the American West continues to animate the American self-image. American movies return constantly to the theme of the West, and with the Americanization of the world, other countries have picked up on this theme -- famously in forms such as Spaghetti Westerns from Italy and Spain, but to a lesser extent in the idea of gun-toting wild zones speckling the globe, which in of itself form an important American reference point for disorder, crime, and anarchy. Cowboys, quintessentially American, are used by Americans as a reference for individualism and machismo. Furthermore, the term is perceived by other nations as a characteristic insult for those American leaders who act in a way that they consider as reckless or aggressive. Cartoons overflow with characterizations of Davy Crocket, the eternal memory of heroes of the Alamo, and Kennedy’s infamous declaration of space as the final frontier testify, all of which speak to an unshakeable American belief in the West and the Frontier as a defining element of American democracy, individualism, opportunity, and masculinity, something to be constantly referred to as a fount of American greatness and destiny. It is in short a, perhaps “the,” national myth.
No national myth is a pure and unbiased representation of history. Rather, they are formed from an interpretation of the past in an attempt to form a cohesive and meaningful story, although, not always in a way that records the tale accurately. A national myth can conceal real myths while embracing misrepresentations, and sometimes outright falsehoods. In this case, it can be clearly shown through a selection of photos of the Old West, the Wild West, which demonstrate the difference between the true West and the West whose caricature has been interpreted and passed down to us.
These four pictures contrast ranches as they historically existed in the Wild West verses their Hollywood reconstruction and depiction. There is a notable distinguishing line between the two pairs. The historical ranches were notably rough and ready affairs, with improvised furniture, set into the terrain, usually grasslands, and built for obviously utilitarian purposes. By contrast, the Hollywood imitators depict beautiful interiors filled with a variety of comfortable and well crafted pieces of furniture as well as large windows beaming in glorious swathes of light (despite doubtless limited access to glass on the frontier). Furthermore, these homes were situated on a building site surrounded by trees -- when ranches were, after all, supposed to be the site for animal husbandry, which would require substantial acres of flat domain.
The design and domesticity of Victorian era homes was an important part of showcasing a level of civilization. A well furnished and correct home displayed the proper moral sentiments, enlightenment, and social class. As Eileen Boris wrote of immigrant reform efforts in the late 19th century, “These missionaries of the beautiful offered more than useful information to wage laborers and the immigrant poor. They presented the dominant culture through housekeeping courses and home decorating guides; they would Americanize by design, sanitize through arts and crafts.” This depiction of the domesticized frontier home was indeed quite present during the Gilded Age, as can be testified by Buffalo Bill’s home being showcased in a compendium of houses in South Dakota, a middle class dwelling set in the plains.
Thus, these photos are unsurprisingly very different in their origin and meaning. The authentic ranches show life as it would have been on the frontier: rough, without much in the way of “civilized” accoutrements, a photograph representing a slice of life to Eastern reporters, one far and away from the domesticity of cities and lands where the fairer sex predominated. The two Hollywood photos from television show a ranch which provides us a comfortable sense of domesticity, of comfort and home, one which reassures us that this land is one which has been securely settled, suitable for families and respectability.
There is a dramatic disconnect between the remembrance and glorification of gun use in the American frontier and what the practice actually was. In the popular memory guns are ever present, with constant gun battles exploding between cowboys, bandits, outlaws, and Indians (although the latter might be armed with bows and arrows instead). The West is a land of fast drawing gunfighters with smoke billowing out of every saloon accompanied by the blast of revolvers.
In actuality, things were not always so prosaic and exciting as this naturally could pose a problem for the safety and health of many communities. Cowboys, in particular, were often required to surrender their weapons when entering towns after their time on the trails, out of fear that gun men, fired up with alcohol, plied with women, and fresh with pay, might pose certain difficulties to law and order. Even on the trail, firing guns was more the exception than the rule, as this could tend to startle the cattle, about the last thing that one would want when driving massive hordes of cattle through the flatlands.
Gun control also took other forms, including the disarming of various minority groups, such as blacks. According to a 1930 interview of Richard Phillips in Bandera, Texas, representing one of the few extant first hand sources of cowboys, blacks on the ranch were not allowed to have guns, despite being high quality cowboys in of themselves.
Of course, there doubtless were plenty of guns that were used in the West. However, its portrayal as a Hobbesian state of nature, as depicted in pictures such as “Gunfight in Abilene” is one which has been exaggerated and dramatized, associating the cowboy, the most prominent symbol of American male masculinity, with the gun, his arm and tool of self-defense and his authority. Life in the Wild West would have been more equivalent to that portrayed in a second picture; “The carrying of firearms: strictly prohibited.” Otherwise, there might have been very few people left alive in the Wild West. Thankfully, actors for television tend not to die with the same alarming rate as their real life counterparts do when they are struck by bullets. Thus, “Gunfight in Abilene” in constructing its vision of a heroic and moral gunfighter standing off against a villainous and evil enemy, in a tale of romance, excitement, and shot and powder, is designed to provide a very different image indeed than The Prickly Ash Bitters photo which sends a message of solidity, respectability, and, above all else, safety, secured by regulations upon the arms that men bore.
Prostitute and Saloon Girls
The West had plentiful prostitutes and saloon girls, often composing the only significant female presence in towns before the mass arrival of wives after its settlement. This group of females constituted a diverse bunch, ranging from street walkers, to brothel workers, to lowly saloon girls in the more seedy establishments, to more respectable saloon girls in regular establishments who didn’t have to actually have sex with their customers, to even prestigious madames and bordello workers who could hope to earn enough money to retire as members of respectable society. This meant that prostitutes could have quite a great deal of power, and be rather mature figures, instead of helpless maidens.
The second figure above matches a more modern vision of prostitutes and saloon girls of the West, rather than the first, more realistic photo. An important change occurred after the early 20th century in regards to the portrayal of women as well as their beauty standards with the exalting of the thin, lithe, athletic, and young body as a much more paramount beauty ideal. Before this, many female entertainment figures were, by our standards, decidedly mature and “fleshy,” and were highly popular in the Vaudeville theater of the time. During the early 20th century, these were replaced by well-trained “chorus girls” and accompanied by a major transition in advertising which placed them as the desired female body type.
These pictures demonstrate this, with the first one showing a figure much more secure in herself, without any visible capitulation to the camera, a stern expression on her face, commanding the shot. It is probably one which would have been self orchestrated like any other of a host of Victorian portraits, or at least by a photographer who would have had to negotiate for it. The second photo, in contrast, is a Hollywood piece with a saloon girl next to the mark of her trade, a large keg of alcohol. She is younger, daintier, gazing off into the distance, a product of a later society and its beauty standards, a saleswoman or adornment of the bar and one without the same strength and independence as her predecessor.
During its settlement, the West was a zone where vast hordes of men flooded in, determined to get rich quickly -- miners, prospectors, cowboys. Some made fortunes, while most probably left at least as poor as they arrived. However, one thing united this vast stream of people: they belonged overwhelmingly to the male gender as the number of women present was relatively low. When more women were present, the tendency was towards a stratification of social hierarchies and an attempt to bring the domesticity of the East to the rough-and-ready settlements sprouting up like mushrooms in the West. Thus, it isn’t surprising that quite a number of saloons were much less glamorous, and less brimming with the attractive female counterparts that were the mainstay of the portrayal of the fairer sex in films and media. Furthermore, they would be quieter places, as shown in the first picture, since young men who would be the principal agents of shootings would mostly shoot each other, and upon excessive and egregious violence would be promptly lynched. This calm and more orderly saloon, heavily masculine, is one which would have been more familiar to most in the West than the glorified depiction of Hollywood.
Conditions for miners in the West were difficult, as they faced long hours, low wages, poor social infrastructure, and high amounts of disease. Miners generally didn’t make great fortunes. They flooded into boomtowns and were gouged by the businesses, and were required to launch strikes and collective action for any attempt to deal with their poor living standards. This collective action formed a crucial and key part of their identities. Miners by necessity had to be creatures of solidarity, along at least ethnic lines and their local community, and were a far cry from solitary creatures. The first picture shows this: miners in a group, strong, masculine men, perhaps photographed by a travelling photographer eager to get a look at these hardy men digging out the riches of the West, well organized in groups as a collective team. They stand alongside the results of the massive influx of capital into the West, with wagons, powered machinery, and complicated support structures.
By contrast, the second picture shows a much more favorable and heroic picture of the miner, matching up well with the beautiful backdrop of the West. This picture displays what a miner should be in the Western mythos: independent, strong, free-spirited, out in the wilderness, and in the grandeur of the Western landscape, reflecting a sales ploy or advertisement for the West. It shows the image which echoes in the heart of every Californian -- the grizzled older 49er, the prospector out to strike it rich on his own with nothing but a pick-axe. This mining personae might have existed at the onset, however later would be replaced with the introduction of capital intensive mining utilizing hydraulic blasting equipment, explosives, mine pits, and steam-driven machinery. It is a romanticized picture of what we wish a miner to be, rather than what a true miner’s life or what the industry really was.
Few ideologies have had as much influence upon the development and expansion of the United States as that of Manifest Destiny, the belief that the United States was ordained by God to spread from the East Coast to the West Coast, and in many versions to liberate Canada from the clutches of the British Empire and to conquer Mexico and other territories to the South to create a North American Empire. While the most expansionist versions of this project ultimately did not pan out, the United States ultimately did, as proponents of expansion desired, stretch its wings from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and settle the lands in between -- principally at first, with the desired stock of White Protestant settlers, just like themselves.
The Great American Desert was the term which designated the High Plains, the western part of the Great Plains, consisting of a large treeless expanse assumed to be unfit for cultivation and settlement, a wasteland differing from the Sahara in only the presence of grass and buffalo. Not all of the West was this inhospitable, and indeed once modern irrigation, barbed wire, and railroads arrived this region actually became settleable. However, settlers still faced many challenges -- droughts, swarms of locusts, the sheer difficulty in transportation, the original inhabitants of the land in the form of the Indians, and difficulties in securing building supplies for their European-style housing.
One would be hard pressed to see the actual harshness of the land in the artwork depicting the Western Frontier. Most of these Western landscapes focus not on the desolate nature of the land, but rather upon the beauty and fertility of it -- on great fields of green with rivers and fertile land, on airy mountains, luscious grasslands, animals and occasionally Indians lost in the landscape, becoming part of it. By contrast the treeless, almost barren High Plains are very different indeed.
What incentives led to the Western land being touted to such an extent? There were important spiritual ones, bound up in Manifest Destiny. Such depictions contained a clear corollary: the beautiful, magnificent, and highly fertile lands would be foyers of the development of American civilization, and justified by the horrible mis-use of these lands by the native inhabitants, the Indians, who failed to use the plow and wandering through them aimlessly. This rationalized American expansion against the Indians in a way which showed a desolate waste already clear and ready for building European-style homes (and making the Indian reliance upon tipis in the Great Plains much more sensible) or the fertile landscape for intensive European-style farming (justifying Indian hunter-gathering lifestyles). But, there were also practical reasons. The American economy and key firms, such as the expanding railroads, depended upon settlement out west. A favorable promotion of this land, rich with the Lord’s blessings, would draw pioneers to it. A disfavorable, more honest one, would impact negatively the flood of pioneers headed out west and thus impact its potential economy..
Thus, the first picture above (which I couldn’t upload) shows an idyllic, propagandistic depiction of the Western landscape, blessed by sun, with an abundance of fertile land and water, horses, and what appears to be a party of American settlers in the center. This would have been painted to show off the beauty of the West, helping to construct a myth of its general attraction to settlers and overall suitability for European settlement. Even today, throughout much of the West this myth is almost entirely false as much of the barren wastes of the American west can testify. By contrast, the second picture would have been taken with very different motives indeed, showing a slice of life of a frontier family who, despite all the difficult conditions plaguing them, have managed to persevere and forge a suitable household and life in this new, inhospitable land.
Few depictions of the Wild West show the presence of Blacks of which it is known comprised between ⅕ and ⅓ of the cowboy population. There were Black farmers who moved out to Kansas, Black miners, and sometimes Black soldiers serving out West. Famous Black cowboys such as Will Crittendon or Bill Pickett existed and there were numerous commentaries from Black leaders about the diaspora out West. Other minorities can gain some share of representation, after all, the presence of Chinese on the railroads is by now a widely known fact.
Why then has it been the case that Blacks have been so underrepresented in the West? Cultural portrayals of Blacks from the time period portrayed them as a dying race bound to extinction before white dominance, and surely played a role by removing them from the landscape. Furthermore, Blacks did not play a significant part in the most prestigious, influential and widespread show of all: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. This show, incorporating an important element of domesticity, had no room for morally grown figures like Blacks, as they were neither enemies like the Indians nor the centerpiece of the show, the praised White men, and certainly were unable to deal with White women on anything regarding equal terms. Blacks represented a danger to the established White order and were thus removed from the mythos.
Another key reason was the masculinity of the cowboy on the frontier. Cowboys might have been comprised of up to ⅓ black, but they constituted a crucial standard and image of white masculinity, one linked with arms and mounted natural power. A powerful and masculine role, it is one which excluded blacks, disarmed and emasculated.. It is no surprise that in the first picture it shows a satirical rendering of Blacks “hunting” buffalo, which in actuality are other Blacks wearing buffalo costumes. This farce delegitimizes the idea of Blacks ability to function effectively as cowboys or frontiersmen.
In contrast, the second photo depicts hardened black cowboys (or at least manual workers of some side) standing defiantly in front of the camera, strong and confident, without any self-consciousness or deference to the photographer. It is intended to broadcast a picture of strong, masculine working men, honest and upright, proud men of the frontier. It is one which is a far cry indeed from the emasculated black sharecroppers of the East, and instead recognizes these men as being truly deserving of their role in society.
Indians assume a strange role in the mythology of the West, being both everywhere and nowhere, with focus above all else on the Plains Indians. Little attention is paid to other tribes -- be they the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma, the Pueblo Indians, or the Indians of the Pacific Northwest. Traditional images of Indians in the Wild West portray them as being dangerous rabble rousers mounted on horses, a menace to be guarded against like any other predator who attacked and preyed upon (presumably innocent) settlers. Certainly they were separate and distinct from the White settler society. The Indian presence is traditionally that of the Plains Indians, being mounted cavalrymen.. This differs from the historical “Wild West” where many Indians were cowboys and employed complex strategies of resistance, cooperation, and assimilation to deal with the threat of the United States to their way of life.
To an even greater degree than with African-Americans, Indians fell victim to a perception of the time that the “inferior races” were doomed to extinction, being replaced by the white race. Thus, not only were the Indians destined to lose their culture and identity, but their very lives and biological continuity would be called into question. Some disputed that this in of itself was inevitable, such as in the famous quote “Kill the Indian to save the man” by Captain Richard H. Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Industrial School, a boarding school for Indians, but there was no doubt that in any case Indian culture in of itself was doomed.
Thus in the second picture above, the acculturation of Indians to American life would have been presented as a positive, and in our contemporary political language “progressive,” and more, one which had saved the Indians from the threat of extermination by integrating them into American society. Of note is the backdrop of a domestic home environment, one fully in line with White notions of domestricity at the time, something assumed to civilize and encourage positive behavior on the part of the Native Americans. American style domesticity was deeply associated with positive depictions of life, and this picture, which would have been perceived positively by Indian assimilationists of the time period, is unique among the three in placing the Indians into a home environment recognizable as Euro-American. The date of this picture, in late 1895, occurs after the end of the American frontier, when American control had reached its full fruition over the entirety of the Great Plains. By this period, independent existence was no longer an option for the Native Americans -- the United States government controlled their destiny.
The contrast with the third picture is striking. Here, Native Americans are shown in their native home, a tipi. The conditions are crowded, seven figures jammed into a small space. It appears dirty, and in disorder, and utterly alien to conventional domesticity standards. It represents a way of life that was untenable in comparison to Euro-American styles, a domesticity theme often repeated throughout the age.
Popular media played an even more significant role in shaping the view of Indians being doomed to extinction in the advance of white civilization. A starring role in this was played by the institution of the “Buffalo Bill Show,” a travelling performance troupe, which had only Plains Indians as participating members, ignoring any others of America’s wide range Indian tribes.This did much to cement the Plains Indian as the main image of the Indian in Americana, instead of the diverse range of other Indian groups. It is no surprise thus that the two pictures shown above, of Indians in their native garb, reflects Plains Indian groupings, without the representation of other groups.
Thus the first picture’s depiction (unable to upload) of a Plains Indian tribe dressed in their native garb before the camera is entirely logical and makes a fair deal of sense, fitting American stereotypes and perceptions of the era. It might be assumed to be part of a series of “Before-and-After” images, routinely utilized for boarding schools such as the Carlisle and Hamdon schools, where Indians were taken to be educated in American ways and had American culture imposed upon them. Routinely, this would show a group of Indians in their traditional garb, and following would be a picture of them having shed their accoutrements of “barbarism” and adopted proper, “civilized,” Euro-American clothing commonly of a military bent.
The simultaneous combination of these viewpoints of Indians as a dying race and one that was without any relationship to US society other than military confrontation between Plains Indians and US soldiers, accounts for the divergence between reality and the myth of the Indians in the Wild West.
Many of the stories of the West contain seeds of truth. Indians did fight against American encroachment, blacks did represent a minority of the population, and there were many fertile and wondrous lands for European colonization and settlement (at the expense of the extant population of Indians). Doubtless, hardy prospectors eating a diet of fried or stewed rattlesnakes existed, glamorous saloons putting any of the Old World’s ballrooms to shame brought many a cowboy to part with his cash, and many a charming and beautiful young saloon girl or prostitute stole his heart (and the cash too). Furthermore, gunfights were waged around corrals, and comely and handsome ranches existed. But, the myth of the West has been altered and magnified to produce a heroic tale of American expansion and colonization that reflects the changing perceptions of society after the fact better than that of the time. It is time that we take a critical look at our representation of this period, and examine what it reveals about our own history and society.
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