One of the biggest historical myths is that of the “Wild West”. It’s not hard to see why this myth has thrived. Names like Billy the Kid, Jesse James and Wild Bill Hickok, places like Tombstone and Deadwood and events like the Gunfight at the OK Corral, have ensured the public’s fascination with gun-toting cowboys. However, the truth is a far cry from such stories.
The main part of the myth is the level of violence in the “Wild West”. If the stories and movies about the period are to be believed, cowboys were running riot throughout the frontier towns, shooting anything that moved. However, the article “Violence in the Wild West?” highlights the real truth:
“There were never more than five murders in any given cattle town during a single year despite the presence, on both sides of the law, of gunfighters … During the peak years of cattle towns, the average number of homicides was only 1.5 a year for each town.”
In the article “The Culture of Violence in the American West: Myth versus Reality” Thomas J. DiLorenzo writes:
“Eugene Hollon writes that the western frontier ‘was a far more civilized, more peaceful and safer place than American society today’. Terry Anderson and P. J. Hill affirm that although ‘[t]he West … is perceived as a place of great chaos, with little respect for property or life,’ their research ‘indicates that this was not the case; property rights were protected and civil order prevailed’.”
The reason for this?
“Private agencies provided the necessary basis for an orderly society in which property was protected and conflicts were resolved … organizations [such] as land clubs, cattlemen’s associations, mining camps, and wagon trains.”
“The wagon trains that transported thousands of people to the California gold fields and other parts of the West usually established their own constitutions before setting out … Ostracism and threats of banishment from the group, instead of threats of violence, were usually sufficient to correct rule breakers’ behaviour.”
So how did the image of the “Wild West” come about? Partly through some individual’s self-perpetuation of the myth (Billy the Kid and Wild Bill Hickok, for instance); partly because of certain newspaper editor’s wild imaginations; and – with the advent of cinema – partly because of the equally wild imaginations of certain film writers and directors.
But one of the main reasons for the violent image of the “Wild West” is because of the US government’s treatment of the Native American population. Following the Civil War, the huge project of constructing a Trans Continental railway was undertaken. There was enormous amounts of money to be made from such a project and the men who stood to make that money all had ties to the ruling Republican Party. Only one thing stood in their way – the Native Americans.
When he became President, Ulysses Grant put his fellow “war heroes” General William Sherman and General Phillip Sheridan in charge of the “Indian problem”:
“Thus,” writes Michael Fellman in Citizen Sherman, “the great triumvirate of the Union Civil War effort formulated and enacted military Indian policy until reaching, by the 1880s, what Sherman sometimes referred to as ‘the final solution of the Indian problem’”.
“During the Civil War,” writes John Marzalek, author of Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order, “Sherman and Sheridan had practiced a total war of destruction of property … Now the army, in its Indian warfare, often wiped out entire villages … Sherman insisted that the only answer to the Indian problem was all-out war – of the kind he had utilized against the Confederacy.”
Fellman goes on:
“What Sherman called the ‘final solution of the Indian problem’ involved killing hostile Indians and segregating their pauperized survivors in remote places … Sherman gave orders to kill everyone and everything, including dogs, and to burn everything that would burn so as to increase the likelihood that any survivors would starve or freeze to death. The soldiers also waged a war of extermination on the buffalo, which was the Indians’ chief source of food.”
And so emerged the Hollywood image of “Cowboys and Indians” constantly attacking each other. In Hollywood movies, it was usually the Native Americans who were portrayed as the aggressors. In truth, it was the other way round. Of course, tales of the US government’s mistreatment of the Native Americans is not anything new. But it is interesting that this is one of the reasons for the myth of the “Wild West” as a violent and lawless frontier.
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