The Myth of the Frontier: Progress or Lost Freedom

by John Mack Faragher

Letterhead from Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, 1910, detail. (GLC)For two centuries the frontier West was the setting for America’s most enduring form of popular entertainment. Daniel Boone—master hunter, pathfinder, Indian fighter, and a frontier leader of the American Revolution—was the progenitor of a long line of national frontier heroes. The subject of a short biography published in 1784, Boone was the archetypal Western hero: a man who loves and understands the wilderness, an intimacy he uses to defeat the Indians and tame the country. The real-life Boone delighted in the honor that came with his fame. Yet in his telling, his story had an ironic edge. Yes, he acknowledged to those who sought him out in his old age, he had pioneered the settlement of Kentucky and the region beyond the crest of the Appalachians. But the truth was, his own lands he lost to swindling lawyers and land speculators, and he been forced to move on. Yes, he had fought the Indians. But in truth, he declared, “I am very sorry to say that I have ever killed any, for they have always been kinder to me than the whites.” Were he forced to choose, Boone admitted, he would “certainly prefer a state of nature to a state of civilization.”

Boone’s story was a foundation for what has been called “the myth of the frontier.” Think of the word “myth” here not as a synonym for erroneous belief, but as the body of tales, fables, and fantasies that help a people make sense of its history. Like history, myth finds meaning in the events of the past. But unlike history, myth is less concerned with facts than with ideological essences. Essentially, the Western, the story form of the myth, tells a tale of progress, a justification of violent conquest and untrammeled development. Boone’s story certainly had its triumphal side. But the Western also raises troubling questions. What is the cost of progress? Because myth is composed in the figurative language of metaphor and symbol rather than in the logical language of analysis, it may incorporate such doubts without actually confronting them. As historian Richard Slotkin writes, “The most potent recurring hero-figures in our mythologies are men in whom contradictory identities find expression.” Thus the progressive narrative of the Western is consistently subverted by the presence of pathfinders who are also critics of civilization, outlaws who are Robin Hoods, or whores who have hearts of gold. Americans are drawn to characters of paradoxical impulse, to “good-badmen,” or army scouts who identify with the Indian enemy. Things are simple in the Western, but not always as simple as they seem.

In the years following Boone’s death in 1820, the frontiersman became a ubiquitous presence in American popular culture. Of primary significance was the work of novelist James Fenimore Cooper, who created an enduring literary version of the Boone character in a series of novels known as The Leatherstocking Tales, published between 1823 and 1841. Cooper staged a conflict between civilized restraint and natural freedom. On the surface, his stories make the case for “the march of our nation across the continent.” Yet his characters voice powerful countervailing arguments. “The garden of the Lord was the forest,” Leatherstocking declares, and was not patterned “after the miserable fashions of our times, thereby giving the lie to what the world calls its civilizing.” Ambivalence about progress resonated with a deeply felt American regret over the loss of wilderness as an imagined place of unbound freedom.

Cooper’s novels were “literary,” meaning that they were written for a literate public. But the character of the frontiersman soon made its way into the broader realms of popular culture. In 1834 David Crockett published his own autobiography (the first of a western American), the story of a bragging, buckskin-clad frontiersman elected to Congress. Stretching the truth considerably, the book nevertheless featured Crockett’s authentic voice and introduced frontier tales to a wide popular audience. Soon there were dozens of imitations, including a long-running series of Crockett almanacs that recounted the hero’s continuing feats—long after Crockett himself had died at the Alamo. “I can walk like an ox, run like a fox, swim like an eel, yell like an Indian, fight like a devil, and spout like an earthquake,” thundered the Davy of the almanacs.

Crockett was also a character in the first of the “dime novels,” cheap paperbacks with sensational themes that began appearing in the 1840s and that were being printed by the millions by the Civil War. The “dimes” were read by Americans of all stripes, but particularly by men of working-class backgrounds. And more than two-thirds of these novels were set in the West. Over time hunter-scouts cast in Boone’s mold gave way to more enthusiastically violent characters: Indian-fighter Kit Carson, or Jim Bowie, with a chip on his shoulder to match the massive knife in his belt. Yet many of the stories took subversive turns. In the early 1880s, the James gang, then terrorizing banks and railroads on the Missouri border, became a favorite subject. Week after week, brothers Jesse and Frank defied the law and got away with it in the dimes—until respectable outrage forced the postmaster general to ban the series from the mails. Another persistent dime-novel fantasy was the “woman with the whip,” the western gal who acts a man’s part but is all the more alluring for it. Calamity Jane, for one, grabbed the public imagination by demanding and receiving equal rights in a man’s world.

Using real historical characters to encourage the suspension of disbelief was a characteristic of the dime-novel Western. The master of the uses of authenticity was William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the showman who in the late nineteenth century turned the frontier myth into America’s most bankable commercial entertainment. Born in Iowa in 1846, Cody grew up on the frontier. He tramped to Colorado during its gold rush, rode for the Pony Express, scouted for the frontier Army, and earned his nickname hunting buffalo to feed railroad construction crews. The subject of a sensational 1869 dime novel, he became nationally famous as “the greatest scout of the West.” Capitalizing on that image, Cody went on the stage playing himself and then organized a troupe of cowboy and Indian actors to reenact actual events in western history. In 1882 he organized “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” which toured America and the world for the next three decades. The presumed authenticity of historic reenactments was the highlight of Cody’s show. Hunters chased buffalo, Indians attacked the Deadwood stage, and the Pony Express once again delivered the mail to isolated frontier outposts. The climax was a staging of “Custer’s Last Fight,” with Cody arriving just after Custer’s demise, the words “Too Late” projected by lantern slide on a background screen. In the grand finale, Cody led a galloping victory lap of all the company’s players—“The Congress of Rough Riders of the World”—with the American flag proudly flying in the company van. The whole spectacle, in the words of the souvenir program, was designed to illustrate “the inevitable law of the survival of the fittest.”

Cody’s Wild West led directly to motion pictures. The Great Train Robbery (1903), the first movie to tell a complete story, was also the first movie Western. Based on the real-life holdup by an outlaw gang known as the Wild Bunch, the plot built on the formula Cody pioneered: a dastardly attack, a dramatic chase, and a violent climactic shoot-out. In the film’s final image, one of the outlaws points his gun directly at the audience and fires. People were thrilled and the film was an enormous success. Westerns quickly came to dominate the output of American filmmakers, and over the next sixty years Westerns made up a third or more of all the films produced in the United States.

The Western had always been preoccupied with gender, and in the twentieth century movie Westerns became a primary source for popular images of American masculinity. A good example is Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1903), the most influential and widely read of all Western novels, which was filmed several times, most famously in 1929, with Gary Cooper in the title role. Both novel and film are staged as a series of tests of the hero’s manhood. He rides at the head of a posse that lynches a group of cattle rustlers, including his own best friend. Years before they had ridden together as wild and woolly cowboys, but the Virginian has come to see that frontier conditions are passing away. Later he is forced to confront a threatening outlaw. But the central test is his courtship of Molly, the eastern schoolmarm who comes west to find “a man who was a man.” Despite her plea that he reject violence, the Virginian meets the villain in a prototypical Western gunfight and shoots him dead. Molly and the audience are forced to accept his code of honor. There seems little doubt that the primary audience for the Virginian and other Westerns was male. The masculine world of the cowboy was especially attractive to boys feeling constrained by the authoritarian controls of childhood.

One of the most celebrated of all Western movies was Stagecoach (1939), directed by John Ford, the widely acknowledged master of the genre. A dangerous journey through Apache country throws together a colorful cast of characters drawn directly from dime novels and pulp fiction: a gunman seeking revenge (John Wayne, in the role that made him a star), a whore with a heart of gold, an alcoholic doctor, a respectable Army wife, an aristocratic southerner, and a venal banker. The film includes scenes shot in spectacular Monument Valley on the Navajo reservation, with its fantastic buttes towering above the desert. There is a wonderful stunt sequence in which renegade Apaches (played by local Navajos) chase the stagecoach through the desert until the day is saved by the last-minute arrival of the cavalry. Director Ford manipulates and recombines these conventional elements into a film that amounts to considerably more than the sum of its parts. He skillfully reveals the “civilized” members of the party as snobs, hypocrites, or crooks, and recruits audience sympathy for the outcasts, who become the heroes of the melodrama. In the end the gunman and the whore ride off to spend their lives together on a ranch in Mexico, “saved from the blessings of civilization,” as one of the characters puts it. The film celebrates westering while simultaneously debunking the civilization brought to the West by the East. Stagecoach is able to have it both ways, which is the way the Western has always wanted to tell the story of America.

In the years following World War II, Westerns remained the most popular American story form. Western paperbacks flew off the racks at the rate of thirty-five million copies a year, and Western movies remained popular. From 1945 through the mid-1960s, Hollywood studios produced an average of seventy-five Western pictures each year, a quarter of all films released. Westerns also dominated television programming during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1958, for example, twenty-eight prime-time Westerns provided more than seventeen hours of gunplay each week. The administration of justice on these shows was always swift. Lawyers and judges were rarely seen on camera. The Western didn’t give a hoot for civil liberties.

Westerns thus had their political side. Most clearly, they were a vehicle for promoting America’s role in the Cold War. Metaphors of Western violence—showdowns, hired guns, last stands—permeated the language of postwar politics. “Would a Wyatt Earp stop at the 38th Parallel in Korea when the rustlers were escaping with his herd?” a conservative commentator asked in 1958. “Would a Marshal Dillon refuse to allow his deputies to use shotguns for their own defense because of the terrible nature of the weapon itself? Ha!” Western analogies continued into the Vietnam era. President Johnson told a reporter that he had gone into Vietnam because, as at the Alamo, “somebody had to get behind the log with those threatened people.” American troops carried these metaphors off to war. The primary object of the fighting, one veteran later recalled, was “the Indian idea: The only good gook is a dead gook.” Reporter Michael Herr wrote of being invited to join an Army company on a search-and-destroy mission. “‘Come on,’ the captain hailed him, ‘we’ll take you out to play cowboys and Indians.’”

The connection between Westerns and political ideology is perhaps best demonstrated by the precipitous demise of the genre amidst the general cultural crisis of the late 1960s and 1970s. Consider the case of filmmaker John Ford. Not since Buffalo Bill had an artist better assembled the components of frontier myth as popular entertainment. But in the final Westerns of his nearly half-century career, Ford’s vision of frontier history turned sour. The Searchers (1956) is an uncompromising study of the devastating effects of Indian hating, and Sergeant Rutledge (1960) is a pathbreaking depiction of the black Buffalo Soldiers in the frontier Army. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) Ford called attention to the good things lost in the civilizing process, and in his final Western, Cheyenne Autumn (1964), he belatedly presented the case for the Indians, exposing the American side of the frontier as murderous and corrupt. Ford’s doubts about the meaning of frontier history became commonplace in the late 1960s, evident in a flood of films exploiting the widening gap between old images and new ideas, most prominently in the “spaghetti Westerns” that featured the young actor Clint Eastwood as The Man with No Name, a completely amoral gunfighter. This cynical approach quickly wore thin, however, and by the late 1970s Westerns had ceased to be a Hollywood staple.

Yet the genre persisted. The 1989 television broadcast of the miniseries Lonesome Dove, based on Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel about the first cattle drive to Montana, was a critical success, a ratings triumph, and a pop-culture phenomenon. The series created a minor revival of the genre. A cable “Westerns Channel” began replaying classic Western movies and TV series, and Hollywood released a series of big-budget features, miniseries, and TV movies that focused on the West. A few of these new productions rose to the standard of Lonesome Dove. Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, winner of the Oscar for Best Picture of 1992, features McMurtry’s revisionist perspective while simultaneously paying tribute to the genre. Lonesome Dove details the heroic efforts of cowboys getting their cattle to Montana, but closes with the surviving hero bitterly reflecting on the toll in human life. Unforgiven fills the screen with violence, but strips that violence of all pretenses to honor, romance, or nobility. “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man,” says Eastwood, in the role of a hardened old gunfighter. “You take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.” These modern Westerns, asking viewers to consider the costs of westering, are true descendants of Daniel Boone.


John Mack Faragher is the Arthur Unobskey Professor of American History and director of the Howard R. Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders at Yale University. His books include Women and Men on the Overland Trail (1979); Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer (1992); and, with Robert V. Hine, The American West: A New Interpretive History (2000) and Frontiers: A Short History of the American West (2007).

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Fantastic read detailing the importance of history in public perception and how the western has influenced the world we live in today.


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