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The settlement of the West – the region west of the Mississippi River – can be told in a variety of ways. We are going to look at it here by separating it out into the different groups of people who made the West what it is today. And in doing so, we are also going to look at the mythologized versions of those people, because, more than any other era in American history, the settlement of the West is a time that has spawned stories that are more important than the reality. Americans love the West. We love cowboy stories, cowboy hats, riding horses, riding pickup trucks and wearing jeans. We have sports teams named for heroes and imagined heroes of the West. The West is part of America’s national identity. As we explore these people, consider how have the real people of the West, and their mythologized alter egos shaped our identity?
The mountain men were explorers who lived in the wilderness, most commonly in the Rocky Mountains in the mid-1800s. They were instrumental in discovering and opening the various trails that would later be widened into wagon roads and allowed Americans in the East to settle the new territories of the far West.
The mountain men came into existence during the early era of Westward Expansion, usually driven by the lucrative earnings available in the fur trade. Driven to the West at first by published accounts of the Lewis and Clark expeditions’ findings, a few courageous, independent men succeeded in traversing the Rocky Mountain region working as trappers, as scouts for the Army or wagon train guides. Others ran fort-trading posts along the Oregon Trail to service the remnant fur trade and the settlers heading west.
Although relatively few in number, the mountain men were invaluable to later phases of settlement. In all, approximately 3,000 mountain men ranged the mountains between 1820 and 1840, the peak beaver-harvesting period. While there were many free trappers, most mountain men were employed by major fur companies. Out of the fur trade grew the tradition of the annual rendezvous. Donald Mackenzie, representing the North West Company, held a rendezvous in the Boise River Valley in 1819. The rendezvous system was later implemented by the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, whose representatives would haul supplies to specific mountain locations in the spring, engage in trading with trappers, and bring pelts back to communities on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers like St. Louis in the fall. This system of rendezvous with trappers continued when other firms, particularly the American Fur Company owned by John Jacob Astor, entered the field.
A second fur trading and supply center grew up in Taos in what is today New Mexico. This trade attracted numerous French Americans from Louisiana and some French Canadian trappers, in addition to Anglo-Americans. Some New Mexican residents also pursued the beaver trade, as Mexican citizens initially had some legal advantages. Trappers and traders in the Southwest covered territory that was generally inaccessible to the large fur companies. It included parts of New Mexico, Nevada, California and central and southern Utah.
The life of a mountain man was rugged. Many did not last more than several years in the wilderness. They faced many hazards, especially when exploring unmapped areas. Biting insects and other wildlife, bad weather, diseases of all kinds, injuries and hostile tribes presented constant physical dangers. Grizzly bears were one of the mountain man’s greatest enemies. Winters could be brutal with heavy snowstorms and low temperatures.
In order to stay alive, the men needed keen senses, and knowledge of herbal remedies and first aid, among other skills. In summer, they could catch fish, build shelter, and hunt for food and skins. The mountain man dressed in the clothing perfected by Native Americans. There were no doctors in the regions where mountain men worked and they had to set their own broken bones, tend their wounds, and nurse themselves back to good health. Additionally, they needed to be able to maintain good relationships with the Native Americans in the regions they worked.
The age of the roving trapper did not last long. Changing fashions which lessened the demand for beaver fur and competition from Canadian companies killed off the American fur trade. By 1846, only some 50 American trappers still worked in the Snake River country, compared to 500-600 in 1826. The end of the beaver trade may have spelled the end of the mountain man, but the great push west along the newly opened Oregon Trail built up from a trickle of settlers in 1841 to a steady stream in 1844–46, and then became a flood. The demand for guides was immense, and the mountain men who knew the West from their days as trappers found a new role as guides.
The mountain men were indispensable. Although they did not work as a group, the mountain men by the accumulation of their many individuals actions, mapped the West. They also serve as cultural icons, representing American ruggedness, individualism, independence, ingenuity and perseverance.
John Colter, one of the first mountain men, was a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He later became the first European man to enter Yellowstone National Park, and to see what is now Jackson Hole and the Teton Mountain Range. His description of the geothermal activity there seemed so outrageous to some that the area was mockingly referred to as Colter’s Hell. Colter’s narrow escape following capture by Blackfeet, leaving him naked and alone in the wilderness, became a legend known as “Colter’s Run”.
Born into slavery, Jim Beckwourth arrived in Missouri with his parents and was freed by his father. He signed on with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, lived with the Crow tribe for years and became a war chief. He was the only African American in the West to have his life story published. He was credited with the discovery of Beckwourth Pass in the Sierra Nevada in 1850 and improved a Native American path to create what became known as the Beckwourth Trail through the mountains to Marysville, California.
Jim Bridger went west in 1822 at the age of 17. He is one of the first men of European descent, along with Étienne Provost, to see the Great Salt Lake, which because of its salinity, he first believed was an arm of the Pacific Ocean. In 1830, Bridger purchased the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. He established Fort Bridger in southwestern Wyoming and was well known as a teller of tall tales.
Jedediah Smith was a hunter, trapper, and fur trader. He is considered the first man of European descent to cross the future state of Nevada, the first to traverse Utah from north to south and from west to east; and the first American to enter California by an overland route. He was also first to scale the High Sierra and explore the area from San Diego to the banks of the Columbia River. He was a successful businessman and a full partner in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Smith also had notable facial scarring from a grizzly bear attack.
Primary Source: Novel Cover
One of many dime novels celebrating the supposed heroics of the mountain men – in this case: Kit Carson.
Kit Carson achieved notability for his later exploits, but he got his start and gained some early recognition as a trapper. Carson explored the West to California and North through the Rocky Mountains. He lived among and married into the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes. He was hired by John C. Fremont as a guide and led him through much of California, Oregon, and the Great Basin area, and achieved national fame through Fremont. Stories of his life as a mountain man turned him into a frontier hero-figure, the prototypical mountain man of his time.
The allure of gold has long sent people on wild chases. In the American West, the possibility of quick riches was no different. The search for gold represented an opportunity far different from the slow plod that homesteading farmers faced. The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California in 1848, set a pattern for such strikes that was repeated again and again for the next decade, in what collectively became known as the California Gold Rush. In what became typical, a sudden disorderly rush of prospectors descended upon a new discovery site, followed by the arrival of those who hoped to benefit from the strike by preying off the newly rich. This latter group of camp followers included saloonkeepers, prostitutes, store owners, and criminals, who all arrived in droves. If the strike was significant in size, a town of some magnitude might establish itself, and some semblance of law and order might replace the vigilante justice that typically grew in the small and short-lived mining outposts.
Primary Source: Advertisement
An advertisement for the clipper ships, the fastest ship of the day, which could carry the hopeful miners around the cape of South America and up the Pacific Coast to California.
The original Forty-Niners were individual prospectors who sifted gold out of the dirt and gravel through panning or by diverting a stream through a sluice box. To varying degrees, the original California Gold Rush repeated itself throughout Colorado and Nevada for the next two decades. In 1859, Henry T. P. Comstock, a Canadian-born fur trapper, began gold mining in Nevada with other prospectors but then quickly found a blue-colored vein that proved to be the first significant silver discovery in the United States. Within twenty years, the Comstock Lode, as it was called, yielded more than $300 million in shafts that reached hundreds of feet into the mountain. Subsequent mining in Arizona and Montana yielded copper, and, while it lacked the glamour of gold, these deposits created huge wealth for those who exploited them, particularly with the advent of copper wiring for the delivery of electricity and telegraph communication.
By the 1860s and 1870s, however, individual efforts to locate precious metals were less successful. The lowest-hanging fruit had been picked, and new mines required investment capital and machinery to dig shafts that could reach hundreds of feet down to the remaining ore. With a much larger investment, miners needed a larger strike to be successful. This shift led to larger businesses underwriting mining operations, which eventually led to the development of greater urban stability and infrastructure. Denver, Colorado, was one of several cities that became permanent settlements, as businesses sought a stable environment to use as a base for their mining ventures.
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Cody, Wyoming, one of the better preserved ghost towns of the American West.
For miners who had not yet struck it rich, this development was not a good one. As miners working in company mines instead of independently panning in streams, they were paid a daily or weekly wage to work underground in dangerous conditions. They worked in shafts where the temperature could rise to above one hundred degrees Fahrenheit, and where poor ventilation might lead to long-term lung disease. They coped with shaft fires, dynamite explosions, and frequent cave-ins. By some historical accounts, close to 8,000 miners died on the frontier during this period, with over three times that number suffering crippling injuries. Conditions in mines helped fuel a push toward labor organization in the later 1800s.
Eventually, as the ore dried up, most mining towns turned into ghost towns. Even today, a visit through the American West shows old saloons and storefronts, abandoned as the residents moved on to their next shot at riches. The true lasting impact of the early mining efforts was the lasting desire of the government to bring law and order to the “Wild West” in order to more efficiently extract natural resources and encourage stable growth in the region. As more Americans moved to the region to seek permanent settlement, as opposed to brief speculative ventures, they also sought the safety and support that government order could bring
Primary Source: Company Logo
The logo of Levi Strauss & Company emphasized the strength of their pants. Supposedly, a pair of horses could not tear them apart.
Like many young German men of his time, Levi Strauss left his home in 1851 and immigrated to New York where he joined his older brothers who ran a goods store. In 1853, he moved to San Francisco to open his own dry goods business in hopes of catering to the needs of the Forty-Niners. There he met Jacob Davis, a tailor who often bought bolts of cloth from the Levi Strauss & Co. wholesale house. In 1872, Davis wrote to Strauss asking to partner with him to patent and sell clothing reinforced with rivets that would be durable enough to withstand the beating pants took in the gold fields. The copper rivets were to reinforce the points of stress, such as pocket corners and at the bottom of the button fly. Levi accepted Davis’s offer and the two men received US patent No. 139,121 for an “Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings” on May 20, 1873. Their company logo emphasized the strength of their pants that, they claimed, could not be torn apart by teams of horses.
Davis and Strauss experimented with different fabrics and found denim the most suitable material for work-pants. They began using it to manufacture their riveted pants. Initially, Strauss’ jeans were simply sturdy trousers worn by factory workers, miners, farmers, and cattlemen throughout the North American West. When Levi Strauss & Co. patented the modern, mass-produced prototype in the year 1873, there were two pockets in the front and one on the back with copper rivets. Later, the jeans were redesigned to today’s industry standard of five pockets including a little watch pocket and copper rivets. Although styles have changed over time, blue jeans remain a symbol of America and American fashion around the world, and jeans continue to be emblematic of the frontier spirit.
RANCHERS AND COWBOYS
While the cattle industry lacked the romance of the Gold Rush, the role it played in western expansion should not be underestimated. For centuries, wild cattle, the descendants of escaped cows that had been brought by the Spanish conquistadors, roamed Texas and the Southwest. At the end of the Civil War, as many as five million longhorn steers could be found along the Texas frontier, yet few settlers had capitalized on the opportunity to claim them, due to the difficulty of transporting them to eastern markets. The completion of the first transcontinental railroad and subsequent railroad lines changed the game dramatically. Cattle ranchers and eastern businessmen realized that it was profitable to round up the wild cattle and transport them by rail to be sold in the East for as much as thirty to fifty dollars per head. These ranchers and businessmen began the rampant speculation in the cattle industry that made, and lost, many fortunes.
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The descendants of escaped Spanish cattle, the Texas longhorn roamed wild before the arrival of the cowboys who rounded them up, drove them north to the railheads, and then shipped them East where Americans realized the liked the taste of beef.
So began the impressive cattle drives of the 1860s and 1870s. The famous Chisholm Trail provided a quick path from Texas to railroad terminals in Abilene, Wichita, and Dodge City, Kansas, where cowboys would receive their pay. These cow towns, as they became known, were the end of the rail lines, and thus, the nearest points the railroads came to the Texas range where the cattle were first rounded up. And these towns quickly grew to accommodate the needs of cowboys and the cattle industry. Cattlemen like Joseph G. McCoy, born in Illinois, quickly realized that the railroad offered a perfect way to get highly sought beef from Texas to the East. McCoy chose Abilene as a locale that would offer cowboys a convenient place to drive the cattle, and went about building stockyards, hotels, banks, and more to support the business. He promoted his services and encouraged cowboys to bring their cattle through Abilene for good money. Soon, the city had grown into a bustling western city, complete with ways for the cowboys to spend their hard-earned pay. Between 1865 and 1885, as many as 40,000 cowboys roamed the Great Plains, hoping to work for local ranchers. They were all men, typically in their twenties, and close to one-third of them were Hispanic or African American. It is worth noting that the stereotype of the American cowboy, and indeed the cowboys themselves, borrowed much from the Mexicans who had long ago settled those lands. The saddles, lassos, chaps, and lariats that define cowboy culture all arose from the Mexican ranchers who had used them to great effect before the cowboys arrived. In fact, much of the cowboy jargon familiar to us today are words borrowed from Spanish. Lasso, lariat, ranch, buckaroo and canyon are all anglicized versions of Spanish cowboy terms.
Life as a cowboy was dirty and decidedly unglamorous. The terrain was difficult. Conflicts with Native Americans, especially in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), were notoriously deadly. However, the longhorn cattle were hardy stock, and could survive and thrive while grazing along the long trail, so cowboys braved the trip for the promise of steady employment and satisfying wages. Eventually, the era of the free range ended. Ranchers developed the land, limiting grazing opportunities along the trail, and in 1873, the new technology of barbed wire allowed ranchers to fence off their lands and cattle claims, thus bringing an end to the short-lived, but glamorized age of the great cattle drives.
With the end of the free range, the cattle industry, like the mining industry before it, grew increasingly dominated by eastern businessmen. Capital investors from the East expanded rail lines and invested in ranches, ending the reign of the cattle drives.
Western gunslinger heroes are portrayed as local lawmen or enforcement officers, ranchers, army officers, cowboys, territorial marshals, nomadic loners, or skilled fast-draw artists. They are normally masculine persons of integrity and principle – courageous, moral, tough, solid, and self-sufficient, maverick characters (often with trusty sidekicks), possessing an independent and honorable attitude. They are depicted as similar to a knight-errant, wandering from place to place with no particular direction, often facing curious and hostile enemies, while saving individuals or communities from those enemies in terms of chivalry. In films, the gunslinger often possesses a nearly superhuman speed and skill with the revolver. Twirling pistols, lightning draws, and trick shots are standard fare for the gunmen of the big screen.
In the West of the 1800s, however, gunmen who relied on flashy tricks and theatrics died quickly, and most gunslingers took a much more practical approach to their weapons. Real gunslingers did not shoot to disarm or to impress, but to kill.
Another classic bit of cinema that is largely a myth is the showdown at high noon, where two well-matched gunslingers agree to meet for a climactic formal duel. These duels did occasionally happen, however, gunfights were usually close-up and personal, with a number of shots blasted from pistols, often resulting in innocent bystanders hit by bullets gone wild. Much of the time, it would be difficult to tell who had won the gunfight for several minutes, as the black powder smoke from the pistols cleared the air.
The gunslinger’s reputation often was as valuable as any skills possessed. In Western films and books, young toughs often challenge experienced gunmen with the hopes of building a reputation, but this rarely happened in real life. A strong reputation was enough to keep others civil and often would spare a gunfighter from conflict. Even other gunslingers were likely to avoid any unnecessary confrontation. In the days of the Old West, tales tended to grow with repeated telling, and a single fight might grow into a career-making reputation. For instance, the Showdown at the O.K. Corral made legends of Wyatt Earp and the Outlaw Cowboy gang, but they were relatively minor figures before that conflict. Some gunslingers, such as Bat Masterson, actively engaged in self-promotion. Johnny Ringo built a reputation as a gunslinger while never taking part in a gunfight or killing unarmed civilians.
Mythology and folklore often exaggerate the skills of famous gunfighters. Most of these historical figures were not known to be capable of trick shooting, nor did they necessarily have a reputation for precision sharpshooting. Such tropes that are characteristic of Westerns include shooting the center of a coin, stylistic pistol twirling, glancing shots that intentionally only graze an opponent (the bullet through the hat being an example), shooting an opponent’s belt buckle (thus dropping his pants), a bullet cutting the hangman’s rope, or shooting the guns out of opponents’ hands (typically as an alternative to killing). The latter was debunked by Mythbusters as an impossibility, as unjacketed bullets tend to shatter into fragments that can hurt or even kill.
In Western movies, the characters’ gun belts are usually worn low on the hip and outer thigh, with the holster cut away around the pistol’s trigger and grip for a smooth, fast draw. This type of holster is a Hollywood anachronism. Fast-draw artists can be distinguished from other movie cowboys because their guns will often be tied to their thigh. Long before holsters were steel-lined, they were soft and supple for comfortable all-day wear. A gunfighter would use tie-downs to keep his pistol from catching on the holster while drawing. Most of the time, gunfighters would just hide their pistols in their pockets and waistbands.
Although quick draw and hip shooting was an important skill in the West, only a handful of historically known gunslingers were known to be fast, such as Luke Short, John Wesley Hardin, Wild Bill Hickok, Doc Holliday, and Billy the Kid. Shooting a pistol with one hand is normally associated with gunslingers, and is also a standard for them of the era to carry two guns and fire ambidextrously. Capt. Jonathan R. Davis carried two revolvers in his iconic gunfight, while Jesse James himself carried over half a dozen revolvers in many of his gunfights.
Most Old West men who were labeled gunfighters did not kill nearly as many men in gunfights as they were given credit for, if any at all. They were often labeled as such due to one particular instance, which developed from rumors into them having been involved in many more events than they actually were. Often their reputation was as much self-promotion as anything else. Wyatt Earp with his brothers Morgan and Virgil along with Doc Holliday killed three outlaws in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona Territory but he has been said to have been involved in more than one hundred gunfights in his lifetime. Earp himself wrote in a letter that, “notoriety had been the bane of my life.”
In other cases, certain gunfighters were confused, over time, with being someone else with a similar name. The most well known of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch gang, the Sundance Kid, was in reality only known to have been in one shootout during his lifetime, and no gunfights. Some historians have since stated that it is possible that over time he was confused with another Wild Bunch member, Kid Curry, who was without a doubt the most dangerous member of the gang, having killed many lawmen and civilians during his lifetime before being killed himself. Hence, it is the Sundance Kid who is better known.
It is often difficult to separate lawmen of the Old West from outlaws of the Old West. In many cases, the term gunfighter was applied to constables. Despite idealistic portrayals in television, movies, and even in history books, very few lawmen could claim their law enforcement role as their only source of employment. Unlike contemporary police officers, these lawmen generally pursued other occupations, often earning money as gamblers, business owners, or even as outlaws. Usually, when a gunman was hired by a town as town marshal, they received the full support of the townspeople until order was restored, at which point the town would tactfully indicate it was time for a change to a less dangerous lawman who relied more on respect than fear to enforce the law.
A different class of gunslingers were the outlaws of the West. Most worked together in groups and of these, two stand out as the most infamous. The James-Younger Gang had its origins in a group of Confederate bushwhackers that participated in the bitter partisan fighting that wracked Missouri during the American Civil War. After the war, the men continued to plunder and murder, though the motive shifted to personal profit rather than for the glory of the Confederacy. For nearly a decade following the Civil War, the James–Younger Gang was among the most feared, most publicized, and most wanted confederations of outlaws on the American frontier. The gang’s activities spanned much of the central part of the country. They are suspected of having robbed banks, trains, and stagecoaches in at least ten states: Missouri, Kentucky, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, and West Virginia. The James-Younger Gang dissolved in 1876, following the capture of the Younger brothers in Minnesota during the ill-fated attempt to rob the Northfield First National Bank in Minnesota. Three years later, Jesse James organized a new gang but his career came to an end in 1882 when one of the new gang members, Robert Ford, shot James from behind for reward money.
Primary Source: Photograph
Billy the Kid was one of the most notorious outlaws of the West.
Most famous of the individual outlaws was Billy the Kid. Orphaned at age 13, his first arrest was for stealing food at age 16 in late 1875. Ten days later, he robbed a Chinese laundry and was arrested, but he escaped two days later. After murdering a blacksmith during an altercation in August 1877, he joined a group of cattle rustlers. He became a well-known figure in New Mexico and Arizona when he became involved in the Lincoln County War, a fight between rival groups vying for control of the cattle and dry goods business in New Mexico. In April 1878, he participated in the killing of three men, including Lincoln County Sheriff William J. Brady and one of his deputies. Sheriff Pat Garrett captured Billy the Kid and in April 1881, he was tried and convicted of the murder of Brady and was sentenced to hang, but escaped from jail on April 28, 1881, killing two sheriff’s deputies in the process and evading capture for more than two months. Garrett eventually caught up with him and shot and killed him, at age 21.
At the end of the century, a new gang rose to capture the nation’s attention and imagination. Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch was one of the loosely organized outlaw gangs operating out of Wyoming during the 1890s. The gang was led by Butch Cassidy, and it included his closest friend Elzy Lay, the Sundance Kid, Tall Texan, News Carver, Camilla “Deaf Charley” Hanks, Laura Bullion, Flat-Nose Curry, Kid Curry and Bob Meeks. They were the most successful train-robbing gang in history. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid eventually fled to South America to escape Pinkerton Detectives where they were killed in a shootout with police.
THE FRONTIER MYTH
There are two Wests: the historical West in which farmers, ranchers, miners, prostitutes and criminals pursued their happiness, and the mythic West that took deep root in the American imagination. Western novels like those found at supermarket checkout lines, mainstream literature such as Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, newspapers, and plays portrayed the West as both a barren landscape full of savages and a romanticized idealistic way of living for rugged men. This second version of the American West has perhaps had a longer-lasting impact on American culture since it remains even now long after the actual historical West has been replaced by modern life. This is the Frontier Myth.
The origins of the Frontier Myth are as old as White settlement in America itself. Beginning in the original colonies, settlers brought a synthesis of romantic European myths and ideas across the Atlantic, particularly the idea that the New World was a place where they could reinvent themselves. However, the land was occupied by Native Americans and the incoming colonists took the land with violence and the Frontier Myth took on a layer of meaning imbued with a sense of regeneration through violence. Violent interactions with Native Americans became central to the myth of the frontier, and the American hero has been one who mediated between these two worlds. The first national hero to do this was Daniel Boone, the first archetype of the western hero, “An American hero is the lover of the spirit of the wilderness, and his acts of love and sacred affirmation are acts of violence against the spirit and her avatars,” argues historian Richard Slotkin. This is the foundation for the myth of the frontier that began in the colonies.
It was further developed in the 1800s to meet the growing needs of industrialization, incorporating the exploitation of land. The myth of the frontier held promise of wealth in the undiscovered lands and thus encouraged settlement, but Slotkin argues that the myth of the frontier distorted the historical reality. The Frontier Myth holds that Americans became rich by riding the Great Plains or mining the gold fields of California, but in reality, most fortunes were made in the industrial cities of the North.
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John Wayne, one of Hollywood’s quintessential cowboys. Although his characters all had different names, they all embodied the essentials of the traditional cowboy according to the Frontier Myth.
Christine Bold studied the development of the Frontier Myth and argues that the formula for it was created by a group of writers, politicians, painters, and entertainers. She found that they used their money and influence to silence the voices of African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, and non-elite white men. They did this both in their creation of the formula for the myth of the frontier, and in public policy. In the regards to myth their efforts were successful, and the common myth of the frontier to follow this period features the white cowboy riding in to save the white townsfolk, particularly women, usually from Native Americans or Hispanics. Although African Americans were common in the actual West of the 1800s, they are almost entirely absent in the mythologized version.
Legends like Wild Bill, Calamity Jane, Jesse James’ gang, Buffalo Bill, are products of this myth, and are still present in popular culture, as well as in the books of Theodore Roosevelt, Frederic Remington and Owen Wister, or in comics like Lucky Luke and western films.
Despite variation, there are key elements to the Frontier Myth that are common. The cowboy of the myth is heroic, recognizes evil and is unafraid to fight it. In popular culture, the good cowboys wear white and shoot the evil cowboys in black. Our modern infatuation with superhero stories is entirely in line with this element of the myth.
Another aspect of the western archetype is the self-reliant man. Our idealized cowboy rides a horse, needs no one, can survive for weeks alone, and stoically faces adversity. Americans who live in cities but purchase oversized pickup trucks or Harley Davidson motorcycles are recreating this aspect of the myth.
Also, the cowboy of myth is an achiever. He can make things happen. Overcoming any adversity, he can bring the cattle to market, fight any number of Native Americans, or travel any distance to save the girl. Just as the real pioneers crossed the West to settle California, Utah and Oregon, so too did Americans set foot on the Moon. After all, our mythologized western man is an innovative problem solver who dares where others are timid.
Myths are much more about the way we would like to see ourselves than about historical reality, and the Frontier Myth is no different. After all, the historical cowboys are relatively unimportant to us today. Who needs a few thousand men from the 1800s when the Dallas Cowboys, Texas Rangers, San Francisco 49ers, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trailblazers, or San Antonio Spurs are playing sports on cable television?
BIG IDEA: There were many groups of people who defined the character of the West. Some of these people have become mythologized.
Mountain men were fur trappers and explorers who mapped the West. They met every year to share news and sell their furs. Some later became guides to show the way for pioneers.
Miners went to the West in search of gold, silver and copper. The 49ers went to California beginning in 1849 after gold was discovered. Some struck it rich, but many did not. Levi Strauss invented jeans to sell to miners who wore out their pants panning for gold. California grew tremendously because of this gold rush. Silver rushes in Nevada, copper rushes in Montana, and a gold rush in Alaska also drove increases in the populations of these future states.
In some places in the West, thousands of people flocked to a particular spot to dig in a mine. These sudden towns were places without the traditional structures like police, churches, and women who helped maintain civic order in the East. Stories from these towns gave rise to the legend of the Wild West. In some cases, when the gold or silver ran out, people simply left, leaving behind empty ghost towns.
Ranchers started rounding up the longhorn cattle of the Texas prairie, the descendants of cattle released by the Spanish. Cowboys drove herds of these cows north to the ends of the railroads where they were loaded up and shipped to Chicago. There the cattle were slaughtered and shipped to customers in the East. Within a few decades the railroads spread, farmers put up barbed wire, and the days of the cattle drives were over. The legend of the cowboy and the cattle drive come from this short era in history.
Gunslingers became a popularized character of the West. The mythologized cowboy with six shooters on both hips who stood up for justice and hunted down evildoers is based on some real characters from the real West, but is mostly a creation of Hollywood. This frontier myth is still an important idea in modern America. We like our pickup trucks and the lone hero who sets out on a quest to fight the good fight. There were some real outlaws in the West, most notably the James-Younger Gang, Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy.