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The Wild West looms nowhere nearly sb large in the American imagination today

as it did only a generation ago. Children whose parents were reared on Bat
Masterson during the 1950s now dream of Masters of the Universe. On those rare
occasions when Hollywood still deigns to put on spurs and six-shooters, it is more
likely to deliver comic send-ups like Blazing Saddles and Silverado than heroic
sagas like High Noon and The Magnificent Seven. The western myth was popular-
ized by moviemakers, novelists, and painters. But one reason Americans were
prepared to believe that the frontier determined the national character was that an
eminent turn-of-the-century historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, told them so.
Since the 1950s, however, Turner's successors have been hard at work rewriting
the history of the West, reversing, or at least strongly qualifying, his judgement.
Hollywood is only beginning to catch up. As Brian Dippie shows in this exploration
of the new western history, scholars now consider the myths-of independence, of
rugged individualism, even of frontier violence-so cold in their graves that the
study of myth-making itself has become a major preoccupation.

by Brian W. Dippie

e are now within cago's magical growth was, in microcosm,

easy striking dis- the story of America. Four centuries after
tance of 100 years Columbus's landfall, a century since white
since Frederick settlers began occupying the interior of the
Jackson Turner, fol- continent, there was no frontier left, no vast
lowing the lead of reserve of "free land" to the west.
the Superintendent of the-census, pro- Turner's timing was acute, the psycho-
claimed the end of the frontier and, with it, logical moment perfect to find symbolic
"the closing of a great historic moment": meaning in recent events. The rise of the
"The peculiarity of American institutions is, Ghost Dance movement, with its vision of a
the fact that they have been compelled to rejuvenated Indian America, the arrest and
adapt themselves to the changes of an ex- killing of Sioux leader Sitting Bull on De-
panding people-to the changes involved cember 15, 1890, the culminating tragedy
in crossing a continent, in winning a wil- at Wounded Knee two weeks later-all at-
derness, and in developing at each area of tested that the "winning of the West" was
this progress out of the primitive economic no longer a process but a fait accompli. In-
and political conditions of the frontier into dian wars, a fact of American life since the
the complexity of city life." first English colony was planted at James-
Then, in 1890, it was all over. town, were finished. There was no longer
Turner, a young historian at the Univer- an Indian domain to contest; it had disap-
sity of Wisconsin, delivered his paper on peared, along with the Jeffersonian vision
"The Significance of the Frontier in Ameri- of an agrarian democracy resting on an
can History" at the 1893 meeting of the abundance of cheap land.
American Historical Association in Chi- Whatever else farmer discontent repre-
cago. The setting gave point to his observa- sented in the 1890s, it manifested an aware-
tions. Chicago was then playing host to a ness of the new urban-industrial order.
gargantuan fair, the World's Columbian Ex- America's 20th-century future was reaf-
position, commemorating the 400th anni- firmed in Chicago the year after the Expo-
versary of the discovery of the New World. sition, when labor unrest erupted into vio-
The session at which Turner spoke met on lence and troops that had served on distant
the Exposition grounds, where buildings frontiers "taming" Indians were shipped in
coated in plaster of Paris formed a White to tame Chicago's unemployed instead.
City, symbolizing civilization's dominion When Turner read his paper, then, por-
over what not long before had been a wil- tents were everywhere. Near the Exposition
derness on the shore of Lake Michigan. Chi- grounds, Buffalo Bill's Wild West show was


offering the public its immensely popular tury, it served as the master explanation of
version of the frontier experience. Sitting American development. Problems of fact
Bull's horse and the cabin from which the and interpretation were acknowledged. But
chief was led to his death were both on dis- Turner's essay offered a coherent, self-flat-
play. Frederic Remington, the artist most tering vision of the American past, and it
responsible for the public's perceptions of seemed prophetic in anticipating American
life in the West, was on hand to tour the involvement abroad. It would be "rash,"
Exposition's midway and to take in Buffalo Turner wrote, to "assert that the expansive
Bill's show; a year later he was back in Chi- character of American life has now entirely
cago to cheer George Armstrong Custer's ceased. . . . [Tlhe American energy will
old unit, the "gallant Seventh," against, as continually demand a wider field for its ex-
he put it, "the malodorous crowd of an- ercise." Cuba and the Philippines soon
archistic foreign trash." proved him right. Like any good historical
It did not take a prophet to discern a explanation, the frontier thesis seemed to
pattern in all this, but Turner reached be- account for past and future. Finally, its
yond the obvious. Frontiering, he argued, sweeping imagery and elegiac tone nicely
was not merely a colorful phase of Ameri- matched the nostalgic mood, which, during
can history. It had actually shaped the the 20th century, would make the mythic
American character. On the frontier, envi- Wild West a global phenomenon.
ronment prevailed over inherited culture. The inadequacy of the frontier thesis did
The frontier promoted individualism, self- not become plain until the 1940s, after the
reliance, practicality, optimism, and a dem- complex industrial civilization it sought to
ocratic spirit that rejected hereditary con- explain had suffered through the Great De-
straints. In Turner's reading of U.S. history, pression and risen to become a world
the significance of the frontier was simply power. But if American history was only
enormous. To understand American his- temporarily under Turner's shadow, west-
tory, one had to understand western his- ern history has never quite emerged.
tory. Whatever distinguished Americans as
a people, Turner believed, could be attrib- egin with the basics: time and place.
uted to the cumulative experience of west- Turner's West was a fluid concept,
ering: 'What the Mediterranean Sea was to. an advancing frontier line and a re-
the Greeks, breaking the bond of custom, treating area of tree land. If one instead de-
offering new experiences, calling out new fined the West as a geographical entity-
institutions and activities, that, and more, that old standby "the trans-Mississippi
the ever retreating frontier has been to the West," for example-then over half of west-
United States." ern American history proper has transpired
Turner's audience in Chicago received since Turner's 1890 cutoff date. What the
these ideas with polite indifference. In Louisiana Purchase inaugurated in 1803 is
time, however, the frontier thesis gained in- an ongoing story of growth and change.
fluential adherents. For almost half a cen- The boundaries of this geographic West are

Brian W.Dippie is professor of history at the University of Victoria in Canada. Born in Edmonton,
Alberta, he received a B.A. (1965) from the University of Alberta, an M.A. (1966)from the University of
Wyoming, and a Ph.D. (1970) from the University of Texas, Austin. He is the author of several books,
including most recently Looking at Russell (1987) and Catlin and his Contemporaries:The Politics of
Patronage (1990). This essay is adapted from a longer version that appeared in American Studies
International (Oct. 1989). Copyright @ 1989 by The George Washington University.


Frederic Remington, one o f the creators o f the frontier wyth, painted The Fall of the Cowboy (above) in
1895 as a lament for a way o f life that seemed to be vanishing as cattle ranchers enclosed the open
range with barbed wire. It w a s not only the cowboy'.^ supposed freedom that Remington and others
admire4 it was his slalus as a kind of Anglo-Saxon ideal at a time when "foreign swarms" were taking
over the eastern cities. Nearly a ce17t1qlater, in the San Jose Mercury-News (April 15, 1990), reporter
Michael Zielenziger added a new twist to the cowboy's saga:

Wyoming, the Cowboy State, is facing a short- "Nobody wants to be a cowboy," said Oralia
age of cowboys. Mercado, executive director of the Mountain
One would not think so. On every state li- Plains Agricultural Service, which helps ranch-
cense plate, cowboys ride broncos. The univers ers like LeBarr find suitable workers. "It's hard
sity football team is the Cowboys. Likenesses of work, it's dirty work, it's round-the-clock work.
cowboys gallop through restaurants and saunter It's not something a U.S. worker wants to do.''
across billboards throughout this large, lone- This month, for the first time, Mercado's or-
some state. ganization imported Mexican vaqueros, o r cow-
But to ranch owners like Georgie LeBarr, boys, to work with cattle on the open range of
those symbols represent the romance of the Old Wyoming and the Dakotas. It is a formal
West, not the reality of the new. Truth is, no one acknowledgment that efforts to hire qualified
wants the job these days. cow hands have met with failure.
"Nobody wants to work that hard," said It is also a reminder to the families still
LeBarr, -who grew up on a ranch and never in- working the range in this sparsely populated
tends to leave her rolling spread. state that their traditional, even romantic, way
As a resu1t;LeBat-r is among the first U.S. of life is quickly disappearing.
ranchers to legally import Mexican cowboys to "We advertised in the newspapers and on
work on her 400,000-acre ranch properties radio, but we got zero results," Mercado said,
straddling two states. She can do that because displaying a classified ad that appeared in a
the federal government has for the first time Denver newspaper. "I can't see that there's any-
certified that no qualified American citizens are one in the U.S. that wants this job. The status of
interested in the work. being a cowboy just doesn't exist anymore."


usually set at the 49th parallel to the north, never before had felt suppressed or impris-
the Mexican border to the south, the Missis- oned. Not until I was locked into the Mis-
sippi to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to souri River breaks and banished from the
the west, though historians have found world, so to speak."
each of these too arbitrary. Some see these A romantic myth that is untrue for the
boundaries as too inclusive to be meaning- present is probably untrue for the past as
ful, others as too restrictive. Historians of well. By redefining western history's sub-
the fur trade might want to embrace all of ject-matter, a 20th-century perspective en-
North America, historians of the border- courages a reassessment of the 19th cen-
lands all of Mexico, students of outlawry tury. That process began in 1955, when Earl
the Old Southwest, and students of the In- Pomeroy of the University of Oregon pub-
dian wars the Old Northwest. lished a breakthrough essay, "Toward a Re-
Then there is the matter of time. Tur- orientation of Western History: Continuity
ner's frontier West ended with the 19th cen- and Environment."* Not only did it pull to-
tury. To effect a revolution in western his- gether many scholars' dissatisfactions with
tory one need simply move forward into the frontier thesis; it offered a persuasive
the 20th. Immediately, most of the familiar alternative.
signposts are missing: fur trade and ex-
ploration, Indian wars and Manifest Destiny he crux of Pomeroy's revision was
(overland migration, war with Mexico, in the word "continuity." "America
Mormonism, the slavery expansion contro- was Europe's 'West' before it was
versy), gold rushes and railroad building, America," a pair of literary critics once ob-
vigilantism and six-gun violence, trail served. Frontiering was a global phenome-
drives and the open-range cattle industry, non, as old as the idea of the West, which
the farmers' frontier and the Populist re- was freighted with significance even for the
volt. Beyond 1900, a different West ancient Greeks. More than a direction or a
emerges, a hard-scrabble land rich in scen- place, the West was a cultural ideal signify-
ery and resources, perhaps, but thinly pop- ing quest and the prospect of fulfillment in
ulated for the most part, chronically short some elusive Elysium. To the west, then,
of capital and reliant on government aid myths ran their course, and America was
(such as cheap water and access to federal simply a new stage for an old dream.
lands), a cultural backwater whose primary Charging the Turnerians with a "radical
appeal nationally is as the setting for a ro- environmental bias," Pomeroy argued that
mantic historical myth. Writing in a bitter- inherited culture had strongly persisted in
sweet key about the creation of these myths the West. Indeed, cultural continuity, imita-
in The Mythic West in Twentieth-Century tion in everything from state constitutions
America (1986), historian Robert G. to architectural styles, a deep conservatism
Athearn began by recalling his own boy- only intensified by the process of moving
hood sojourn at his grandfather's Montana away from established centers, and a con-
ranch: "To me, the wilderness just couldn't stant search for respectability and accep-
hold a candle to indoor plumbing. Of tance-these, not individualism, inventive-
course, I was just a kid, an unformed man ness, and an untrammeled democratic
whose regard for the freedom of the un- spirit, were the real characteristics of the
touched country was yet nascent. I had not West. "Conservatism, inheritance, and con-
yet developed a sense of romance or the 'Pomeroy's essay appeared in The Mississippi Valley Histori-
appreciation of idealized landscapes. I cal Review (March 1955).



tinuity bulked at least as large in the history Indeed, Anglo-American citizens remained
of the West as radicalism and environ- the minority ethnic group in New Mexico
ment," Pomeroy wrote. "The Westerner has until 1928. Colorado, on the other hand,
been fundamentally [an] imitator rather was essentially an American frontier min-
than [an] innovator.. . . He was often the ing society, which retained close business
most ardent of conformists." and social connections with the American
For the popular image of the West as East. The settlers of Utah, though partly na-
pathbreaker for the nation, Pomeroy substi- tive American in origin, felt so persecuted
tuted the West as a kind of colonial depen- because of their firm belief in the Mormon
dency, an area dominated by eastern val- religion-and the accompanying doctrine
ues, eastern capital, eastern technology, of polygamous marriage-that they deliber-
eastern politics. To understand American ately developed their own unique social
development, one need no longer look and political systems. . . . The diverse pio-
west; but to understand western develop- neer settlers of Arizona Territory, hailing
ment, one had to look east. That was the from Mexican Sonora, the Confederate
essence of Earl Pomeroy's reorientation. South, the American Northeast, and Mor-
To historians born during the 20th cen- mon Utah, formed a conglomerate Ameri-
tury, Pomeroy's version of the western past can frontier society not quite like any of the
seems much nearer the mark than other three."
Turner's. Moreover, Pomeroy reinvigorated Another staple of revisionist western
western history by suggesting subjects out- history is economic studies emphasizing
side the frontier thesis that merited investi- the West's dependence on eastern invest-
gation-frontier justice, constitution-mak- ment capital. In his 1955 essay, Pomeroy
ing, and politics and parties. His call was wrote that the economic history even of
answered, most notably, by Yale's Howard "the pre-agricultural frontiers" would
Lamar, who sought to rectify the historical come to rest "on the cold facts of invest-
neglect of the later territo-
rial period with Dakota Ter-
ritory, 1861-1889 (1956) and
T h e Far S o u t h w e s t , 1846-
1912: A Territorial History
(1966). In the latter, Lamar
showed that the various cul-
tures imported into the
Southwest remained re-
markably impervious to
what Turner had regarded
as the homogenizing influ-
ence of the frontier environ-
ment. "Throughout the ter-
ritorial period New Mexico
remained stubbornly and
overwhelmingly Spanish-
American in culture, tradi- One would not know it from watching John Wayne movies, but
tion-directed in habits, and after the Civil War up to 25 percent of all cowhands were black.
Roman Catholic in religion. Here, black cowboys gather at a fair in Bonham, Texas, in 1910.



Was it really a wild, wild West before settlers With these celebrated personalities
tamed the frontier? More like a mild, mild contributing far less than their supposed
West, concluded historian Robert Dykstra. share, it is hardly surprising that the overall
The Cattle Towns (1968), his relentlessly fac- homicide statistics are not particularly
tual study of Dodge City and four other fabled high. . . .
Kansas towns during the supposedly wild The number of homicides never topped
years between 1870 and 1885, suggests that five in any one cattle-season year between
neither outlaws nor lawmen spent much on 1870 and 1885, and reached this figure only
ammunition. at Ellsworth in 1873 and at Dodge City five
years later. In both instances, homicides
Many legendary desperadoes and gunfight- may have been said to have manifested
ers sojourned in the cattle towns at one time "wave" dimensions, and were in fact thus
or another, but few participated in slayings. considered by local residents. In at least six
Among those with clean records were such years no fatalities occurred at all . . . . The ze-
famed killers as Clay Allison, Doc Holliday, ros recorded for two busy [cattle trade]
and Ben Thompson. The teen-aged gunman years at Dodge City seem particularly mean-
John Wesley Hardin was responsible for ingful. The average number of homicides
only one verifiable cattle-town homicide, ap- per cattle-town trading season amounted to
parently having fired through the wall of his only 1.5 per year.
hotel room one drunken night to silence a I n the case of at least six of these
man snoring too loudly in the adjoining cu- killings-or well over 10 percent-it is hard
bicle. Nor did famous gunfighters serving as to identify any connection whatever with the
officers add much to the fatality statistics. As existence of the cattle trade. Besides a Wich-
city marshal of Abilene in 1871, his only ita insurance murder, and the murder of an
term as a cattle-town lawman, the formida- Abilene tailor and the lynching of his mur-
ble Wild Bill Hickok killed just two men- derer, already noted, these included the
one, a "special" policeman, by mistake. Wy- shootings of a Wichita hotel keeper resisting
att Earp, who served as an officer (but never arrest on a federal warrant, that of one
actually as marshal) at both Wichita and Wichita Negro by another, and that of a
Dodge City, may have mortally wounded Caldwell housewife by her drunken hus-
one law violator, though he shared credit band.
with another policeman for this single cat- The majority of those involved in homi-
tle-town homicide. The now equally re- cides, however, were indeed law officers,
nowned lawman William B. ("Bat") cowboys and drovers, or gamblers-the last
Masterson, at least according to contempo- a somewhat elastic category to accommo-
rary sources, killed no one in or around date four ex-lawmen without obvious means
Dodge, where he lived for several years. - of support. Of homicide victims, nine were

ment capital." However, he said, "we still lust, were Jacksonian men, expectant cap-
know the homesteader better than the land- italists out to make their fortune. In Bill
lord, the railroad builder better than the Sublette, Mountain Man (1959), John E.
railroad operator. The trapper, the prospec- Sunder detailed the career of one of the
tor, and the cowboy, moving picturesquely most famous beaver trappers of the early
over a background of clean air and great 19th century. Sublette frequently relied on
distances, hold us more than the tycoons eastern capital or credit to keep his dreams
and corporations that dominated them." alive, and was almost as familiar with the
The revisionists had their work cut out. business hotels of New York, Philadelphia,
They showed, in William H. Goetzmann's and Washington as he was with the back-
memorable phrase, that even the trappers, woods.
those legendary embodiments of wander- According to legend, cowboys were sec-


cowboys o r drovers and nine were gam-

blers. Six were officers of the law. Aside
from the non-cattle-trade killings mentioned
above, victims included five townsmen with
conventional occupations, three local rural
settlers, two dance house proprietors, two
miscellaneous visitors (one lawyer and a TWO GUNS-lo bock +heploy
f o r ! o ~ v o ~ d o ~ d o r ~foe$
Pawnee Indian), and one female theatrical
entertainer. The status of the remaining two
victims is obscure. Analyzed in terms of per-
petrators, 16 cattle-town homicides can be
attributed to law officers, o r citizens legiti-
mately acting as such, 12 to cowboys o r
^.^---&w--,Â¥ -- .-.~.

drovers, and eight to gamblers. The other

n i n e homicides a r e distributed evenly AND YOU HAVE
among some of the categories already men- WYATT EARP,
tioned. These included two lynchings evi- FRONTIER MARSHAL

dently carried out by cattle-town residents

rather than transients. Besides the episode at
Abilene, a Caldwell gambler and bootlegger
was hanged in somewhat mysterious cir-
With the exception of killings by law offi-
cers and lynchings, the homicidal situations
varied considerably. Seventeen apparently
resulted from private quarrels, four were ac-
cidental o r without discernible motive, two
were committed by resisters of arrest, two officers died attempting to make arrests; the
avenged prior homicides, and two consisted other fell in a private quarrel.
of murders for profit. Homicidal disputes in- Lest tradition be completely overthrown,
volving women, incidentally, exceed by let it be noted that gunshots were far and
eight to one those mainly resulting from away the principal medium of death. But
gambling disagreements. Of the six lawmen tradition would also have it that the cattle-
killed, interestingly enough, half met death town homicide typically involved an ex-
in circumstances that must be termed acci- change of shots-the so-called gunfight. Ac-
dental, although two of them-Ellsworth's tually, though 39 of the 45 victims suffered
Sheriff Whitney and the Abilene policeman fatal bullet or buckshot wounds, less than a
killed by Marshal Hickok-were attempting third of them returned the fire. A good share
to help quell trouble when shot. Only two of them were apparently not even armed.

ond-generation mountain men, fiddle- excess on his infrequent visits to the shoddy
footed wanderers with guns on their hips. little cowtowns that dotted the West. . . .
Their status as what we now refer to as sea- Most of his physical dangers scarcely bor-
sonal agrarian workers might be obscured dered on the heroic, necessary as they were
by romance, but, Lewis Atherton noted in in caring for other men's cattle, and they
The Cattle Kings (1961), cowboys were sim- served primarily to retire him from cow-
ply hired hands who lived with the environ- punching." Atherton shared the disparag-
ment while their employers, the ranchers, ing view of Bruce Sibert, a rancher in the
were businessmen out to dominate it. "The Dakotas during the 1890s: "Only the few
cowboy's life involved so much drudgery good ones got into the cow business and
and loneliness and so little in the way of made good." For those who did become
satisfaction that he drank and caroused to ranchers in "the cow business," Gene M.



Gressley observed in Bankers and Cattle- history, Pomeroy had suggested various
m e n (1966), profit was the motive, capital- paths historians might follow to discover
ization a major problem. Again, eastern East-West continuities. The study of frontier
money figured prominently. justice would open into an examination of
Nowhere was eastern domination more western legal history. Inquiry into frontier
evident than on the mining frontier. Gold religion, literacy, education, and architec-
rushes thoroughly disrupted the stately pro- ture would establish the westerners' cul-
gression of Turner's frontier line, making a tural conservatism. Likewise, scrutiny of
shambles of his East-West advance and the the U.S. Army in the West would show it to
stages of social evolution preceding urban be only intermittently a fighting force but
civilization. As Richard Wade asserted in continuously a visible manifestation of the
The Urban Frontier (1959), his history of federal government and its role in promot-
early Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Lexington, ing western development. Forest G. Hill's
Louisville, and St. Louis, "The towns were Roads, Rails, and Waterways: The Anny En-
the spearheads of the frontier." gineers and Early Transportation (1957) and
Mining was a case in point. "On the Goetzmann's Army Explorations i n the
mining frontier the camp-the germ of the American W e s t , 1803-1863 (1959) re-
city-appeared almost simultaneously with sponded to the challenge. Goetzmann went
the opening of the region," Duane A. Smith on to redirect the history of western ex-
wrote in Rocky Mountain Mining Camps: ploration from the exploits of hardy individ-
The Urban Frontier (1967). In California, the uals to a collective, nationalistic enterprise
flood of gold-hungry Forty-Niners created in which the federal government played a
an overnight urban civilization with eastern decisive part, the theme of his Pulitzer
values. In his history of the Far West, The Prize-winning Exploration and Empire: The
Pacific Slope (1965), Pomeroy noted that in Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of
1860 California had a population three the American West (1966). Other histories
times that of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, showed that western communities rou-
Utah, and Nevada combined, and an econ- tinely exaggerated the Indian threat in or-
omy thoroughly integrated into that of the der to enjoy the benefits-payrolls, im-
Atlantic Seaboard. A network of eastern proved transportation and communication
merchants and investors supplied the Cali- facilities, even a livelier social life-that an
fornia miners through West Coast middle- army presence brought. The link between
men. As miners dug deeper into the East and West, metropolis and hinterland,
ground, overhead soared, and the need for federal government and frontier citizen,
capital with it. Thus, the network even was everywhere a fact of western life. Even
stretched across the Atlantic. British inves- today, the federal government owns vast ar-
tors contributed so heavily that they made eas of the West.
the Far West part of Britain's "invisible em- By submerging regional in national con-
pire," and provided the leadership to draw cerns, "colonial" histories make western
out more cautious American investors as history, as such, of limited significance. Re-
well, Clark C. Spence explained in British gional history is based on the assumption
Investments and the American Mining Fron- that there are meaningful differences be-
tier, 1860-1901 (1958). It was not long be- tween local and national developments.
fore the fabled individual prospector and The South's claim to distinctiveness, histo-
his trusty mule were eclipsed. rian C. Vann Woodward has argued, arose
In advocating a reorientation of western from its unique past, marked by the un-


The five-month ordeal of traveling to Califor- women would find it difficult to maintain
nia or Oregon offered pioneer women many symbolic ties with home life and the female
opportunities to shed traditional feminine world. The woman who started out in a trav-
roles. Most, wrote Julie Roy Jeffrey in Fron- eling dress with clean collar and cuffs soon
tier Women: The Trans-Mississippi West, found she had to abandon it for clothes she
1840-1880 (1979), declined to take them. originally had refused to wear. Indeed,
changes in clothing hinted at the social dis-
As they catalogued each sign of the passing ruption the frontier could cause women. By
of civilization, women coped with their 1852, some women on the trail were wear-
sense of desolation by reproducing aspects ing the bloomer costume, finding the "short
of the world they had left behind. Thus, skirt and pantletts" a "very appropriate
women arranged their wagons, writing in dress for a trip like this." Although bloomers
their journals of the little conveniences they were practical, the costume, espoused by
had fixed, the pockets in the wagon's green feminists as dress for liberated women, car-
cloth lining which held "looking-glasses, ried a radical sexual and political message
combs, brushes, and so on," the rag
carpet to keep the floor of the tent
snug at night, the bedding, sleep-
ing, and dressing arrangements. As
o n e woman explained, she was
busy making "our home" comfort-
able so that there would be little
time "for that dreaded disease,
'home-sickness.'" Another hoped
to maintain some continuity by
dressing as neatly on the trip as she
might at home, in a blue traveling
dress with white collar and cuffs
r a t h e r t h a n h o m e s p u n , linsey-
woolsey, o r calico.
These attempts to reproduce the
rudiments of a home setting and to
perpetuate a sense of the familiar,
though they might appear trivial, L
were of domesticity Women's work? Collecting buffalo chips for the
had to campfire on the Great Plains, about 1880.
that the physical arrangements of
their homes exerted a powerful in-
fluence over their families. The makeshifts and was, in the words of one magazine,
of the journey were an unconscious way of "ridiculous and indecent." So one woman
asserting female power a n d reassuring who had brought bloomers with her found
women of their sexual identity. And, of she lacked the "courage" to wear them and
course, the objects symbolized an entire way vowed, "I would never wear them as long as
of life temporarily in abeyance. When her my other two dresses last." Women bick-
husband grumbled about the quantity of her ered over the pros and cons of the costume.
baggage, Lucy Cooke revealed how vital her Supporters accused women in dresses of be-
knickknacks were. Fearing that she would ing vain and preoccupied with appearance,
have to discard some. . . , she confessed, "I while they, in turn, replied that bloomers led
had a cry about i t . . . as I seemed to have to male gossip. Said one opponent, "She had
parted with near everything I valued." never found her dress to be the least incon-
Although Cooke's husband promised to venient.. . . [Slhe could walk as much in
stop complaining about belongings which her long dress as she wanted to, or was
provided so much comfort for her, other proper for a woman among so many men.''



American experience of guilt arising from A legacy of conquest, of course, is con-

slavery, military defeat, and occupation. sonant with Pomeroy's colonial thesis. But
History, more than any other factor, ac- Limerick in effect views the East-West rela-
counted for southern uniqueness. But tionship from a western perspective rather
Pomeroy's argument robbed the West of its than a national one. "With its continuity re-
distinctiveness, making it simply an appen- stored," she writes, "western American his-
dage of the East that was neither excep- tory carries considerable significance for
tional nor especially consequential in the American history as a whole. Conquest
history of the nation. forms the historical bedrock of the whole
Opposition to that point of view was not nation, and the American West is a preemi-
long in coming, and it has usually worked nent case study in conquest and its conse-
some variation on the exceptionalist quences."
premise. Gerald D. Nash, the first historian "Celebrating one's past, one's tradition,
to attempt a synthesis of 20th-centuryWest- one's heritage," she concludes, "is a bit like
ern history, rejects Turner's 1890 cutoff hosting a party: one wants to control the
date and agrees with Pomeroy that colo- guest list tightly. . . . To celebrate the west-
nialism remained a fact of western life well ern past with an open invitation is a consid-
into the 20th century. But Nash argues that erable risk: The brutal massacres come
World War I1 liberated the West from its back along with the cheerful barn raisings,
political, economic, and cultural depen- the shysters come back with the saints, con-
dency on the East. The year 1945 becomes tracts broken come back with contracts ful-
a new dividing line in western history, sig- filled."
nifymg the moment not when the frontier
passed into oblivion but when the West imerick calls her introduction
passed out of colonialism to become "a 'Closing the Frontier and Opening
pace-setter for the nation." Western History," as if summoning
Yet only by focusing on the Sun Belt, her fellow historians to put away the toys of
and especially on Southern California, is childhood and get on with the sterner du-
Nash able to make much of a case for the ties of adulthood. Western historians today
West as a 20th-century pace-setter. One regularly berate themselves for failing to
must be cautious in making parts of the keep up with trends in the discipline, for
West synonymous with the whole and, out glorying in narrative at the expense of anal-
of regional pride, discarding too readily the ysis, for favoring the colorful and periph-
unflattering fact of western dependency. eral to the neglect of the ordinary and sub-
Such caution characterizes Patricia Nel- stantial. Hard riding makes for easy
son Limerick's provocative new synthesis, reading. The very qualities that explained
The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past the public's love affair with the West also
of the American West (1987). Limerick is explained western history's decline in aca-
skeptical about talk of the New West, argu- demic circles.
ing instead for a continuity in western his- Over the years, suggestions for revitaliz-
tory uninterrupted by any turning points. ing western history have been pretty con-
In her mind, it is this continuity-not links ventional: Find out where everyone else is
to the East, but the defining western experi- going and follow. Learn to quantify. Adopt
ence "of a place undergoing conquest and social-science methodologies. Alter the
never fully escaping its consequences"- very nature of historical inquiry and expres-
that validates a regional approach, sion or fade into academic oblivion, west-


ern historians were warned.

But the most extravagant
claims for the new social
history, for example, have
been recanted, and dire pre-
dictions about the early de-
mise of "old-fashioned" his-
tory have failed to come
true. It is apparent now that
the advocates of new history
too often adopted the strat-
egy of Melville's lightning-
rod salesman and sold fear
rather than necessity. To
date, the net effect of the
new history revolution has Among the many Westerners who found it profitable to promote the
Western mystique was Jesse James's brother Frank, shown here
been new topics rather than about 1914 at the family farm in Excelsior Springs, Missouri.
a consistent new direction
for western history, fragmentation rather old sexual roles to a new but altogether fa-
than synthesis. miliar environment." While confessing that
Turner's thesis is now notorious for ex- she had hoped to find otherwise, Julie Roy
cluding women and everyone whose skin Jeffrey, in Frontier Women: The Trans-Mis-
was dark or whose language was not Eng- sissippi West, 1840-1 880 (1979), is forced to
lish. Indians were obstacles handy for de- agree with Faragher: "The frontier experi-
marking the frontier line and eliciting pio- ence served to reinforce many conven-
neer traits in the white men who would tional familial and cultural ideas.. . . The
overcome them; women apparently stayed concept of woman as lady, the heart of do-
in the East until the land was tidied up and mestic ideology, survived."
made presentable; Mexicans and other Jeffrey did detect some changes in
ethnics never existed. women's roles. Prostitutes, for instance,
Women have been a favorite topic of the were treated as individuals in the West
new history. Studies of army wives and rather than simply as a pariah class. Polly
daughters, women teachers, women on the Welts Kaufrnan in Women Teachers on the
overland trails, farm women, prostitutes, Frontier (1984) also strains against the limi-
divorcees, widows, and urban women have tations implied by the colonial interpreta-
forever altered the sentimental stereotypes tion, noting that the 250 women who went
of sunbonneted pioneer mothers and soiled west to teach for the National Board of
doves with hearts of gold. Popular Education before the Civil War de-
Pomeroy's argument for cultural con- cided to do so largely out of a desire for
tinuity has been echoed in discussions of independence and control over their lives.
one key issue: Did the move West liberate Kaufman concedes, however, that teaching
women from conventional sex roles or not? was among the few occupations that met
John Mack Faragher concludes Women "society's expectations for women." Libera-
and Men on the Overland Trail (1979) with tion plays an even larger part in Paula
a flat negative: "The move West called Petrik's No Step Backward: Woman and
upon people not to change but to transfer Family on the Rocky Mountain Mining Fron-


"Our nation's quest for the unknown," Presi- comparison make any sense? Does the land-
dent George Bush declared when he an- ing of the space shuttle really have anything
nounced plans to put an American on Mars to do with the building of the transcontinen-
by the year 2039, "took American pioneers tal railroad?"
from the bluffs of the Mississippi to the moun- Now the first thing that strikes the west-
tains of the Moon. But today.. . it's time to ern historian is that President Reagan and
open up the final frontier." Such equations of his speech writers thought that this frontier
outer space with the American West are very business was a happy comparison, the right
familiar-and very much in need of re- comparison for an occasion of congratula-
consideration, says Patricia Nelson Limerick, tions. But add a few facts to, say, the picture
a historian at the University of Colorado at of the golden spike, and things look a bit dif-
Boulder. In a paper presented at the Second ferent. What the president thought was just a
Colorado Space Policy Workshop in Boulder light "Have-a-Nice-Day'' reference to history
on September 8, 1989, she argued that the could have been a pretty useful warning, if
real value of the frontier metaphor is hidden. anyone had taken it seriously.
When they connected the railroad lines
Consider President Ronald Reagan's speech, at Promontory Point in 1869, the represen-
delivered on the Fourth of July, 1982, at the tative from the Central Pacific, Leland Stan-
landing of the shuttle Columbia: "In the fu- ford, proved unfamiliar with a sledgeham-
ture, as in the past, our freedom, indepen- mer and could not hit the golden spike. The
dence, and national well-being will be tied inability of a railroad executive to perform
to new achievements, new discoveries, and the most elemental act of railroad construc-
pushing back frontiers. The fourth landing tion might-if anyone wanted to take these
of the Columbia is the historical equivalent analogies seriously-say something about
to the driving of the golden spike which the gap between executive planning and
completed the first transcontinental rail- hands-on implementation that transporta-
road." tion industries are vulnerable to, and it
In making this comparison, neither Rea- would deepen that point to recognize that
gan nor his speech writers had to think; by much of the railroad trackage theoretically
1982, this way of speaking and thinking was "completed" in 1869 actually had been laid
so well set that no one would say, "Does that in such a rush that much of it had to be laid

tier, Helena, Montana, 1865-1 900 ( 1 987). and has served as the polestar for genera-
The move west, Petrik maintained, did- tions of immigrants who sought a greater
change things for some women, at least measure of human happiness in a land of
during the frontier period. unrivaled wealth and opportunity.
Another prominent strain of western It should come as no surprise, then, that
historical scholarship takes the western the popular image of the Wild West is
myth itself as its subject. Americans have largely the work of outsiders meeting out-
loved the Wild West myth with an abiding, side needs. There seems no escaping east-
though some say waning, passion. It has e m domination. Pomeroy himself traced
circled the globe in its appeal. To its critics, an aspect of this cultural imperialism in his
however, the myth is an invitation to the imaginative In Search of the Golden West:
wrong set of values. It embodies an essen- The Tourist in Western America (1957). The
tially conservative ethos-rugged individ- West, he found, became whatever the east-
ualism, stern justice, indifference or hostil- ern tourist wanted it to be: "[Flor 60 or 70
ity to women and ethnics, exploitation of years. . . tourists had to be reassured, and
the environment, development at any cost. Westerners felt that they had to assure
But it also embodies the American dream, them, that the West was no longer wild and


again almost immediately. In other words, a Add to this the far-reaching corruption in
reference to the golden spike, to anyone Congress that came out of federal aid to rail-
who is serious about history, is also a refer- roads, and add the rough and even brutal
ence to enterprises done with too much working conditions on the railroad, espe-
haste and grandstanding, and with too little cially for the Chinese working on the Cen-
care for detail. tral Pacific in the Sierras in winter; add it all
Ronald Reagan also did not know, or together-executive misbehavior, large-
care, that one half of the first transcontinen- scale corruption, shoddy construction, bru-
tal, the Union Pa- tal labor exploita-
cific Railroad, went tion, financial
bankrupt 25 years inefficiency-and
later in the depres- it's a wonder that
sion of the 1890s, or when the president
that the other half, compared the shut-
the Central Pacific, tie landing to the
even though it be- golden spike, some-
came more prosper- one from the Na-
ous, did so by keep- tional Aeronautics
ing a stranglehold and Space Adminis-
on Pacific coast traf- tration didn't hit
fie, charging all that him for insulting
t h e traffic would the organization's
bear, t h r o u g h its honor. It's a wonder
affiliate, the South- no one-no shuttle
ern Pacific, the company known as the Octo- pilot, mission coordinator, mechanic, or
pus, the company whose chief attorney was technician-said, "Now cut that out-we
widely understood to hold much greater may have our problems, but it's nowhere
power in the state of California than the so- near that bad."
called governor did. With all that prosperity, That's the joy of the present status of the
the Central Pacific still played out a pro- frontier metaphor-you can use it to say
longed drama in trying to avoid paying back things that are really quite insulting to the
its government loans and in trying to get out integrity of the space program, and the people
of the interest payments. thus insulted will smile and say, "Thank you."

woolly-until fashions changed and it was Burrows's John Ringo: The Gunfighter Who
time to convince them that it was as wild as Never Was (1987) are good examples of this
it ever had been." approach to biography.
How wild was it to begin with? There is Cultural historians find the legends
an established tradition in western history more arresting-and revealing-than the
of separating fiction from fact to get at the facts. Strip Billy the Kid of his myth and
truth behind the frontier's most storied in- little of historical consequence remains.
dividuals and episodes. Don Russell's The Even the number of his victims does not
Lives and Legends of Buffalo Bill (1960),Jo- hold up under scrutiny. But the mythic
seph G. Rosa's They Called Him Wild Bill: Billy the Kid is full of interest, as Stephen
The Life and Adventures of James Butler Tatum explains in Inventing Billy the Kid:
Hickok (1964, rev. 1974), William A. Settle, Visions of the Outlaw in America (1982).
Jr.'s Jesse James Was His Name; or, Fact and During the first 40 years after his death at
Fiction Concerning the Careers of the No- the hands of Pat Garrett in 1881, writers
torious James Brothers of Missouri (1966), (including Garrett himself in his The Au-
Robert K. De Arment's Bat Masterson: The thentic Life of Billy, the Kid) portrayed the
Man and the Legend (1979), and Jack Kid as the villain in "a romance story



dramatizing civilization's triumph over a nor figure historically, but he was once a
stubborn, resistant, and savage wilderness." national hero, a martyr to cause and coun-
For roughly the next 30 years, however, try, held up as a model for America's youth.
Billy was portrayed in a more positive light. His defenders still think him a paragon, if
Disillusioned by the power of gangsters and not a saint, and he has been compared to
the weakness and corruption of govern- Jesus. His detractors regard him as a racist
ment, the Kid's "creatorsv-including the villain, fit symbol for America's mistreat-
composer Aaron Copland, who wrote the ment of its native peoples. In 1988, a Sioux
score for the 1938 ballet, Billy the Kid- activist likened him to Adolf Hitler and ar-
conjured up a new image. Because society gued that the Custer Battlefield National
is "unable to defend itself or recognize the Monument was as welcome in Indian
evil within its own ranks," Tatum writes, country as a Hitler monument would be in
"the outsider like the Kid enters the scene Israel.
to save the day and restore a society of

common people being threatened by evil yths have consequences, and
bankers and their henchmen. Yet no matter Richard Slotkin's Regeneration
how noble his actions, in this era the Kid is Through Violence: The Mythology
not integrated into society at story's end." of the American Frontier, 1600-1 860 (1973)
But after 1955, Tatum continues, inven- and The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the
tions of the Kid "typically omit the ro- Frontier in the Age of Industrialization,
mance framework of civilization's progress 1800-1890 (1985) are the most ambitious
or foundation, and instead present a dehu- attempts yet to trace patterns of frontier
manizing society at odds with an authentic mythology, from Cotton Mather through
individual's personal code." No longer is Walt whitman and Theodore Roosevelt. So
there much hope that the hero can trans- deeply has the language of the frontier
form the world; the Kid "appears in works myth been woven into our popular culture,
that dramatize the individual at odds with he writes, "that it still colors the way we
society, a civil law unrelated to moral law, count our wealth and estimate our pros-
and violence hardly legitimated or regener- pects, the way we deal with nature and with
ative." This culminated in the purely mean- the nations so that the Myth can still tell us
ingless cinematic violence of Sam Peckin-, what to look for when we look at the stars."
pah's famous Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid Works like Slotkin's assume something
(1973). Today, the Kid awaits new myth- Turner labored to prove: American except-
makers. ionalism. On the other hand, they encour-
Since cultural values shift over time, age a reexamination of the qualities suppos-
myths, in order to remain relevant, shift edly fostered by frontiering and which,
their meanings as well. If the major chal- according to Turner, combined to form the
lenge facing western history is to relate past American character.
to present in a meaningful way, the mythic The character-forming western myth is
approach has much to offer. It accounts for marked by some notable omissions.
continuity and change. George Armstrong "Where are the women in this tradition?"
Custer is dead, his Last Stand long over. asked Helen Winter Stauffer and Susan J.
Why then do so many people continue to Rosowski in Women and Western American
refight it? Why can they still see it in their Literature (1982). It is a question that cuts
minds? Why are passions still aroused by to the heart of a male myth steeped in es-
the man? We may dismiss Custer as a mi- capist fantasies. The myth does include In-


dians, but simply as part of the savage Na- low, conditions hard, strife endemic, up-
ture that the white pioneer was expected to ward mobility limited, and independence
subdue, a test of the sort that meets any illusory. Or ask any racial minority strug-
quester after Elysium. The native fact offers gling to get ahead in the West.
its own rebuttal: The white man's occupa- Six-gun justice and self-reliance? The
tion of America was an armed invasion, horrifying rate of contemporary violence
nothing more, nothing less. would seem rebuttal enough to such a
When one moves from individuals and cherished tradition, but in The Cattle
events and omissions to the qualities or Towns (1968), Robert Dykstra shoots down
traits revered in western myth, it is appar- the Hollywood version of Dodge City and
ent that the myth generates its own cri- its ilk. [See box, p. 76.1
tiques, its own counter-images. Abundant natural resources ensuring all
Rugged individualists taming a raw wil- a chance to prosper? The antimyth points
derness? Roderick Nash's Wilderness and to the depletion and spoliation of a rich
the American Mind (1967, rev. 1982) and heritage, a destructive "Myth of Superabun-
Lee Clark Mitchell's Witnesses to a Vanish- dance," and the rise of resource monopoli-
ing America: The Nineteenth-Century Re- zation and agribusiness, the creation of a
sponse (1981) show that frontiering and its boom-and-bust economy, and a continuing
apotheosis of axe and plow created a con- reliance on the federal government. More
trary reaction, a conservationist outlook colonialism, and precious little individual
that deplored the wastefulness inherent in opportunity. Myth, after all, is myth.
pioneering and opened the way to resource For the historian, the western myth of-
management and federal controls. fers a skewed but revealing national por-
Buoyant optimism and the mastery of trait, a study not in what was but in what
material things? The lunacy of such hopeful once seemed desirable. To the extent that it
frontier slogans as "Rain follows the plow" was always false, we have a measure of the
was revealed during the 1930s, when the distance between expectation and reality in
interior of the continent turned into a dust western and American history. To the ex-
bowl, spurring a massive internal migration tent that it now seems unbecoming, we
that exposed the hollow promise of western have a measure of the distance between the
opportunity. The California Dream? Ask the values of yesterday and today. The myth
Okies. and the antimyth are keys to the western
Cowboy freedom in a spacious land past and the western present that can also
where all were equal? Ask the multitude of unlock the American past and the Ameri-
western wage-earners who found the pay can present.