wild west Essay

There is a cowboy. He is sitting by the campfire, singing songs, and drinking whiskey. He has his horse, trusty six shooter, and the stars overhead. Cowboys and the American West have captivated the imaginations of millions of people. The myth of the cowboy is one of the most powerful in the West. It is independence from human society, of self-reliance and personal closeness with the Earth. However, John Greenway, in his book Folklore of the Great West describes this phenomenon with the cowboys themselves being “far less in reality than they were in legend.


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Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill, Billy Jesse James, and Doc Holliday. They have been portrayed in book, comics, and movies for years. What makes people the legends that they are? Scholar Will Wright, elaborates in his book Six Guns and Society that cowboys, gunfighters, and gamblers in the Golden West hold a major place in the modern-day imagination; even though the cowboy era lasted a short twenty-five years.

How did the rest of the world view the American West? What myth and folk-hero building techniques were employed during this time? In her book, The Legacy of Conquest, Patricia Limerick says that going West was a contest for cultural dominance, and that “it remains an unresolved issue today.” Even today, the mystique of the American West is quite prominent with 1960s shows like Bonanza and films such as Tombstone. These westerns helped to dominate the television airways in America. They have aided in creating many of the myths of the West and to make America many folk heroes in the process. In much of the West, there was no structured law enforcement. Many people performed their own kind of justice. Wayne Gard, in his book Frontier Justice says, that many people “made their own laws on the spot.” The penalties that were imposed were sometimes overly severe; and sometimes the wrong person was executed. Although most usually they were fair and helped to discourage crime. The media and the creation of folk heroes in popular culture have helped to shape people’s memory of the American West by highlighting themes of masculinity, dominance and justice. Masculinity is the first of these themes. One of the most important movie actors in the last seventy years that portrayed masculinity and the American West is John Wayne.

John Wayne and John Ford are synonymous with western film and helping to develop the western myth. John Wayne was regarded as the ideal image of masculinity showcasing heroism, as well as a positive image for millions to follow. Due to his respected role on the big screen, he was showcasing false portrayals and myths of the American West. Even so, there is no denying the appeal that he had to the American public. In his book John Wayne, author Allen Eyles said, John Wayne became a symbol to the public like “an extra star on the American Flag.” He continues that Wayne was inspiration for many people because he was the “spokesman for the “silent majority” He did this by speaking out on things such as politics, Vietnam, and minority rights in the country. John Wayne starred in over eighty western films. When a person thinks of a western, one of the first people that they think is John Wayne. He was an actor for over fifty years and was respected. He depicted masculinity in every movie he was in, whether if he was a United States Marshal, hunting down a criminal; or if he was moving his cattle on the range. John Wayne has come to epitomize the western image. John Wayne was the star of many of John Ford’s films.

Many can say that John Ford is one of the most influential myth makers in the American West. He helped to create movies that portrayed the old frontier as a realm of heroism and violence, loneliness and adversity, open space and stark grandeur. John Ford made fifty-four westerns in all. John Murray, in his book Mythmakers of the West says that “to this day many people around the world only know the American West through the dramatic stories of John Ford.” His movies have helped to shape the historical memory of the American West; through the use of dramatic stories. His vivid cinematic myths have, for many viewers and perhaps for posterity as well, become an alternative form of historical reality. It is hard to imagine an American western without the John Wayne and John Ford. In the book John Wayne, Eyles says that in John Ford’s home there was a sticker that said, “God loves John Wayne.”

During the nineteenth century, there was a near universal belief in the idea of Manifest Destiny. Many people felt that America, particularly white men, had the God given right to take over the land. Nancy Anderson explains Manifest Destiny in her book Albert Bierstadt: Art and continent.” The problem was that most of the population lived in the East. America was at war with Mexico from 1846-1848. Throughout the nineteenth century the country was fighting the Native Americans. This caused many people that were already living in the West to become displaced, either by force or with treaties that were changed or ignored time and time again. One of the most important roles in small town papers was boosting the town, creating narratives to get potential families excited about it. Settlers who lived all the way West to California, North to Montana, and South to Texas also wanted others to move where they were. They promoted their land as the most fertile to get settler’s attention.

States like Missouri were often passed up by travelers heading further West. Boosters helped to populate small towns. Some boosters meant well, but some misrepresented the town in attempt to expand the population. The more people that moved to the Western towns, the more America could dominate the landscape. The Great South-West written in 1867, author Wilson Nicely discussed the reasoning of why people should have to travel far West in search of riches when they are a closer to home. People do not need to travel to states like Texas and Oregon “when thousands of acres of the richest and most productive lands on our continent are lying idle in Missouri and Kansas.”

Besides western boosters and local government, railroads promoted dominance to these areas by offering travels a trip in style. The Grand Trunk Railway offered cheap travel to the West. This would take weeks off hard travel for many families. Railroads even had painters, such as Thomas Moran, create the artwork for their advertisements. In his article Promoting the Golden West: Advertising and the Railroad, Alfred Runte remarked that “Western railroads lost a flood of stationery, postcards, calendars, timetables, guidebooks, and advertisements, each in some way distinctly representative of regional sce¬nery and culture.” These kinds of advertisements gave people a false sense that they were moving their families to a better place. Many people probably headed West for greener pastures; to find out that they had more problems once they made it to their destination. The most disturbing railroad advertisement that I have come across is one from the Northern Pacific. It portrays the eastern thoughts on civilization in the West during the1870s and 1880s. This advertisement shows that the railroad civilized the West and made it safe for people to travel. It also is very negative towards the Native Americans. The advertisement, originally from Harper’s weekly, was very graphic for the time. It shows how the presence of the railroad dramatically altered life in the West. The advertisement shows a Native American on the ground as if he were dead, with all the stops that the train made along his body. To the sophisticated traveler of the 1880s, wildlife and the Native American were synonymous, and the presence of either at a vacation resort detracted from its overall appeal. This is a reminder between the “idealized West of the public imagination and the actual West of the late Nineteenth century.” This shows the dominance that primarily white men, wanted to show to the whole country. If the land was civilized and tamed, then settlers could move anywhere on the continent and show their supremacy.

Albert Bierstadt was a renowned painter of the time. Earl Pomeroy explained that in advertisements during the 1880s, the Southern Pacific played on the dramatic sense of scale showcased in Bierstadt’s images of the 1860s; and published advertisements that recalled the rapturous praises of past visitors to the valley. These are just a few of the ways in which town boosters and the railroads helped to shape the American West town myths and get populations to settle there that normally would not have.

Along with Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran helped how the people in the East viewed the American West through his paintings. They both reconstructed the West in a grand scale. The beauty in their paintings was taken to a whole new level. In 1886, Thomas Moran painted Mountain of the Holy Cross, Colorado. This is a beautiful example of the vision of the American West that was influenced by Romanticism. Water has always been the lifeblood of the West. Many of the paintings during this time showed an abundance of rivers and lakes. Most towns were built by water for survival. Many of these paintings, although very beautiful, mislead the viewer to believe that there was much more grass and water than there was. These paintings made the West look like a virtual Garden of Eden. Thomas Moran declared, “I place no value upon literal transcripts from Nature. My general scope is not realistic; all my tendencies are toward idealization…. Topography in art is valueless.” Moran freely invented the foreground waterfall in his painting, taking many liberties with this mural.

Many of Albert Bierstadt’s paintings were grand affairs in their beauty. One example named The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak was painted in 1863. The bottom of the piece is a peaceful scene with a Native American Tribe. The background is full of majestic mountains. Lander’s Peak in Wyoming is a very beautiful place, however, there is no place that that matches the scene in that painting. In her book, Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise, Nancy Anderson explains that with many of his paintings; Bierstadt helped to tap the public imagination about many remote areas in the West. She goes on to say that Bierstadt’s claim to fame was through the great picture. The great picture was an exhibition that traveled from city to city. They were a moving cinema with scenery and lighting that were popular with the people of the time These are examples for the argument for why people decided to move out West because of paintings like these, that deceived the viewer in believing that the West was a lot greener and fuller of vibrance than it was. Many of these paintings helped the idea of manifest destiny with their powerful imagery.

William Frederick ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, had popularized the story of the frontier. He was a man of many talents. He was a frontiersman, scout, Pony Express rider, and hunting guide. He did not become a well?known public figure until the early 1870s when dime novelist Ned Buntline transformed Cody into the legendary hero, Buffalo Bill. Dime Novels were a cheap source of entertainment for much of the population that couldn’t afford hard back books, essentially the predecessor to comics and television shows. The dime novel press was a key force in fostering national and international interest in the West; and no one was written about these as much as Buffalo Bill was. In his article Memory and Myth and the Buffalo Bill Museum,” author Greg Dickerson said that, “Had Buffalo Bill remained merely a colorful character in dime novel fiction, then the history of the West may have been remembered very differently than it was for much of the twentieth century.”

Towards the later part of his life, Buffalo Bill performed in the Wild West show all over the world. For many people, this is what the West represented. This was their view on the West and the wildness that it portrayed. Buffalo Bill was an actor and used his skills to make a show that capture the public imagination. Many people loved the Wild West shows because of their supposed authentic representation. The show was based on a mixture of fact and fantasy. Gordon Morris Bakken, author of Icons of the American West postulates that “Many of the backdrops on the paintings of Buffalo Bill’s portraits were clearly fabricated, however the audience thought they were authentic representations of the West, drawing out the rugged and therefore “Western” attitude in the photographs.” People did not care that many of the stories presented were fabricated. They loved the tales that romanticized the American West. In the East, many people never learned how to ride a horse, shoot a gun, or use a lasso. Seeing these acts performed live helped people to better understand the West and to grow a nostalgia for the fading frontier. A paper from Missouri writes, even after Buffalo Bill’s death in 1917, his image remains a popular one in the ideas of the West. On January 10th, 1917, Cody’s death signaled the end of the “wild and wooly West.” He is considered by many to be one of the last vestiges of the old West.

As motion pictures gained a wider audience, the myth of the West found a rebirth in that most American of genres, the western. The western’s usage of individualism and community, masculinity, and violence as well as national and racial supremacy has helped the western image to validate the American identity. Visually, it is a genre that can easily be identified. We watch a hero type character who finds no good in the world, so he becomes a gunfighter to seek his own kind of justice. Robert G. Athearn, the author of The Mythic West, says that westerns are “overwhelmingly macho.” They seemed to preach to people that the frontier was a “man’s world”. This was true in many cases, although, there were some famous women in he Wild West such as Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane.

Justice is a very important theme in the American West memory. The West was primarily being settled by white men. They came out West for a variety of reasons. Some were mountain men, some sought gold in mines or along the river banks. A vigilante justice was formed fairly quick, before territories became states. This came in forms of beatings, floggings, or hangings. Men were also known as being armed well in the West. This could be for protection, to hunt, or to just look the part. The Winchester rifle and Colt revolver were favorite guns among many of the men. Marshals and outlaws alike chose them for being inexpensive and easy to get and replace.

In recent years, movies have done more to create a historical memory of the so-called Wild West than anything else. Hollywood’s version of a western features a hero that is usually larger than life. There is a villain, and it is the hero’s job to bring them to justice. They generally have a happy ending with the hero riding into the sunset. The hero is masculine, strong, and shows dominance. They are the type that walk into a bar and heads turn.

A movie in the 1990’s, Tombstone is a movie that got many things right with the use of historical accuracy. It also is famous for the larger than life characters and the overall theme of justice. In Wyatt Earp’s testimony after the famous O.K. corral shootout Wyatt says to Ike Clanton, “Go to fighting or get away.” There are many times that the movie uses Wyatt Earp’s testimony to make it more realistic. Wyatt ended up living a solitary life afterwards and could never get away from this fight or his hero status from many people. After things calmed down, this shootout became an instant legend to the public. Richard Vlock in his article in the New York State Dental Journal says, that this fight brought the Earps and Holliday to a “mythic” status. Newspapers throughout the country wrote that it the “triumph of good versus evil.” The Earps and Doc Holliday take on the cowboys and bring the town to justice. The incident created a furor. Newspapers around the country featured reports of the shootout prominently. Dime novels printed many accounts, mostly misleading, about the exploits of Doc and the Earp brothers. There seems to be the idea that there was violence almost daily in the West, but in fact, the bloodiest day in the American West was the day of the infamous fight at the O.K. Corral, where five people lost their lives.

Families started to get televisions for their homes. As they did, it became a great form of entertainment people in the United States. In the 1960s and 1970s, the western was the go-to media of the day. Bonanza was one of the best and most well- known shows that ran for fourteen years. It is still being shown on cable today. This is important, because for many people, this is how they understand the West to be. Shows like this are what people think is the real representation of the American West. Many of these shows portray families that own huge amounts of land. They have nice houses and things seem to be easy going, until cattle rustlers show up. Dominance is shown because many of these shows have well to do people. They own a big ranch like the Cartwrights, with their modest half million acre spread. John Murray, author of Mythmakers of the West said that westerns were seen more by a national audience than films were. Gunsmoke and Bonanza ran for thirty-four years combined. That gave the American public many years to be inundated with their own historical memory of the West. Why were television shows such as Bonanza and Gunsmoke portraying the West as they were? To find out that answer, we have to look at what was going on in America in the 1960s. In America during that time, the Vietnam War was in full swing. President John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. People were acting out their frustrations with the government by protesting. When people came home to watch television; there would be many News broadcasts showing the problems going on in America. The western was a great show to fill the void that people were feeling. John Murray in Mythmakers of the West wrote, that Bonanza played right after dinner every Sunday night. Most of these shows were set to get people away from life for an hour, usually having a happy ending.

Stories about people like Doc Holliday have captured the imagination of people for many years. He was known as a doctor, a southern gentleman, a fast draw, a gambler, and a drunk. Even with his notoriety, he sealed his legendary status when he stood beside his friend Wyatt Earp during the O.K. corral shootout. Doc Holliday became known as a man who did not look for a fight but never backed down from one when presented. Doc Holliday had a bravado unlike many people of his time. The Tombstone History Archives shared a page that The Tombstone Nugget wrote on October 27, 1881. During the O.K. corral fight, Doc is in the midst of fighting with one of the cowboys. He aims his gun at Holliday and say, “I got you know.” Doc replies” You’re a daisy if you do.” This shows his bravery, false or not, to mock someone when they have their gun aimed at you. Being a daisy was term that was used to call someone the best. He is loved for being a hero and an outlaw. Doc Holliday became known as a man who did not look for a fight but never backed down from one when presented. It is said that Doc Holliday killed about forty men. The truth to that myth is that he killed around four; and was sad and cried after killing someone. There was a lot more to Doc Holliday then many movies portray. Holliday moved to Glenwood Springs in 1887, because he was told that the Hot Springs might help in his fight with tuberculosis.

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