What was the ‘Wild West’?

William Bonney / the bluegrassspecial-com

William Bonney / the bluegrassspecial-com

It was a term used, mainly by Americans, to describe frontier society in the second half of the nineteenth century. Before the eighteen fifties the huge area between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains, endless plains with little rainfall, flat, ravaged by hot (or freezing) winds, had been considered as unfit for white occupation. Its not very attractive nickname was ‘The Great American Desert’, summoning images of rattlesnakes, hostile ‘Indians’ and herds of buffalo.

   Miners after gold, and trappers after pelts were the first white people to become genuine pioneers in this arid and dangerous region. After the Civil War, farmers moved into it to try starting again, many having lost their lands to the winning side. Gradually the area became known as ‘The Wild West’, for very good reasons. Ranchers were unscrupulous in their appropriation of arable land; they frequently employed professional ‘gunslingers’ to enforce their dominion; cheap novels written about the Wild West became popular in the East, iventing legends and romanticising real people who had made their name there: Jesse James, Calamity Jane, William Bonney (Billy the Kid’), Wild Bill Hickok, the Earp brothers, John Wesley Hardin and Buffalo Bill were soon all-American heroes, though most of them were killers, legalized or not.

   In the novels and magazines, this was a world of the stage-coach drawn by six sweating horses, of painted savages attacking the legendary covered wagon and biting the dust as a consequence; there were outlaws aplenty, and rustlers (horse thieves), summary hangings, gold rushes and cattle drives over hundreds of miles. It was all most romantic, and most of the literature was pure rubbish, though it sold well. For the average American, the Wild West was real America, democratic, tough as old leather, ‘gimme some hot coffee’, ‘a man’s gotta do what he gotta do’ etc. Americans were and are self-reliant and tough. The legend of the Wild West bolstered up the story.

The real Sundance Kid (left) and Butch Cassify / content.time.com

The real Sundance Kid (left) and Butch Cassify / content.time.com

   Naturally all this did not last. Those Native Americans who had escaped massacre were confined in ‘reservations’, while the land that had been theirs was taken by white settlers. Buffalo Bill took to show business and toured Europe. Bill Hickok was shot in the back in a bar by a young man with a borrowed gun. The railroad made long treks in wagons obsolete, and cattle drives unnecessary. From the Thirties to the late Seenties Hollywood made thousands of ‘Western’ films idealizing the Wild West, and the films were popular though audiences knew it was make-believe: the Earps, for instance, and their gunfight at the OK corral were seen as modest straightshooters full of true grit and honesty, whereas they were actually as murderous as Billy the Kid and the US marshal who shot him in the back. Billy himself was simple-minded, killing his first victim when he was barely twelve years old. The Sundance Kid was genuinely good looking, but Butch Cassidy was an ugly piece of work bearing no resemblance whatever to Paul Newman. Several writers made millions of dollars about inventing the Wild West, and some of their books are still in print. The Wild West is a media myth.

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