The Wild West. Myth and Reality

In this rapidly changing world, the form of entertainment indulged in by the majority of the population in the industrialized countries has undergone many changes in the last 50 years. Not only have the forms of dancing, popular music, films and literature changed, but the fictional character also.

There is, however, one familiar figure who has been our constant companion on the screen and bookstall during all these years. In silent “flicks,” talkies, colour, Three-D, Cinemascope, he still remains the same—long, lean and suntanned; with Stetson hat and pistols, his mount well-groomed—our old and ever-popular friend, the Cowboy.

Popular Appeal
To the densely-herded urban masses whose wide-open spaces are confined at best to a small suburban garden (or for the less fortunate, a cactus in a flower-pot), the unrestricted country of the American West has a vast appeal.

It is probably the fictional Westerner’s apparent freedom that is the real attraction. Our celluloid and paper-pulp hero spends his time destroying the forces of evil, be they represented as Indians, rustlers or land-grabbers. He is gallant with the ladies, and never fails to defend or restore legally-owned property. Sometimes he is on the wrong side of the law, forced into this position by some ruthless landowner, or a victim of the financiers’ guile. In spite of these lawless trends, however, our hero’s basic goodness still shines through. Faced with this dilemma m their hero, the film producers’ usual way out is to get him conveniently killed.

Modern man is generally tied down to one job, often tedious and uninteresting. The Westerner is aloof from this. He never seems to be very closely tied to any full-time occupation, even when he dons the uniform of the U.S. Cavalry. To imagine oneself able to undertake any adventure, or punish any infamy, is a wonderful escape from punching the time-clock.

The Western film or story has generally a twofold approach. One shows a desire for justice and for the removal of tyranny. The other depicts violence and. quick action as opposed to thought and reasoned movement. The stories are seldom complicated. The viewer or reader does not have to rack his brain over subtle psychological mysteries or unpleasant social problems. The stories are easy to write and the films cheap to produce. They are ideal products for a mass market.

A Glimpse into the Past
At this point, let us look at the birthplace of these modem legends, and roll back the years.

The term “West” in American history covered each stage of the frontier as it moved towards the Pacific from the early Atlantic seaboard settlements. We take up the story when that frontier had reached the Mississippi River.

It was the Spaniards who first moved up into what are now Texas, New Mexico and California, and explored the Mississippi. They built churches, mission stations and settlements. At the same time the French were moving along the Great Lakes and the rivers from Canada and extending over the plains to the Rockies. A few were priests, but the majority were fur-trappers and traders. These latter mixed freely with the wandering Indian tribes.

The English were the next settlers, consolidating and developing as they went. In time they came to represent a new rising Capitalist class, viewing the New World as something more than just a possession of an overseas absolute monarch.

Francis Parkman who, in 1846, journeyed from Kansas over the Oregon Trail to the foot of the Rockies, mixed with the Indians and noted their habits. In his journal he writes at length about the French trappers and trail-blazers and their inter-marriage with the Indians. He noted something else that was to have a more important effect on history—the settlers’ wagons heading for Oregon and California, Mormons striking out into the wilderness to found a new home in Utah, the adventurous seeking the new-found gold. America was in the process of making another frontier.

The United States, having purchased Louisiana and secured Florida, was still faced with a foreign power in the south-west. In 1821 Mexico had become independent of Spain, and the lands over the Rio Grande passed to her. Land could be purchased in Texas for 12½ cents per acre, or one-tenth of the price that the U.S. Government charged for land. Within a few years about 20,000 Americans, mostly southerners, moved into Texas. A smaller number travelling by sea had secured land in California.

Mexico had officially abolished slavery, but the newcomers, fresh from the slave-owning south, had no wish to become peasants. Hired labour was rare, so Mexico looked the other way. The rapid changes of Mexican government made the Texans uncertain of the status of their slave property. In 1835, Santa Anna abrogated certain states’ rights (this included Texas) and these economic and political struggles led to the Texans’ declaring a provisional government. Some 200 of them were besieged and slaughtered in the fortified mission-station of the Alamo, but the siege gave time for the Texans under Houston to form an army and get support from the U.S. Houston avenged the Alamo by capturing Santa Anna and destroying the Mexican Army.

The final result was that the lands north of the Rio Grande were annexed. Five new states were formed in the Union, and all except California were declared slave states. They were, however, too lightly populated and unsuited for one-main-crop agriculture to be affected by that form of property. The growing industrial north did feel, however, that the Mexican War had given more power to the slave-owning south.

The Self-made Man
The rapid expansion of America in the west brought great personal opportunities. A land that had no old-established ruling class flung up its new Capitalists and developers from among those of humble birth. Individualism or, better still, individual property rights became the order of the day.

The man, who through luck and resource, amassed money was a being to be looked up to. Not being tied down with the ideas of aristocracy, making money and not how it was made, was the new Capitalist ethic. The Press slated those who returned from the West to a somewhat less lucrative but probably more secure life in the East Failure was against the nation and the destiny of America.

In the new areas the State machine was weak, and weakened further by the great regard for property. Nothing must stand in the way of the “go-getter.” There was little restraining influence on wealth or the way it was secured. Laws tended to be flouted openly when they stood in the way of personal advance.

The Gold Rash
In 1848 gold was discovered in California, and before long the country was over-run with prospectors. Whereas in other areas the settlers followed hunters and turned the land under the plough and spade, in California the principal attraction was gold. Mostly the newcomers came by ship, round Cape Horn, or broke the journey by the short overland route through Panama, but some crossed the continent by waggon, a long and most dangerous journey. Wandering Indians and the hot, arid desert valleys were but two of the problems to be faced. The waggon train scout, Wm. Manley, reported graphically of these emigrants’ torments.

San Francisco became the centre of the Barbary Coast and, as was to be expected in a gold-rush community, catered for every vice. At this time in the settlement only two per cent. of the population were women, and to meet the shortage boatloads of ladies of uncertain virtue were sent out from the eastern states and from Europe. The reader can get some idea of the turbulence when he considers that from 1848 to 1856 there were some 1,200 murders and only three official hangings In the San Francisco area, especially as the population only numbered some 20,000. California, not deriving its wealth from the slaves or the soil, developed what was in fact a new financial and Capitalist outlook.

Pike’s Peak and Oscar Wilde
Another gold rush started in 1858, when gold was discovered in the Pike’s Peak area of Colorado. The same stream of wagons, with some prospectors even pushing their belongings on handcarts, creaked across the plains. It was in this area that Horace Tabor, “the Bonanza King,” arose; living in splendour, he even built an opera-house in Leadville. To this flamboyant and noisy setting came, on a brief visit, the prince of aesthetes, Oscar Wilde, who declared the miners to be “Capital fellows, and not at all rough.”

One settlement that stands out from all the rest was the Mormon headquarters at Salt Lake City. They built a city in the wilderness after many hardships, a town that in many ways was an example to others springing up at this time. They showed how a group of people with a strong communal sense could accomplish a more stable way of living than the purely individualistic elements.

The War
When the Civil War broke out, the Confederate South counted on support from the Mid-west, principally on the point that these areas had always used the Mississippi as an outlet and the Confederates controlled the sea outlet of New Orleans. The Confederates overlooked the railways : the West could now link up directly with the industrial eastern states, and so the economic grip of “Old Muddy” was broken.

The Pacific States being so far from Washington, there was always the threat of secession from the Union. Representatives from these states had to make a long sea voyage round America; only the hardy and the poor attempted the covered wagon overland route. The North, aware of these problems, speeded up the railway programme. In 1869 the two lines met at Ogden, Utah. The gap was filling in, the wilderness was being conquered.

The Mid-west prospered because of the War, and by the fact that England and the rest of Europe had bad harvests in the 1860s. Industrialization was creating a new market to be satisfied, and exports of foodstuffs increased.

The Coming of the Cowboy
In the vast central area called the Great Plains, settlements were few and far between. Towns sprang up round the mining camps, and it was these places that dominated the scene. The Plains were not considered to be of much use other than for Indians and hunting. They were areas that wagons passed through, but not to settle; the gold and the sunny fertile valleys of the Pacific were the main attraction. Here, on these plains and deserts, was America’s last frontier.

Texas and the south-west had always been a cattle-raising country, at least near the Rio Grande, way back in Spanish times. It was in these lands that the Vaquero or Cowboy lived and learned his trade. The Cowpuncher was a man who worked in the railway stockyards as a grader and loader, and later the name was applied to all ranch workers.

As a result of Texas joining the Confederates in the Civil War. she was cut off from the sea and the Mississippi by the Union forces. A surplus of cattle resulted, as there was no market available. Faced with ruin after the war. like so many other cattle-men Joseph McCoy conceived the idea of driving the sellable surplus cattle along the Chisholm trail to Abilene, thence by rail to Kansas and the eastern states. The cattle could live on the herbage that fed bison; it was just a question of linking-up with water courses and holes. This was the commencement of the great cattle-drives that still figure so much in the cinema and magazines.

The increased industrialization of America and Europe led to a need for more and more meat. Profits went up, and it became the age of the cattle kings and the cowboy, owners of great herds like Chisum and Kennedy. This period of the fictional saga was not very long in fact, yet it has provided thrills and entertainment for millions since that time.

By 1871 some 600,000 head of cattle were driven to various points north from Texas, and the idea caught on. Cattle-raising and driving spread right up to Montana.

The cattle kings, like the miners, brought wealth to many small towns, but like them it was sometimes transient; The ranch-workers, miners and settlers who worked hard and were often isolated for long periods tended to get together whenever possible. If they were in a religious mood, then large camp meetings were held, at which fervour and emotions ran riot. At the other extreme, the saloon played quite a part in the growing towns. People who were often without the means to create or study tended to “bust loose” in town. These saloons provided drink and refreshment, women, gamblers, bullies and thugs, and the social get-together.

It is in this cattle age that we find the now almost legendary figures of the West. The sheriffs and bad men, like the Earp Brothers, “Bat” Masterton, Sam Brown, Plummer and Frank Loving, not forgetting the old favourites Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill. Some of these characters would have been better confined to the pathological ward.

The end of the frontier was near, however. At Abilene, T. C. Henry sowed “winter wheat” and it was a success. The plains could now be turned under the plough, and settlers moved in in great numbers. From this arose the struggle between the ranchers and settlers, the battle between the unfenced range and the boundary wire. By the 1880-90s. improved agriculture and grasslands, as well as improved stock and irrigation, won the day. The ever-spreading railways killed the “big drive” and the “Lead Steer.” The vast open range was out; it was no longer good business to wander for days looking for grass and water. Output could be increased in a smaller space. The mines also were being grouped into large concerns, and the prospector became a mine-worker.

The Redskin
It is as well we take a brief glimpse at the original occupant of this land, the Indian. Small in numbers, therefore of no great use to the slave-owner or the farmer and industrialist, he was generally regarded as a form of dangerous vermin. Whatever the Abolitionist may have said about the evils of slavery, or what tears he may have wept over the Negro, he certainly never extended these sentiments to the Indian.

The Redskins’ main source of food was the bison, herds of which often covered the plains for miles. The settlers, the railways, sportsmen and Government policy soon reduced the bison to a few thousands. The Government thought this would keep the Indians tied to their reserves, make them devote more of their time to agriculture, and cease their wanderings and tribal warfare. Unfortunately for the Indians, the reserves got smaller and the game for food less and less. People with a Stone Age culture, they found it hard to grasp what was happening. At one time a number of them, so disturbed by the numbers of trains and wagons passing over their land, pathetically tried to go east because they thought everyone had left there.

Attacks on Indian camps by soldiers were by no means unusual. This is a point that the film moguls generally omit from the typical “western.” In 1876, for example, a Colonel Reynolds attacked a Sioux camp at Powder River and burnt it out, the temperature at the time being 40 degrees below zero. The Indian braves counter-attacked and drove the soldiers away. These incidents caused a great meeting of the Sioux tribe, Cheyennes and Arapahoes on the Little Big Horn, under Sitting Bull and Two Moon. It was this gathering that defeated General Custer, an incident that the ardent Western fan must have seen portrayed many times. Indian risings occurred all the way down to Mexico. Like the Mau-Mau of our own time, the Indian terrorists’ tactics did not tend to improve their position or gain them much sympathy.

The Apache War of 1883-85 is the one in which the famous Geronimo took part. With 35 men and over 100 women and children he engaged 50,000 U.S. troops, 500 Indian scouts and a hostile armed populace as well as the soldiers of Mexico for about 18 months before surrendering.

The last violent uprising came rather late. A prophetic dream and ritual dance having its origin in a Nevada reserve soon spread among the Indians. Some 350 Sioux deserted their Dakota reserve. U.S. cavalry intercepted them and under Hotchkiss guns as protection started to disarm them. A chief began the ritual ghost dance and donned his war-bonnet. The immediate fighting resulted in the deaths of some 200 Indians and 60 soldiers. Thus ended once and for all any attempt by the Indians to get their problems solved by violence. Properly-defined reserves and infiltration into the mass of the population with their many trades and occupations soon left the Indians as living museum-pieces.

The development of America, like the advance of industrialization in Africa and Asia, is one of the principal aspects of Capitalist society. The old tribal organizations are broken up by the unstemmed tide of investment for profit. Capitalism, now more or less universal, likes to look back on some aspect of its earlier days. From the American viewpoint, the glorification of the early West does just this.

One point the magazine and film producers seldom show is that a large land mass was brought under cultivation and development in a fairly short space of time by people who, generally, were far removed from the much boosted and vaunted violence so usual a feature of their films and stories.


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