American West - Myth vs. Reality

Myth of the West in a Modern Mass Consumption Society

Some of the things we buy are sold by the myth of the American West. There are quite a few examples for the thesis that the myth behind the American West has been commercialized in some (American) products. The most obvious example are the cigarettes called 'West' along with their slogan 'Test the West'. Cigarettes in general contain the American West in their commercials, mostly often a smoking cowboy is used to praise the product. The consumer is not inhaling smoke but freedom. Another example are the blue jeans we wear not only in our leisure time, but nearly always. Just like the cowboys in the commercials tell, jeans are on the one hand comfortable and on the other hand also a symbol for freedom.

As myths are supposed to be everlasting, it is not surprising that the myth of the American West can still be found today. It is surprising, though, that it is found in Germany, too; but only on the first thought. On second thought, the orientation of Germany towards the American way of life, can be used to explain the adaptation even of America's myths.

The Americans themselves adapted several articles from other countries. After Americanization, the Teddy-Bear (originally made by Margarete Steiff in Giengen, Germany), the 'Original American Pizza' (obviously from Italy) and Coca-Cola (a German drug company originally produced cocaine for the market, but the drink itself was developed in the U.S. as a cure for headache) achieved international success. These products nowadays also symbolize the American way of life and therefore stand for freedom.


The American West built a lot of myths around itself. 'Myths are stories that narrate in an imaginative and symbolic manner the total and basic structures upon which a culture rests. Given this emphasis on what is fundamental to cultural meaning and value, the myth may appear to be fantastic and bizarre, because the mythic story cannot be explained in the terms of the ordinary conventions of the culture. In fact, the ordinary conventions of the culture are understood as having their origins in the myth.'

Some Westerners already were legends at the time they still lived, and legends have to be created. But why are these legends so grateful accepted? On the one hand, because America was a melting pot as well as a country without established law and a legally defined border, organized in a new revolutionizing but nevertheless stable way. On the other hand, American society had a future with ideals but no outrageous history. If it was to survive, it needed something to admire, something to identify with and to set goals towards. The young America built legends and consequently found identity.

Even though myths only include a more or less small part of reality, we should keep in mind, however, that there is no such thing as a historical truth, we always have the subjective view of the source we currently deal with. Some facts are confirmed by a tremendous variety of history books and we therefore can accept them.



There are some historical facts which were a good basis to build up myths. The most scary but also exciting thing during the settlement era was the uncertainty of what to expect beyond the Frontier, because the Frontier truly separated the known from the unknown. People entering the unknown land expected the fulfillment of their wishes, either only satisfaction for curiosity or the beginning of a new and better existence.

Colonization and new land

The emigrants from Europe came to America with nothing, mostly often they were political or religious refugees, attracted by the stories of the wide lands, all to be given away to anyone, certainly not the worst choice for someone with nothing to lose. The thing they had in common was the great economic changes in Europe, the change from feudalism to mercantilism and later to capitalism, that brought up even more problems and forced them to modify their way of life, even though things were changing very slowly. Everyone who emigrated from Europe had to find his own way, followed his own fate, and this is why individualism is very important to America. Settlers and pioneers were born, either legally for their native country or just for themselves and perhaps their followers. Landed property gave especially peasants the hope of freedom and identity as it was the basis for wealth. The race for real estates ended up in the foundation of new cities. The new continent and its never-ending land were basic components of the development away from the old-fashioned feudalism, especially in the beginning of the colonization, as the population density was very low. Feudalism, dominating in Europe over decades, did not have a chance to come up, because it was easy to just move on an get lots of land elsewhere if a vassal had problems with his feudal lord in one region - and this was the reason why it was impossible for feudal lords to establish themselves. And now it was not the inherited land or the land one bought that counted but the conquered new land. Heroic legends developed not only from the hard life of the settlers living on the borderline to the unknown, which was continuously driven further westward in the 18th and 19th century, but also from the discovery of new land. These stories were certainly also picked up by Western authors like Howard Hawk in his 'The Big Sky' (1952). The Westerner therefore is not only a pioneer and settler but also embodies a discoverer looking for new ways through new land with all its beauty not even with the goal to possess but just to get to know it.

Different ways to the West

Going West was dangerous, especially in the very beginning of the settlement. Only the bravest adventurers or those without an existence went West, often. Beginning with the steam boat 'New Orleans' in 1811, a special kind of westward movement on the Mississippi and Missouri River started. Steam boats were a lot faster than the old flatboats. The West, at least the Mississippi, could be reached in an acceptable time. In a short time a net of rivers over a huge territory was developed. In 1819, the 'Western Engineer' was the first steam boat to go the Missouri up until Council Bluffs. In the 1820s, steam boats brought pioneers to Independence, starting point of Oregon and Santa FĂ© Trail.

In 1820, the first regular stagecoaches in the west of the Missouri were put into service. In the following 20 years the service expanded and went from Missouri to New Mexico and even to California. In 1841, the time of the great covered wagon treks to furthest part of the West began. Even within the first two years about 1,000 pioneers traveled via the Oregon Trail from Missouri over the Plains to Willamette Valley at the Columbia River. In 1845, the first step for the installation of a transcontinental railway was made when the New York businessman Asa Whitney obtained a 60 mile land strip from Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean. In 1849, his competitor Thomas Hart Benton also wanted to build a transcontinental railway. In April 1860, freighting and express firm of Russell, Majors and Waddell put the Pony Express to service to connect the East and the West. The Pony Express riders were couriers on horsebacks. The Pony Express carried letters from Missouri to California in 10 days, at least twice as fast as the Overland Mail Company. The route contained 190 stations, about 80 riders and 500 horses were engaged. Because the charges did not meet the costs the system was financially unsuccessful. As the overland telegraph connections were completed, they replaced the Pony Express in October 1861 already. The freighting and express firm went bankrupt.

Red skinned enemies, the Indians

The Indians in the Western movies do not have many things in common with the real ones. It always was the Indians against the white man, whereas arrangements could have been made as the land was in fact wide enough for both. But the Indians endangered the myth of the white man who never was very sensible in tolerating other races than his own. This problem of a lacking tolerance seems to be everlasting, as it still exists today, somehow. So, back then, the red skinned people had to die in large numbers because they were different. Even the Holy Bible did not give any reasons for the existence of red skinned people. It surely would be stereotype to say that every white man was against Indians, there in fact were some voices saying that the Indians were the first to be on the land, so it belonged to them. But this opinion was a minorities'. Most people still thought that 'the only good Indian was a dead Indian'. So the bloody fights continued, and not only against the Indians, but also among the two parties.

The white man vs. the white man

The time the Western stories take place, from about 1850 to 1910, is on the one hand the time of the gold rush, the civil war and the introduction of the law but it also is the time of a recreation of proletariat, an impoverishment of a certain social class, which resulted in higher crime rates, an increasing number of outlaws. Several economic forces, trading companies, banks, lawyers, railroad companies and cattle dealers, rich people even including managers of amusement establishments, with the controversial law on their side pushed the Frontier further west by taking away the current homes of settlers living on the Frontier and forcing them to find themselves a new home. These people had just pushed the Indians back once more from their land, and now themselves could not build up their new existence and protect their recently gained property from others and were forced to move on.

The word Frontier includes 'to front' which means facing something different. There is more than the one Frontier, the one to the unknown, e.g. the Frontier between the first independent pioneers and the followers with economic power, white versus white. It is always the same, whenever someone has discovered something new, everyone wants it and tries to get his hands on it. Behaviors like the gold rush show that everyone tried to get the land before the others. More than half of people in America traveled westwards. Capitalism forced people to act like this, because the maxim of capitalism is to get most, one's possessions are equivalent to one's social status. The pioneers of the first Frontier who did all the discovery were cheated by the pioneers of civilization of the second Frontier. As mentioned before, this deception was legal due to the disputable law.


As the Frontier moved further to the West at the end of the 19th century, criminals and outlaws were becoming the biggest problems in some of the new areas. There were regional differences, of course. Agricultural regions were less affected than for example mining regions as gold has always been a great attraction or vast greens with cattle on it and cattle being equivalent to money. Only few were jealous on plants, and crime often develops out of jealousy. As a matter of fact, the mystery of the Frontier and all its secrets, the wealth of never-ending resources, did lure strange fellows, but it was not as bad as written in certain books, e.g. Abilene, Kansas, a cattle town with the worst reputation, had only seven homicides during the three wild years of 1870 bis 1872. On the other hand, jurisdiction was difficult due to the speed the Frontier was moving and the far-reaching dimensions of the areas. It was easy for criminals to escape into the wide lands, and it was as hard to find witnesses that had not yet moved away. These conditions were the best ever for lawbreakers compared to the situation in Europe.

Due to the increasing violence, especially in the Californian mining regions, people were often forced to take the law in their own hands. These mostly often self-appointed lawmen were called regulators or vigilantes. After brief trials, bold claim jumpers or criminals were often hanged, flogged or driven out of the camp.

Sheriffs and Marshals

Along with the time of the desperadoes came the time of the lawmen, the sheriffs and marshals. This is first because they are antagonists, the good guys versus the bad guys and second because the gap between good and evil is smaller than everyone thinks. Society needs protection from those who break the law, and experienced people are better, so why not converting ex-outlaws into lawmen. This movement was supported by outlaws as being lawman increased the action and was also financially attracting. Therefore, it is not surprising that some of the sheriffs also incorporate the bad guy at a certain time in their lives. Some really changed as they grew older, but some remained always the same and they only changed in the myth.

The executive of the lawmen in the American West divided up into sheriffs, town-marshals, US-marshals and their deputies. The sheriff was elected by the people of a county or town for between 12 months and 4 years. A sheriff executes arrest warrants and judgments, he usually gets money for arrests and also a certain percentage of the taxes he collected. This made the post lucrative. The town-marshal is appointed by the municipality and he can be fired at any time. He can act only within a town and only with legal methods. A town-marshal is responsible for adherence to law and order. Town-marshals are supported in their task by constables. The US-marshal is appointed by the US government and responsible for the protection of federal institutions, e.g. the US post or the US army. All three of them, sheriffs and both marshals, are allowed to appoint deputies.

Even though the image of the lawmen is a good one in films and novels, reality proved to be different. Personal interests and revenge were easier to achieve with a badge on the breast.


The cowboy of the American West, shown in films and novels as a stalwart, romantic hero to the nostalgic public as in Owen Wister's 'The Virginian' (1902), was in fact a poorly paid laborer doing his difficult and monotonous job. Cowboys became important after the mid-1860's, after the Civil war as the range cattle industry developed. The majority of the cowboys came from the South, just because the ranges were in the South, but there also existed cowboys from Northern States. Most of the had fought in the Civil War. There were also blacks and Mexicans that were cowboys, not all of them were whites. The year of a cowboy focused on two events, the roundup and the long drive. Spring and often fall were the times for roundups. The cowboy had to drive the cattle together at a certain location and then the newborn calves were branded and the older animals were castrated and dehorned. Further, the cattle which will be sold on the market are selected.

In the years between 1865 and 1880, approximately 3.5 million cattle were moved in herds ranging from 1,500 to 3,000 animals. The herds went from southern Texas to cattle towns on railroad lines in Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming. The path the cowboys most often took was the Chisholm Trail, which led to Abilene, Kansas. A cowboy normally earned from about $25 to $40 a month for up to 20 hours a day, as he had to move the herds from watering place to watering place during the daytime but in addition had to guard the herd against predators and stampedes during the night.

After 1890, the cattle ranges had been fenced in and the railroad system had extended to remove the need for long cattle drives. Thus, the cowboy era was over. In literature, however, the cowboy era begun and although the upcoming image of a cowboy was not realistic, it continued to dominate the popular stories of the cattle frontier.

Cowboy was used as a invective against all characters who appeared to be asocial, a cowboy was described as a rough guy with stare eyes, putting his trousers in big boots, as defined in the Lippincott's magazine by Laura Winthrop Johnson in 1875. The cowboy's tendency towards violence is not condemned due to its combination with courage, generosity, honesty and a 'strange, paradox code of personal honor' as stated in Scribner's magazine by Henry King in the November 1879 issue. The cowboy is another example for converting something alien into something native. In the 19th century, nothing was less American for the Yankee than the cowboy, and now nothing seems to be more American than 'The Great American Cowboy'. The astonishing thing about the cowboy is that he found freedom without violence, even if H. J. Stammel, a well-known American West expert, wrote that the cowboy had been uncivilized, hard and rough by that time but no type of mankind had ever previously shown us that freedom without violence was neither to achieve nor to defend. This ideology was not created by the historical cowboy, not even by cowboy-related working-literature but by fictional literature, like for example Owen Wister and Zane Grey. Reality shows that freedom can be achieved either by purchase or by denial. The cowboy gained freedom through denial, through ignorance. He ignored ideals like commerce, technology, civilization, Puritanism, highest ideals of American society. On the one hand, he does not take part in this society, but on the other hand does not want to form a outsider society. This individualism fits into the idea of the American Dream and therefore is a good basis for myths.

Women's role

There indeed only was a limited number of women in the Frontier districts as life was hard, dangerous, dirty and uncivilized, unattractive for women. The West was a romantic attraction for men however. But without women, men were doomed. Women who did go West were either attracted by the money or from the hard type. But in some Westerns they are shown as nice-dressed ladies from the city, entering the dust of the Frontier via stagecoach and then immediately feeling uncomfortable.

Real life in fact was hard. According to the stories of Hamlin Garland and other writers, especially pioneer women suffered. The endless strain of hard work, childbearing, and sickness, in addition to the fear of Indian attacks, caused most women to grow old before the age of 40. The loneliness created by the lack of social contact with friends or neighbors for long periods, often months at a time, was even worse.

Ideologies of the American West

Manifest Destiny

The expression 'Manifest Destiny' was created by John L. O'Sullivan in the July-edition of 1845 of 'The United States Magazine and Democratic Review'. 'Manifest Destiny' is the keyword of the American expansion, it has become an ideology. According to O'Sullivan, it is 'the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of out yearly multiplying millions.' He applied to the annexation of Texas, but soon the term was used in the Oregon dispute with Great Britain.

O'Sullivan was of the opinion that the United States should not limit its territorial expansion, and since then historians have discussed whether 'Manifest Destiny' was only a cover for imperialism. The birth of the term was not by any means the birth of the idea of 'Manifest Destiny'. The idea already had played a major role in the War of 1812.

The term 'Manifest Destiny' was used by the Americans as a justification for the territorial expansion of the United States. The term was used to defend the Mexican War (1846 bis 1848), the Alaska Purchase (1867) and the Spanish-American War (1898), all ending in territorial gains for the United States.

Even today America's international policy and it's role as the world's policeman seems to fit in the 'Manifest Destiny' ideology, interfering everywhere in the world and overspreading the globe with the American way of life.

As every place on Earth is populated and American expansion would result in war, America's New Frontier is the space. This development was initiated by John F. Kennedy, America's president from 1961-63, who changed the nation's position towards the conquest of outer space by increasing the political and historical concern. On the one hand, it symbolized America's progress in technology and advance in fancy gadgets that always fascinated Americans, on the other hand, it perfectly represented the idea of 'Manifest Destiny'.

American Dream


Two decades after Columbus went to America, the British Thomas Morus wrote his 'Utopia', the description of a ideal community, perfect in its political, social, as well as economic policy at the same time. In their imagination, people believed this paradise Morus created was in the West. Since that days, people thought a better world could be created in the far widths beyond the Atlantic Ocean. This assumption moved the Protestant Pilgrim fathers in the 17th century as well as the masses of European settlers in the 19th century, it impelled social reform utopians, sectarians of all kinds and refugees of our century to the North American continent.

Natural liberalism seems to be a phenomena that characterized American political thinking from the very beginning when the first colonists arrived. This results from the fact that every place of the Old World witnessed suppression, freedom was hunted all around the globe. The mere thought, the moral demand, to make the New World a home of ratio and freedom can secure the future of humane existence.

There is criticism today, though, because social and economic problems have been increasing. As punk criticizes everything, everywhere, it was not difficult to find critique on the American Dream. Bad Religion, a US punk band, wrote a song called 'American Dream'.


Many American revolutionists and political writers of the 19th century did not see America as a state, it was impossible to believe that the state outshines society. Voices even rose against the phenomena government which was just designed as an instrument of society to secure 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness'. It was safe to rise mistrust, awareness and control against government. This anti-authoritarian attitude showed in the relationship between the young colonies and their home country. After having driven the French out of North America during the Seven-Years' War, the dispute about self-determination continued with England. The War of Independence was in addition to economic interests mainly about whether the colonies are part of the British Empire and therefore accept the British monarch. The war stated that the Americans did not want to sacrifice their newly gained freedom to their old government. What was just fought against should not come up again. The state created after the release from England should have less possible authority and should never restrict freedom. But more than only that, the American Dream also includes political participation, active interest in social life. The idea of public participation did have deep roots at the time of the settlement already and the Americans appeared as a determined community. The widths of the land supported groups and individuals and initiative had to grow where state institutions did not reach. Protestantism with its Calvinistic and sectarian models did assist the idea of self-determination in the New World. Calvin's theory of the sovereignty of the individual found recognition in the right to participate in decisions. In 1690 English philosopher John Locke wrote about the political, social everyday life in North America. This life included a broad spectrum of participation in the self-determination mechanisms in the communities of New England, the initiative and voting on communal projects or district affairs, e.g. the voting on mayors, judges, prosecuting attorneys, sheriffs. There also was the possibility of being active in the loosely organized political parties and much more.


Since the first pioneers proceeded from the coast to the inner continent, until the days that railroads connect the Pacific and the Atlantic ocean, America's history was a history of fighting nature, a history of conquests. The fight was fought by individuals, on uncountable locations at the same time through the separate work of pioneers. One who was not good at physical work was lost. But the power of their task offered new energy and carried the spirit of self-activity to new highs. Historical conditions did already select out the best: only the bravest left their homes and risked to cross the ocean.

This pioneering spirit was an essential part in the formation of the specific American political culture. This pioneering spirit could be summarized as a bundle of ideals, including hard and constant work, modesty, self-discipline, spontaneity and initiative, all in all success-oriented attitudes as fundamental characteristics of a meaningful life. American sociologist Thorstein Veblen wrote in his 'Theory of the Leisure Class' (1899) that the principal interest of a modern society, like the United States, is the industrial productivity. The benefit of individual to the society is proportional to his productive work. Attitudes like honor, diligence, peaceableness, good will and altruism are best for the collective interest. Because of the gold rush, Americans had to deal with the prejudice of being avaricious. A remarkable point is that the American does not appreciate money he did not earn by himself. Examples are easily found: in America, there is no such thing as dowry. Another example is the way the American despises the lottery Europeans appreciate.

The belief in progress was a thing all Americans had in common. Optimism and the faith in a better future, the theory that everything was getting constantly better, the increase of the average way of life. This thought developed out of common happiness and individual success. Progress was not only an idea, but part of the everyday life.


Alexis de Tocqueville understood the thought of equality as the basic attribute of the political culture of America. The equality of opportunity was the main source all facts can be explained with. At the time of Tocqueville the equality of chances was not given in Europe. Although America was meant to remain the land of opportunity, times changed. Individual diligence and skills were used to explain social differences, but the opportunities to success were the same to everyone. The equal chances theory is supported by the school system in the United States as education was seen as a way of achieving equal opportunities for all. This school system essentially still exists today.

Marxism, not even socialism had a chance to establish in the United States, because there are no different classes, everyone ever was equal. As this equality was only granted in the beginning of the history of the United States, socialist and Marxist parties did form during the last centuries, but they remained without political influence. Equality in political participation, as well as equality in front of the law was realized early in the United States.

In the 20th century, the expression 'melting pot' developed out of this idea of equality. 'Melting pot' describes America as one nation full of different people who are equal and integrated. But nowadays, the preferred term of describing America changed from 'melting pot' to 'salad bowl'. In a salad bowl, everything is together, but not the same or equal.

Mixture of Myth and Reality


As a myth is always based on reality, it is easy to understand that the following characters also did exist in reality. But they have not too much in common with the mythologized examples.

But why did lawbreakers advance to heroes in the myth? The answer lies probably in the acceptation of the Robin Hood pattern, a criminal who wants to compensate for the corruption and inequity of the world. Another theory is the appeal for the anti-hero who does no good even with pleasure, but we all would secretly like to do once. A third theory is by Richard Whitehalls and bases on the Marxist theory. According to Whitehalls, it was the capitalistic society who forced the gangsters to act accordingly to capitalism, with money being the highest goal. So, if somebody becomes an outlaw, it is not the individual's mistake but society's fault.

Another myth which probably reflects the opposite of what history proved, is the myth around the Indians. It incredibly also consists of an erotic component in addition to the historical and religious elements. The Indian woman means salvation for the white man, she brings the races closer to each other by giving the white man the change to end his escape from civilization and therefore from the white woman. The white woman, however, always shows her pride and superiority over the red skins and seems to be a martyr. The basic component of these legends are the story of Hannah Duston who was kidnapped by Indians as a child and found her way to freedom with a tomahawk. The strength of this woman raises fear in men. To make the woman act right and to justify the hatred against the Indians, certain attributes are connected with the Indians, making the evil, e.g. they kill children by holding their feet and smashing their heads against trees. They take women in principle violently.

Women are not divided into good and evil, probably because there were only few of them and so every female was accepted. Women are always good and beloved, you at least have pity on them, no matter what social status they have. It is only the men that can be evil. This is a spin of the biblical situation, in which Adam is tempted by Eve. Anglo-Saxon Puritanism turns the case due to the pressure of the historical circumstances. The moral depravity of the woman in the West always is the fault of male desire. This obviously originates from the primitive sociology of the American West, in which the few women and the dangers of the rough life forced society to protect women. And to protect the women, the positive force of the myth was needed. The myth shows the woman as the keeper of the social virtues, mostly needed by the disordered world of the West. Women not only guarantee a physical future but also moral basics by holding the family together.


In April 1607, 105 British colonists landed on Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, and founded Jamestown which became the first British colony on American territory. The leader of the expedition, Edward Maria Wingfield, was quickly outrun by Captain John Smith, an experienced, energetic and intelligent adventurer. Most of the time, the settlers lived in peace with the local Indians, the Powhatan, led by Wahunsonacook. Once in a while, there were riots. In 1608, it happened once that John Smith was again on one of many discovery-tours, was captured by the Powhatans, and was about to be sacrificed. According to Smith's account in his 'Generall Historie of Virginia, New England and the Summer Islands' (1624), he was set before an altar stone to be killed as his head was to be hit by a club, but the 13 year old daughter of the chief of the Powhatan confederacy entered his life. After having recognized that her begging was in vain she took Smith's head in her arm and laid her head on his to prevent him from being killed. This daughter was Maotaka, more famous as Pocahontas, her name given by the white man. As John Smith was the only witness, it was easy for a myth to come up. Some critics doubt the truth of Smith's story, others believe that the whole ceremony was an initiation- and adoption-ritual with Pocahontas being the godmother.

A proof that the myth appears to be timeless is the currently released animated cartoon by Walt Disney Pictures, simply called 'Pocahontas'.

Another confirmation that the myth of Pocahontas seems to be everlasting is the fact that one of Elvis Presley's famous songs, 'Fever', deals with the topic. It is a mythologized and pretty abstract version, though.

Sitting Bull

In the year 1834 (some sources give the years 1831 and 1844), Tatanka Iyotake, the legendary Sioux leader of the Hunkpapa Lakota group, was born on Grand River, South Dakota. He distinguished himself by his abilities as a hunter and fighter as well as his opposition without compromise against the invasion of the white man. He not only stopped the white intruders from trespassing on Indian lands but also fought against hostile tribes. He had the most precious virtues among the Sioux: bravery, fortitude, generosity, and wisdom.

He resisted against surrendering or selling land or mining rights in the Black Hills after a gold was found there in the midst of the 1870s. He and his friends, chief Crazy Horse and chief Gall, are famous for successfully defeating General Custer at the Little Bighorn in 1876. After the attack, Sitting Bull escaped to Canada and stayed there until 1881. After his return, he had to go to jail for two years before going back to Standing Rock Reservation. He permitted his people to join a racist, obviously anti-white, cult called Ghost Dance and as a result was arrested once more. He was killed in the upcoming riots by Indian police.

Daniel Boone

On November 2, 1734, Daniel Boone was born in Pennsylvania, the prototype of the legendary pioneer who is a fine example for a white man being cheated by white men. In 1769, Daniel Boone and his family and friends set off to the dark and bloody grounds of Kentucky through the Cumberland Gap, a pass found by Dr. Thomas Walker in 1750. They stayed there for about two years, hunt and discover the land, even got temporarily captured by Blackfish, chief of the Shawnee-Indians. In 1775, Daniel Boone founded Boonesborough but more importantly signed a contract with the Cherokees which bound them to sell a huge territory alongside the Kentucky-river for 10,000 pounds (in wares). A heroic tale about Daniel Boone is that, in 1776, his daughter was kidnapped out of Boonesborough by Indians, and he managed to rescue her and get her back. But now, back to the tragic part: after having done the main part of the discovery of Kentucky, lawyers were telling him during long trials that his claims to the land were questionable. So he had to leave the land which could never have become part of the Frontier at that time without his help and had to look for a new home. According to the myth, he left Kentucky with the words 'too many people, I need elbow room', but in reality, of course, he was forced to leave. He nevertheless had a long life afterwards and died on September 26, 1820.

Henry T. P. Comstock

A fine example for the white man getting overrun by the white man is Johann August Sutter who was building up his empire of agriculture in California, but then the gold rush came. Although the diggers for gold ruined him, they themselves had to leave the gold for mightier ones. One man who made an unfortunate deal with a mine was Henry T. P. Comstock who went on the search on a rented pony and found silver in the Six Mile Canyon in California, the Comstock Lode, which was obviously named after him and which is the richest silver-mining region of its size in the history of the United States. He sold his claim for $ 11,500, which shortly after that gained a market value of about $ 80 million. Like elsewhere, it were the ones that came later that made the real profits, the bank, mine owners and dealers. Competition between the railroad companies also cost lots of lives. Those companies built up their private armies to shoot and sabotage each other, just to be the leader or even have the monopoly in transportation.

Billy the Kid

Billy the Kid is probably the best known of the several aliases of William H. Bonney, alias Henry McCarty alias Henry Antrim, a New Mexico outlaw who became a legend. He was born in New York City on November 23, 1859. After the death of his father, whom Henry had never known, Henry's mother, Catherine McCarty, took him and his brother Joseph and moved away from New York, first to Indianapolis, then to Wichita, followed by Denver, over to New Orleans, and finally to Santa FĂ© where she found a new husband, William Henry Antrim. When she died of consumption in 1874, Henry was on his own, because his stepfather did not care for him. This material was enough to create a legend out of this person's neuroses. On August 17, 1877, he commits his first crime, making him a killer. The facts were stereotype: the location was George Adkin's Saloon, Grant City, Pima County, Arizona, the opponent was an Irish blacksmith, E. P. Cahill, who was known as a rude fellow and who had beaten Billy (at that time he already called himself Billy) more than once. Justice won again. Billy fled over Georgetown to Lincoln County, New Mexico, where he found work at John Tunstall's, a Rancher. Billy the Kid became involved in the Lincoln County War which came up after the murder of John Tunstall who had been fighting against the monopoly enterprise L. G. Murphy & Co. Tunstall's men, i.e. Billy and his gang, now played the role of regulators and hunted the murderers of Tunstall, killed some of Murphy's men including Sheriff Brady. On April 4, 1881, he was captured and sentenced to death. He escaped from jail, killing two guards, but was trapped and shot to death on July 13, 1881.

Jesse James

Jesse James, who was born in Clay County, Montana on September 5, 1847, was an outlaw, famous for his Robin Hood reputation, in the myth at least. Chronists came to the conclusion that Jesse did not only take from the rich and he certainly did not give the money away. After the early death of his father, he was brought up together with his four years older brother Frank by his mother Zeralda, who later married a doctor, Reuben Samuel. During the Civil War, at 15 years of age, he fought on the side of pro-Confederate guerrillas led by William C. Quantrill.

After the war, he used his experiences in a gang with his brother Frank and others, robbing banks, stagecoaches and trains, beginning on February 13,1866 when Jesse robbed the Clay County Savings Bank in Liberty, Missouri. He took 60,000 US-Dollar in gold. He locked the clerk in a closet, and according to the myth, he used the words 'birds should be caged'. In 1869, Jesse became supraregionally famous for a bank robbery in which the clerk was killed. He gained sympathy in 1875, when the Pinkerton-detectives surrounded the house of Jesse's stepfather, thinking Jesse would be there. Jesse's stepbrother was killed and his mother was mutilated. But, he and his gang were luckily successful until 1876, when the gang was decimated as the were trying to rob a bank in Northfiled, Minnesota. The Jesse brothers could escape, though, and together form a new gang. But only six years later, on April 3, 1882, Jesse James was shot for a reward by Robert Ford, a fellow gang member.

After his death, a folksong went around the country, according to which Jesse was a hero, who was betrayed by Robert Ford. It shows the sympathy Jesse James had on the side of the people, taking up the Robin Hood reputation.

Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid

In the year 1866, in the year of the first train robbery, the most famous one of the later train robbers, Butch Cassidy, was born as Robert Leroy Parker, son of a Mormon teacher in American Falls, Utah. He gave himself the name Cassidy after his first teacher, Rustler Mike Cassidy. At the age of 16, Butch was said to be the best marksman of the valley. In 1883, he was arrested for the first time for stealing a saddle, but he could escape to Colorado before the trial took place. On November 3, 1887, Butch Cassidy teamed up with the McCarty brothers to do his first train robbery at Grand Junction, Colorado. But as the guard refused to open the safe, they let him alive and let the train pass. This was typical for Butch Cassidy and made him so popular. After a robbery of two banks in 1889, he joined the legal path working on ranches in Wyoming until 1892.

His fellow Sundance Kid alias Harry Longbaugh came from Plainfield, New Jersey, and was caught stealing horses as a child, therefore was imprisoned in Sundance, Wyoming, for 18 month, and since ever then called the Sundance Kid. He robbed a train near Malta, Montana, together with two unemployed cowboys in 1892. Soon later, he met Butch Cassidy with whom he started working.

After Butch Cassidy was imprisoned because of horse stealing in 1894, he went to jail until 1896. From now on, he and his friends, first of all Sundance Kid, robbed trains and banks for years. This worked fine, until they were caught and shot by militia forces in a mine in Alpoca, Bolivia, in 1909.

Their relatives, though, say it was not them being shot in the mines but other outlaws, and Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid returned home, Butch living until 1937 whereas Sundance Kid lived until 1957. This version is not considered reliable in any way by historians but it shows how the Americans want to keep the myth alive.

Wyatt Earp

On March 19, 1848, Wyatt Benny Stapp Earp was born in Monmouth, Illinois. He was a gambler, saloonkeeper, and sometimes lawman, and was famous for his gunfighting skills in the American West. After the Civil War, he worked as a teamster, buffalo hunter and policeman in Missouri and Kansas. In 1873, Wyatt Earp went to Ellsworth to begin his questioned career as a lawman. He, in fact, told his biographer in 1928 that he took part in the Battle of Ellsworth and arrested some of the villains because, according to himself, the deputies were too scared. But history shows that he actually just arrived in the town in the summer of 1873 as a buffalo hunter and could therefore only have been a spectator at the Battle of Ellsworth. Appropriation of great behavior, which is only invention, is typical for self-mythologizing. In May of 1876, Earp became Assistant Marshal in Dodge City, Ford County, Kansas, which was known as 'cowboy capital of the world' as it was the main trading place for cattle. As business was growing, the town also had a large amusement district. In the year 1880, Wyatt Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and his friend John 'Doc' Holliday became involved in a dispute with the Clanton family. In the resulting famous gunfight at the OK Corral on October 26, 1881, Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury were killed. In the following feud, Morgan was murdered, but Wyatt killed three men in retaliation. Wyatt Earp died on January 13, 1929.

The myth about Wyatt Earp is another one which seems to be both well-established and timeless as it looked like either the myth or Kevin Costner, the actor of the main character, helped to sell the film 'Wyatt Earp', a Hollywood production, released by Time Warner in 1994.

Doc Holliday

There is another man, who is often directly associated with Wyatt Earp, as they were friends. His name is John Henry 'Doc' Holliday and he was born in the year 1849. Holliday learned dentist in the East, and went to Texas due to a lung disease. In Texas, he was not very successful as a dentist but he made himself a name as a gambler. In 1878, he killed a man called Ed Bailey in a saloon in Fort Griffin because of a poker game. As prison cells were lacking, Holliday was imprisoned in a hotel room, from which he was rescued by his girl friend 'Bignose' Kate Fisher who set the hotel on fire and overwhelmed the guards in the chaos. Holliday met Wyatt Earp in Dodge City shortly later and they became friends. Doc Holliday shot Wyatt Earp free, when he was threatened by a band of rustlers. Doc supported Wyatt in the OK Corral incident of 1881. He died of his lung disease in 1887. According to different sources his last words were either 'Well, I'll be damned' or 'This is funny!', both ways, he died a hero. And he definitely was a hero, according to the myth.

James Butler 'Wild Bill' Hickok

Born in Troy Grove, Illinois on May 27, 1837, James Butler Hickok was famous for his shooting skills as a fighter against Indians and as a Frontier marshal. At the age of 18, he left his home, the family farm, in Illinois and traveled westwards. In Nebraska Territory he had a shooting with the McCanles gang, in which three gang members were killed. During the Civil War, he was a federal scout. After the war he became famous as a federal marshal in Kansas. He went on tour with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, astonished eastern audiences with his marksmanship. Wild Bill was killed by a shot from behind while playing poker in a saloon in Deadwood, Dakota Territory on August 2, 1876.

Buffalo Bill

On February 26, 1846, William F. Cody, a man who was involved in the expansion of the United States and helped shaping the image of the Frontier was born in LeClair, Iowa. He moved with his family from Iowa to Kansas and later rode for the Pony Express. He fought in the Civil War for only a short time. He gained his famous nickname Buffalo Bill when he supplied buffalo meat for workers on the Kansas Pacific Railroad in 1867-68. He participated in several Indian fights between 1868 and 1872 as chief of scouts for the Fifth US Cavalry.

His career changed in 1869, when he became the main character of a dime novel. Afterwards, he appeared in theatrical melodramas, touring successfully for 11 years. In the year 1883, he arranged a Wild West show including Indian fights, roundups, stage robberies and buffalo hunts. This Wild West show toured Europe and the United States until 1913. Then, Cody retired until he died on January 10, 1917.


Separation of reality and myth has never been easy. After all, it is also a matter of perspective. But as history ages, and history books are rewritten, it becomes even more difficult to divide myth and reality. It seems that the myth is easier to memorize and remember than reality, because the myth on the one hand reflects an ideology and on the other hand reality always seemed to be boring compared to the fantastic stories of the myth. Everyone seeming interesting, different, brave in reality was mythologized, e.g. even the mountain men, fur hunters in the mountains, were legends.

From West to Western

The myths of the West, especially the West during the settlement era, which this research paper is mainly about, are also a favorite topic of literature, novels and films. Many Western books have been written. The Western is the genre most films deal with. The Western is as old as the Americans themselves. As the roots of the genre lie in the roots of the nation, lots of things have been added and changed into a more positive point of view. Mostly often today's society is only put in the environment of the settlement era. But nevertheless, Westerns have nearly always promised a large profit.

Traditionally, Edwin S. Porter's 'The Great Train Robbery' is said to be the first Western. Even though the plot is only about a simple law-breaker affair, a train robbery, the movie is added to the Western genre because the action takes place in the American West. The Western generally acclaims certain themes in addition to the setting, starring scouts, trappers, ranchers, Indians, marksmen, single women especially saloon- or dancing girls as a reward for the hero. The Western deals with situations, the wide lands brought along, e.g. Indian fights or the gold rush. The Western sometimes seems to be questionable as it seemed to be fashion to let the stagecoach pass before chasing it and then rob it. Another doubtful element is the fact that it was often possible for men to fire deadly shots on another man several hundred meters away. But the Western can also inform as it shows that the fight against the Indians was often very bloody, that the United States did break treaties with the Indians, that businessmen cooperated with gangsters, that gold diggers were shot by others who then took the claim, that there were only few women, and so on.

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