At the heart of the American dream is the idea of the frontier and, integral to that, the myth of the Old West. The cowboy – more than any other figure – has been an iconic image that defined America to itself and to the world.
The western expansion of America began in earnest in the 1830s and over the next fifty years, the west was gradually filled up – to the extent that the empty spaces of Montana or Wyoming have ever been filled. By 1890, virtually every space on the continental USA had been ‘tamed.’ That is to say, Native Americans – defeated as much by disease and starvation as by force of arms – had been deprived of their traditional lands and livelihoods and confined to the reservations and the law – in the form of both Federal marshals and Pinkerton detectives – had asserted itself over the lynch mob vigilantism of the previous years.
But, in the meantime, the idea of the cowboy and the code of the west had achieved mythic proportions and all the disagreeable portions had been literally whitewashed – the contributions of blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans swept away as if they had never existed.
Yet, some estimates put the number of black cowboys as high as one in four; certainly, they represented a far greater number than were ever portrayed in popular novels (in the 19th Century) or the movies of the first half of the 20th. The gear that made the cowboy famous – chaps and lariats – were all adaptations of clothing and tools that Mexican gauchos had been using for several generations.
Cowboy culture is real – if occasionally idealized and exaggerated. No-one who has spent any time in the west and attended even a single rodeo could deny that. But most ranchers I know – and I admit I’ve only met a few – are more likely to wear ball caps as cowboy hats and few, these days, still round up their cattle with horses. It’s not quite a vanished culture but it exists – as do many resource industries – on the fringe of modern life. More to the point, they continue to exist as part of modern life as integrated into modern industrial capitalism as any office or factory worker. After all, who would buy their cattle if there were no cities?
But this myth of the independent cowboy – and most importantly this myth of the pure white west – continues to fuel the ideology of people like the Bundy clan and their band of fellow travellers. They make a show of flashing their guns but, usually, it comes to very little. The most recent rebel stand ended not with a bang but with a whimper and now some of the former occupiers – waiting trial in federal jails – have even talked of law suits against the government – as if the courts ever played a prominent role in the old west (actually they did – but they have no place in the mythology).
I’ve read a western or two in my life – who hasn’t occasionally delved into Zane Grey? I’ve even read some of the speeches of the only real cowboy (movie cowboys don’t count) to occupy the White House. Teddy Roosevelt did as much to establish the western myth as anyone else. Paradoxically, he also did as much to establish a federal presence in the west – through parks and conversation areas – as anyone since. Irony is not dead – it’s gone to live in Oregon.
And that’s ten minutes.