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  • Claire Thomson

John Wayne Lied to You: The Myth of the American West

Cowboys are as American as apple pie (but less edible). It's no secret that the myth of the cowboy, and the dangerously exciting Western frontier he inhabited, is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. Look no further than the prevalence of the Western movie in American popular culture. While you're looking at the films, primarily those from around the 1950s, take a moment to consider who gets to play the leading cowboy in these stories. Whether it be John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, or Richard Boone, there's one glaringly obvious similarity between the household names of Western-genre actors: they're white guys (shocking, I know). Some of them (cough, cough, John Wayne) were pretty racist white guys. It's easy to imagine how one's perception of the historical West could be influenced by the biased media Americans have been consuming for the past several centuries.


Now, the American West is not a clearly delineated time and location, because there was no sharp transition from what we might consider the frontier to a "civilized" society, and this gray space is what we fill with cowboys and saloons. As the country gradually expanded outward, what was considered "west" moved closer and closer to California. Similarly, the myth of the Wild American West isn't restricted to a specific span of years or states, and the idea of the frontier is a malleable concept which can be viewed from a variety of different angles. Most Westerns are set in the latter half of the 1800s, after the Civil War, but even then the timeline is blurry. Regardless, the common Western tropes of outlaws and sheriffs or cowboys and Native Americans are gross misrepresentations and oversimplifications of the frontier. The era we now consider the Wild West was much more diverse and complex than it is given credit for in popular culture, and how this time period has been represented in media reveals much about America's reckoning with issues of identity.


First, let's make sure we're all on the same page about what a cowboy actually is, because they weren't lone men on horseback roaming around getting into shoot-outs and bar fights. In fact, "the total number of deaths by gunshot in all the major cattle towns put together between 1870 and 1885… was 45, or an average of 1.5 per cattle-trading season" – meaning there wasn't a lot of gunslinging going on [1]. Cowboys were basically just hired livestock wranglers, brought on by ranchers to move cattle from one place to another. Their techniques and culture largely came from Mexican vaqueros (a term for wranglers that literally translates into "cow men"), who interacted and mingled with recently arrived English settlers in Texas. During cattle drives following the Civil War, "most cowboys in south Texas were Hispanic, and by one estimate, one in three cowboys in the late 1800s was a Mexican vaquero [2, 3]. Being a cowboy was a good career decision during this time period, but the need for cattle herders began to decline around the turn of the 20th century, as the cattle industry began to modernize and livestock simply didn't need to be herded. However, the heyday of the cowboy was an undoubtedly sufficient span of time to embed the cowboy into the American identity – and for these farmhands to be warped into macho symbols of independence and the rugged wilderness.

Cowboys and cattle in South Dakota, 1887


When did this happen? Over the course of many, many years. The myth of the West has been rewritten and retold pretty much continuously, ever since the inception of the frontier. Even as the history of the frontier was being written, people were writing dimestore novels about it [4]. Daniel Boone emerged as a folk hero in the 1780s, while he was still very much alive. The Adventures of Col. Daniel Boone, published in 1782, portrayed Boone as "the archetypal frontier hero, the leading man in a unique narrative tradition that would come to be known as the 'western'" [5]. Already, the American consciousness was grabbing hold of frontier heroes and cowboys who embodied traits of rugged independence and survival, who took what they believed they were owed. From there, stories of white frontiersmen going on dashing adventures against the wilderness and against the Native Americans who rightfully laid claim to it grew and evolved into the cowboys we know today. In more recent history, figures like Theodore Roosevelt (yes, the one who was president) capitalized on the image of the cowboy for their own political gain, further cementing the myth of the West into the American psyche [6]. Roosevelt and others portrayed themselves as men of the wilderness and the countryside, using an image of strength and ruggedness to appeal to that part of the public still enamored with the ideals of the Western cowboy [7]. Over time, cowboys became more of a symbol of American expansionism and less of 'just some guys doing an actual difficult and unglamorous career.' And this symbol was problematic in a lot of ways: as writer Eric Hobsbawm explains, "the invented cowboy tradition is part of the rise of both segregation and anti-immigrant racism; this is a dangerous heritage" [8].


One impossible-to-overlook issue with common Western tropes and media is the portrayal of indigenous Americans. The cowboys vs. Native Americans conflict is often central to stories of the West, so much so that little kids learn this game as a counterpart to sharks and minnows–a disturbing tradition. This dichotomy portrays a world in which cowboys are the natural enemy of indigenous Americans. In a way, they were. Cowboys and frontiersmen inherently represent expansionism, and it's easy to see how the white settlers victimized the native peoples living on the land the settlers decided they wanted to manifest some destiny on. However, Western media – especially from earlier eras, because people today are a bit better at being decent humans – often sets up a contrast between "uncivilized" Native Americans and the colonizing white settlers. To complicate matters further, in real life, cowboys and Native Americans were not mutually exclusive identities. When herding cattle from south to north was a common practice, Native Americans often joined cattle driving crews as they headed up the trail [9].


The larger question, of course, is what does it mean for a group to be uncivilized? If we look through the lens of (methodological) cultural relativism, there's no such thing as an "uncultured" or "lower" form of society; there are only actions which must be considered in the context of their culture [10]. As the historian Robert Hine discusses, "Colonizers may have thought of them [the Native Americans] as inferior, but foragers considered their way of life superior to any other" [11, 12]. Even though most of us can probably spot and avoid blatant racism these days, the subtler cultural myths about what makes a society "civilized" are also loaded with racial prejudice.


There's also plenty of racism when it comes to depictions of the cowboys themselves, who were most often portrayed as white on the silver screen. In fact, there were plenty of Black cowboys out there during the late 1800s and early 1900s! Dr. Roger Hardaway, a scholar of African American history in the West, argues that "perhaps the biggest discrepancy between the myth and the reality of the cowboy legend was that the black cowboys were almost totally ignored by… the Hollywood movie sets" [13]. Although estimates differ, some historians argue that nearly 25% of cowboys working in the frontier cattle industry were Black; admittedly, the lowest estimate is 2%, but I think we can assume the number is somewhere in that range [14, 15]. After the Civil War, newly freed slaves used their agricultural knowledge to join the frontier labor force [16]. Several Black cowboys were highly successful, making names for themselves in a dangerous career and a hostile country. For just one example, Bill Pickett, born around 1870 in Texas, was said to have pioneered the technique of "biting the upper lip of a steer to subdue it" [17, 18]. Across the frontier, Black individuals found space for themselves, sometimes even benefitting from the relative lack of racial restrictions in place in the newly settled West [19].

A photograph of Bill Pickett, who was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1989


There are many, many more examples of the ways the Western has twisted popular perception of the American frontier and the people who inhabited it, but you get the idea (I hope). The frontier housed a lot more cultural diversity than you might expect if you watched The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly or something like that, but over time storytellers and filmmakers successfully picked out the parts that fit their current needs and left the bits of history that didn't fit their narratives by the wayside. Above all, if you don't really find cowboys all that interesting but want to take something away from the time you just spent reading, take this: be careful with the media you uncritically consume, especially when it's based in historical events [20]. Westerns and other media from "historical" genres may not be a reliable source for learning about the past, but I'll be darned if they don't tell us about the present.


Notes

[1] Eric Hobsbawm, "The Myth of the Cowboy," Journal Article, 2013.


[2] "The Evolution of Cowboy Culture," Web Article, 2021.


[3] Jonathan Haeber, "Vaqueros: The First Cowboys of the Open Range," Magazine Article, 2003.


[4] Robert V. Hine and John Mack Faragher, The American West: A New Interpretative History, Book, 2006.


[5] Ibid, p 472.


[6] Clint W. Jones, "The Enduring Myth of the American Cowboy: Twenty-First Century Transformations of the Western Ideal in Longmire," Journal Article, 2019.


[7] Ibid.


[8] Eric Hobsbawm, "The Myth of the Cowboy," Journal Article, 2013.


[9] "The Evolution of Cowboy Culture," Web Article, 2021.


[10] If that's an interesting idea to you and you're a UMich student, consider taking Anthropology 101. It's a good time!


[11] There were also many indigenous tribes who weren't foragers and subsisted on agriculture instead.


[12] Robert V. Hine and John Mack Faragher, The American West: A New Interpretative History, Book, 2006, page 6.


[13] Roger D. Hardaway, "African American Cowboys on the Western Frontier," Journal Article, 2001, page 27.


[14] Taylor Quintard, "African American Men in the American West, 1528-1990," Journal Article, 2000.


[15] Roger D. Hardaway, "African American Cowboys on the Western Frontier," Journal Article, 2001.


[16] Keith Ryan Cartwright, Black Cowboys of Rodeo: Unsung Heroes From Harlem to Hollywood and the American West, Book, 2021.


[17] Ibid.


[18] Yeah, I also think this is a bizarre tactic but I'm not going to argue with results.


[19] Taylor Quintard, "African American Men in the American West, 1528-1990," Journal Article, 2000.


[20] If you don't think cowboys are kinda cool, why did you read this article?


References

Cartwright, Keith Ryan. Black Cowboys of Rodeo: Unsung Heroes From Harlem to Hollywood and the American West. University of Nebraska Press, 2021.


"The Evolution of Cowboy Culture." Sid Richardson Museum, August 18, 2021. https://sidrichardsonmuseum.org/the-evolution-of-cowboy-culture/.


Haeber, Jonathan. "Vaqueros: The First Cowboys of the Open Range." National Geographic, August 15, 2003. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/mexico-tradition-vaquero-cowboy?loggedin=true&rnd=1676251094478.


Hardaway, Roger D. "African American Cowboys on the Western Frontier." Black History Bulletin, 64, (2001): 27-32.


Hine, Robert V. and John Mack Faragher. The American West: A New Interpretative History. Yale University Press, 2000.


Hobsbawm, Eric. "The Myth of the Cowboy." The Guardian, March 20, 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/mar/20/myth-of-the-cowboy.


Taylor, Quintard. "African American Men in the American West, 1528-1990." The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 569, (2000): 102-119.



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