The American frontier has been one of the enduring cultural motifs of our entire history. After all, we started out as a couple of rag-tag coastal towns in what later became Virginia and Florida, and ended up conquering an entire continent, with all the attendant history and personalities that we attach to that effort. You may not know the name of your Congressman but you surely can recall with pride such frontier heroes as Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, George Armstrong Custer, Sitting Bull, Annie Oakley and Wyatt Earp, just to name a few.
For those of us who like guns the great Western frontier saga has a special significance because without the Winchester Repeating Rifle or the Colt Single-Action Army Revolver, we may not have won the West at all! So it’s not surprising that stories and legends about the Old West continue to provoke our imaginations. The great cattle drives from Texas up to Kansas City, the shoot-out at the OK Corral, Westward Ho! the wagons, and so forth.
What gives the Western saga (and the role of guns within the saga) such enduring strength, of course, is the image of a few, hardy and independent souls going out into a vast wilderness, a wild and unknown place, and slowly but surely transforming a frontier into a settled place. First were the explorers, like Lewis and Clark, then a few mountain-men, hunters and trappers, later a very few homesteaders, and finally the ranchers and the farmers whose descendants still lay claim to much of this territory today.
The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 first opened up the frontier to expansion. In 1890, less than a century later, the U.S. Census announced there were enough people living in every part of the United States to consider that wilderness no longer existed and the frontier had come to an end. And who could argue with this claim? Both coasts were linked by multiple train lines, the Indian wars had come to an end, Chicago was now our second-largest city, and the buffalo were nearly extinct.
Over the following fifty years, what had been the reality of the wilderness frontier turned into a myth. And the myth was developed and spread first through the medium of motion pictures, later through television. Whether it was John Wayne with his Winchester 94 carbine, or James Arness with his six-shooter, the taming of our frontier by a man with a gun became the filter through which most of us learned about the settling of the West.
Whether it’s the Greek Jason and the Argonauts or the Roman Romulus and Remus, most myths of origin are exactly that: they are myths and they don’t represent anything that really happened. But the interesting thing about the myth of the Old West is that it supposedly represents the truth. Davy Crockett and Chief Crazy Horse were real people and what made them famous is they both played important roles in the transformation of the wilderness and the closing of the frontier.
But there’s just one little problem? What if there was no wilderness? What if the frontier that we closed in less than a century had been closed centuries before? Recall that the Census Bureau stated that the frontier was closed by 1890 because there was some degree of human settlement in every area within the continental United States. They couldn’t pinpoint exactly where all these people lived, but it was presumed that between the area between the Missouri River and the Great Basin (Nevada) now held an average of at least two people per square mile which, according to government calculations, meant that the frontier was gone.
Actually, this territory probably held a lot more people three or four hundred years earlier, perhaps as many as ten times the number that were living there when we allegedly ‘closed’ the frontier. But they weren’t white settlers, they were indigenous populations whom the whites called Indians, and while there were probably 250,000 of them living in the west, there may have been as many as several million living in this territory at the time that Europeans first hit the eastern shore.
Where did they all go? For the most part, they died. And they didn’t die from lack of food because the buffalo were killed off, nor did they die at the hands of the cavalry, they died from disease. And because disease always disproportionately kills off the youngest, if a population suffers a substantial loss of children as the result of disease, this means that the next generation of this population will be smaller still. And the early white settlers infected the Indians with multiple diseases – smallpox, measles, typhoid, influenza – which provoked multiple epidemics that reduced the Indian population to a shadow of its former self.
It may be comforting to believe that because we live in cities, drive cars and use telephones that we are somehow more ‘civilized’ than people who live out in the woods, ride horseback and communicate with smoke signals. And when white Americans first started going out on to what we called the frontier, we believed, then and now, that we were transforming the wilderness and thus bringing the fruits of civilization to people who had always lived there, whether they wanted to share that fruit or not.
In 1876, General George Crook hired more than 30 Indian scouts to guide his cavalry and wagon train from Fort Laramie to the Powder River, a trip that I have driven comfortably in less than six hours. Crook already had wagons with wheels, the railroad and the repeating rifle. The Indians he hired had none of those things. But they knew how to guide him from one place to the other. Without their knowledge of the ‘wilderness,’ Crook believed that the Army campaign against the plains Indians would fail.
So who were the real ‘savages’ in 1876 when we were slowly but surely closing the frontier? It wasn’t the Indians who had no trouble moving about, living and knowing the land. It was all us white folks with our fancy machines, our store-bought clothing and our guns. Think about that the next time someone tells you that then, as now, we needed guns to protect ourselves from less-civilized folk.
- Window on the Wild West: Newly released photographs show truth of America’s past (express.co.uk)
- The Gilded Western Frontier (muwgildedage.wordpress.com)