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Wild West Readings

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Paul Christensen, “The ‘Wild West’: The Life and Death of a Myth”

Kevin Britz, “Boot Hill Burlesque”: The Frontier Cemetery as Tourist Attraction in Tombstone, Arizona and Dodge City, Kansas.”

1. According to Britz, how did the memorializing Dodge City and Tombstone differ? (In other words, how did they differ in recreating their past?) What was the overall goal of these two towns in highlighting their history?

2. Why did Boot Hill hold such significance to these two towns? What were some of the problems with memorializing Boot Hill?

3. How does the “Frontier Myth” relate to the Wild West – according to Christensen?

4. What function do myths provide to a nation and its citizenry? Why are they necessary in other words? How does all this fit into the West being settled?

The Wild West?


The Mythic West

American myths of the “Old West” tend to emphasize its lawlessness

Popular memory dictates that

Gunslingers were everywhere

Shootouts were common

Stagecoach and bank robberies were frequent

West was a society in which might made right

Competing Views of the WEst

Historians disagree about how violent and lawless the West actually was

Some historians emphasize that violence is a myth

Claim that many historians have merely asserted violence and tried to explain it rather than proving it

Claim that mutual cooperation and self-governance were the rule of the West rather than the exception

Other historians assert that violence was extremely common in the West

Point to high homicide rates

How Wild Was the West?

The West was unusually violent for its time period and certainly violent by today’s standards

Murder rates were tremendously high

However, much of the violence in the West was not the type of violence that we imagine

Much of it was racial violence or drunken brawling rather than organized gunfighting

Many crimes like robbery were rarer in the West than we might think

Homicides in Early California

Gold Rush California was extremely violent

Between 1852 and 1855, the murder rate in Los Angeles was 331 per 100,00 people

People who lived in Los Angeles during those 4 years had a 1 in 76 chance of being murdered

Homicide Rates in the Mid-19th-Century West

Many mining towns had extremely high rates of homicide in their early years

Rates tapered off as time went on

Cattle towns also tended to have high murder rates

People who lived in Dodge City during its first decade had a 1 in 61 chance of being murdered

Comparison of Murder Rates

To give you a sense of how high the murder rates were in the West…

U.S. officials in the 1980s panicked when the homicide rate in Miami hit 36 per 100,000

In 19th century New York, the murder rate was 15 per 100,000

Only the Red River Delta of Louisiana, at 193 murders per 100,000 people, rivaled the West

Realities of Violence

Much of the violence that occurred took the form of drunken bawls rather than formal gunfights

Moreover, much of the violence was racial in nature rather than a result of personal conflicts

Aurora, Colorado: 17 people died from violence arising from personal conflicts; 200 Indians and 30 white people died as a result of racial violence

This was a common pattern; a great deal of violence resulted from land grabs and tensions between diverse ethnic groups (Mexicans and Tejanos, Chinese Immigrants, whites, people of European descent, and Native Americans)

Native Americans and Violence

Native Americans in the West often lived in or traded within white settlements, but tensions over land encroachment did occur frequently

“Indian Hunting” was also common practice, particularly in early California

4,500 Indians slayed between 1848 and 1880

Hi Good and Robert Anderson slaughtered Yahi people

By 1872, they and other Indian hunters had decreased the Indian population of the area from its original 2,000-3,000 people to fewer than 50

Anti-Chinese Violence

Violence against Chinese immigrants became common in the 1870s and 1880s

As Chinese laborers flocked to Western cities, white laborers responded with hostility

“Anti-Coolie” societies perpetuated violence against Chinese immigrants

1885: White mob in Rock Spring, Wyoming massacred 25 Chinese residents and burned Chinese section of town to the ground

Between 1890 and 1900, Chinese population of CA fell by about 1/3 as a result of racial hostility and restrictive immigration and labor policies

Mexican Settlers in the West

There was also extensive violence between Mexican settlers to the West and white settlers

Cortina War of 1859 in South Texas:

Texas Rangers policed and fought Indian and Mexican population

Juan Cortina, son of prominent Tejano family, saw a local sheriff pistol whip a Mexican laborer and shot him

He fled, but brought 60 men back to Brownsville, TX

Freed Mexican prisoners, sacked white-owned shops, and executed four white people who had murdered people of Mexican descent

War broke out between Cortina’s forces and the Texas Rangers (and eventually the U.S. Army)

Realities of Violence

Stagecoach robberies were not common

Bank robbery was also rare

Theft was uncommon

The only crime besides murder that was decided common was prostitution

Prostitution in the WEst

Brothels were common in frontier towns

Josephine Airey, a Chicago native who moved to Helena, MT and opened a famous brothel became one of the largest landowners in Montana

Lou Graham, Seattle brothel keeper, became one of the largest landowners in the Pacific Northwest

Helped to fund public school district

Madam Anna Wilson of Omaha donated her house to the town after her death so it could be used as a hospital

Why The West was Wild

The West was a unusually pluralistic region

West was heavily demographically male

Many men lived nomadic lives as cattlemen; when they came into towns seasonally, they usually liked to take advantage of the occasion

Extensive drinking and brawling in cattle towns

There was an absence of governmental structure

There was an increase in governmental structure

Frontier Thesis of Violence

The West was wild because it was a frontier region where government was largely absent

Men were encouraged to settle disputes between themselves (similar to theory about violence in the backcountry)

Some people actually argue that Southerners seeking new land transmitted honor culture to the West

War of Incorporation Thesis

Advanced by historian Richard Maxwell Brown

Argued that violence occurred not because the West was an uncivilized, open frontier, but rather because there were forces emerging that threatened to make it more like the Eastern United States

Wars of Incorporation (according to Brown):

Early wars of incorporation were Indian wars

Later wars of incorporation were between people who wanted to integrate the West into Eastern economic networks and national governmental structures

Political Differences

Incorporation Gunfighters:

Examples: Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill

Often from Northern Republican stock

Generally supported efforts to incorporate Western towns

Supported policies to make them more friendly to business and capital investments

Political Differences

Resistance Gunfighters:

Examples: Billy the Kid, Jesse James

Often from Southern or Texan Democratic stock

Opposed, or were perceived as opposing, the encroachment of Eastern capitalistic and commercial forces on rural life of the West

Tonto BasIn War

Took place in Gila County, AZ, 1886-1887

Was mainly a feud between two cattle herding families, the Tewksburys and the Grahams

Disputes over water and grazing rights and race (Tewksburys were part Shoshone) but also over politics

Tewksbury family was Democratic

“Cornbread and cheap living”

Grahams were Republicans

“Wheat and Work”

Eastern Influences

Jesse James, who is often associated with the Wild West, was actually in many ways a product of a very Eastern-oriented conflict: the Civil War

James had been a guerilla fighter in Missouri during the war

James brothers carried their violence over to peacetime, which embittered them because radical Republicans took control of Missouri

Myth or reality

So was the West wild? I think you can argue it either way.

At least until incorporation, the West was wild, but once people started settling the region (town) then instituting government controls and societal standards took over.

A lot of what we think of the West actually comes from Hollywood. Actually, the West had some of the strictest gun control.

Railroad companies, travel agencies, the media, and real estate moguls ”sold” the West as exotic and adventurous. Continued well into the 20th century.

In reality though, the West was extremely violent for people of color and immigrants (specifically Asian immigrants). Along the border, Texas Rangers hunted and killed Mexicans. African Americans and Native Americans forced into slavery, children taken away and apprenticed. Asians would be barred from entering the country in 1882.

Violence in the West

Anti Chinese political cartoon on the left. The Texas Rangers posing in front of murdered Mexicans.

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