Romance with the American West

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Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World - Circus poster showing cowboys rounding up cattle and portrait of Col. W.F. Cody on horseback. c.1899

With so many important and notable periods and experiences in American History, why does the American West continue to prove such a romantic story?

Romantic ideals tied to the American West are as alive today as the day they came to life. As a result, the American West and its colorful people and landscapes have become a popular culture as well as a popular history. Even though the time of the “Cowboy and the Indian” happened to be a very short lived ten years or so, everyone loves cowboys and Indians and what they have come to stand for.

Children Role-playing the Myth of the Cowboy

Children use their imaginations as they play cowboys and/or Indians, riding their pony as fast as they can as they chase or are chased by their playmates. For some of these children their pony maybe real, a bicycle, stick horse, or even just a plain old stick or sorts. Adolescents and adults from all walks of life can be seen wearing cowboy or Western fashion. Jeans, denim and flannel shirts, cowboy boots, cowboy belts and buckles are not just worn out of necessity or for work any longer. The American West not only experiences forms of national pride that celebrates the Old West, Wild West, and cowboys. It is interesting that just about everyone in America who is asked about their heritage will say that they have a percentage of Native American or Indian blood.

Hollywood Keeping the West Alive

Of course, the American movie industry and Hollywood have been huge supporters of keeping the American West alive through Westerns. John Wayne, the actor, starred in movies where he was a soldier in war movies, and even wore a suit as a police detective. However, because of the love affair that Americans and the world have with the American West, John Wayne will forever be known as a cowboy and star of the American Western. From Howdy Doody, to Disney’s Woody character, to the newest Hollywood Western, the West and its people continue to live. Before motion pictures and later, television, the story of the American West was told by actors on the stage and in Wild West shows. Such shows were popular in the East and in Europe. The fascination with the American West was like nothing anyone had ever before experienced.

Glamorizing the West

Shows like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West offered people around the world a chance to experience the American West for an hour or two. As thousands of people in the East and in Europe sat in Buffalo Bill’s audience, Buffalo Bill’s cowboys, Indians, and the US Calvary told their story in such a way that would never be forgotten. Just as Hollywood would do later on, the Wild West shows entertained, embellished, added “bells, whistles, and smoke” to put on a grand show. Many people took what they saw as a realistic portrayal of how the West really was, even after the days of the cowboy on the range had come and gone. Dime novels, songs, poetry, helped to give the West a glamorous and romantic appeal like no other. After the day of the dime novel, came other significant pieces of literature, music, and art that have continued to promote the romantic ideals of the West.

Relocation and the Wild West

Some folks came to the West from the East as well as from other countries during the late 19th century. For many, the West was too wild and they ended up returning to where they had come from. According to diary entries from a young woman, Louise, who was British, had migrated through Canada to the American West, along with her family, and settled in San Luis Obispo California. Within twelve months, the family went back to Ontario, Canada. Louise wrote about an interesting daily ritual which most likely helped the family to decide to go back East. Louise’s diary described in detail how each evening at dusk folks would rock on the front porches of their homes. Because the West was still so wild, it was common to see shotguns lying across the laps of men and women alike.

References:

  1. Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest. W.W. Norton & Co. 1987. New York.
  2. Monroy, Douglas. Thrown Among Strangers. University of California Press. 1990. Berkeley.
  3. Rothman, Hal K. Devil’s Bargains. University Press of Kansas. 1998.
  4. Texan Cultures Museum and Archive. Personal letters, Government documents, and Land title records. San Antonio Texas, September 8-10, 2009.
  5. Ware, Joseph E. The Emigrant’s Guide to California. St. Louis: J. Halsall, 1849. Reprint. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1932.
  6. West, Elliott. The Contested Plains. University Press of Kansas. 1998.