Following the Civil War, many Americans chose to settle west of the Mississippi river and shaped a distinct culture in this region. Generations later, this fascinating culture was transformed into the Wild West, a romanticized version of the lifestyle, to entertain the masses. The romanticized perception of the Wild West differs extensively from the reality of western settlement, but in some aspects mirrors the true western lifestyle in the post-Civil War period.
Native Americans and cowboys, for instance, are portrayed rather inaccurately in the romanticized adaptations of the West, while the images of towns and settlements are similar in both the mythological Wild West and the reality of the western experience. Primarily, Native Americans in the actual West differed greatly from their romanticized characters. Initially, Native Americans were seen as savages who violently attacked the white settlers without reason. However, in the real West, Native Americans wished for peaceful relations with these settlers.
For example, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe wrote much about his people’s actions in helping the American government so as to avoid conflict. The chief even stated that although the Natives had plenty of opportunities to kill the white men, they wished to live at peace (Document A). In addition, at times, the white people acted even more savage than the Native Americans by massacring the tribes, including the defenseless women and children (Document B).
This information clearly refutes the romanticized ideas that Native Americans were savages who wished only to attack and kill any white settlers they came across, instead highlighting the reality of western life. Furthermore, Natives in the Wild West were thought to have little experience with new technology, using unsophisticated weaponry to brutally attack settlers, when in fact this was far from the truth.
At the Massacre at Wounded Knee, Native Americans were said to have possessed guns to defend themselves with, but once again, the majority did not act savagely, at one time even surrendering their guns, until provoked by the white men (Document B). From these accounts, the Natives obviously were more advanced than the simple bows and arrows that typify their battle technique in the romanticized accounts of the West. Finally, although the romanticized version of the West presents only one generalized Native American tribe, there were actually a variety of Natives with unique cultures that set them part. The Nez Perce chief himself stated that his tribe was willing to battle other groups of Native Americans, showing that there was not one unified tribe but many, each with their own beliefs and traditions (Document A). Based on the twisted perception of the Wild West, Native Americas were thought to be savage creatures with a single unifying culture that relied upon rudimentary weapons. In reality, however, they were relatively peaceful, fighting the settlers only when provoked, with separate and distinct cultures.
Furthermore, cowboys were portrayed much differently in the romanticized versions than how they behaved in reality. Primarily, these cowboys were seen as leading glamorous and heroic lives, but in the true West, they worked hard performing monotonous tasks such as moving cattle. Although cowboys thoroughly enjoyed their jobs, he also spoke about the hard toil they had to undergo on a daily basis, driving cattle slowly throughout the wilderness with little free time to rest or relax. Also, the lives of cowboys were hardly easygoing, as fatal accidents often occurred (Document C).
While they are seen as heroes in the romanticized depictions, in the real West, cowboys did much hard and dangerous labor, but definitely were not known for their chivalrous actions. In addition, cowboys in the Wild West were depicted as tall white handsome men, when in truth, white men as well as African Americans and Mexicans were cowboys. In photographs of the West during this time period, there were numerous African American men doing the laborious work of cowboys (Document D). In fact, in some cases, the best workers in round-ups were of half-caste races, like mulattos.
Also, many of the cowboys were Mexican, who did much of the same work as white cowboys but were looked down upon by the white men (Document E). While romanticized views of the cowboy are limited to a handsome white male, actual cowboys in the West were quite often African American or Mexican, completely different from the inaccurate romanticized version. Movies and television shows about the Wild West often portray cowboys as tall, handsome white men doing heroic deeds and leading glamorous lives out on the wild range.
However, lives of real western cowboys, being either white, African American, or Mexican, were far from glamorous, for they toiled away daily as they performed the dangerous, and sometimes deadly, job of moving cattle. Finally, towns and settlements were actually portrayed quite accurately in the romanticized versions of the Wild West. First, in both the real West and the fictional descriptions, the landscape is illustrated as being extremely barren and dry.
In photographs of the region in the late 1800s, there was scarcely any vegetation or moisture to be found, and the sun was painfully bright and hot (Document F). Additionally, in an account by Theodore Roosevelt, the West was described as parched, desolate, and barren, with little rainfall and endless plains (Document E). Since the romanticized versions also showed the landscape as being dry and empty, it was obviously very similar to the authentic western lifestyle. Moreover, the setup of towns is rather correctly shown in movies and television shows about the Wild West.
When building a new settlement in the West, Buffalo Bill spoke of the several shops, saloons, and a good hotel that were the first establishments to be constructed (Document G). This is similar to how towns in the romanticized portrayals were set up, revolving around a central saloon and a hotel on a main street, where all of the action took place. In addition, similar to tales of old ghost towns from romanticized stories of the West, legitimate ghost towns existed in this region.
Buffalo Bill told of a town that he attempted to build up, and after flourishing for a very short while, it was abandoned rapidly, with all of its inhabitants flocking to a bigger and better town (Document G). In various myths and stories about the West, ghost towns were popular legends to marvel at, but they actually had a foundation of truth where popular towns would suddenly be abandoned, leaving nothing behind but the ghost of a once prosperous community.
The romanticized representation of the Wild West had a definite basis in truth, for the towns and settlements of the West were actually barren, containing little but shops, saloons, and a hotel, and were susceptible to abandonment. In the romanticized adaptations of the Wild West, some aspects of the western lifestyle have been portrayed rather inaccurately, but other parts of the mythological depiction were fairly accurate compared to the reality of the West.
Initially, Native Americans were seen as savage creatures with a single unifying culture that relied upon rudimentary weapons, but in the true West, they were relatively peaceful, fought the settlers only when provoked, and had separate and distinct cultures. Next, cowboys are often portrayed in the romanticized West as tall, handsome white men doing heroic deeds and leading glamorous lives, but the lives of real western cowboys, being either white, African American, or Mexican, were actually quite difficult and dangerous.
Finally, the view in popular culture of the towns and settlements of the West was actually truthful, since the landscape was barren, with shops, saloons, and a hotel dominating the town, and they were often abandoned, leaving ghost towns. In conclusion, while many movies and television shows are created about the wondrous region west of the Mississippi River in the period after the Civil War, these depictions can be misleading, for, while extremely entertaining, they are really only partially true.