- Historic Sites
Who Are The Westerners?
“Why hasn't the stereotype faded away as real cowboys become less and less typical of Western life? Because we can't or won't do without it, obviously.”
December 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 8
But those are novels more of motion than of place, and the emigrants in them are simply farmer-pioneers on their way to new farms. They have not adapted to the West in the slightest degree. They belong where the soil is deep, where the Homestead Act worked, where settlers planted potato peelings in their fireguards and adjourned to build a combination school-church-social hall almost before they had roofs on their shanties. The pioneer farmer is a Midwestern, not a Western, figure. He is a pedestrian, and in the West—horseman’s country even for people who never got on a horse in their lives—pedestrians suffer from the horseman’s contempt that seems as old as the Scythians. The farmer’s very virtues as responsible husband, father, and home builder are against him as a figure of the imagination. To the fantasizing mind he is dull, the ancestor of the clodhopper, the hayseed, and the hick. I have heard Wyoming ranch hands jeer their relatives from Idaho, not because the relatives were Mormons—so were the ranch hands—but because they were farmers, potato diggers.
It was Crèvecoeur’s wild man, the borderer emancipated into total freedom, first in Eastern forests and then in the plains and mountains of the West, who really fired our imaginations, and still does. We have sanitized him somewhat, but our principal folk hero, in all his shapes good and bad, is essentially antisocial.
In real life, as Daniel Boone, Jim Bridger, Jed Smith, Kit Carson, he appeals to us as having lived a life of heroic courage, skill, and self-reliance. Some of his manifestations like Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody are tainted with outlawry or showmanship, but they remain more than life size. Even psychopathic killers such as Billy the Kid and Tom Horn throw a long shadow, and some outlaws like Butch Cassidy and Harry Longabaugh have all the engaging imitability of Robin Hood. What charms us in them is partly their daring, skill, and invulnerability, partly their chivalry; but not to be overlooked is their impatience with all restraint, their freedom from the social responsibility that Crèvecoeur admired in his citizen farmer and that on occasion bows the shoulders of every person born.
Why should I stand up for civilization? Thoreau asked a lecture audience. Any burgher or churchwarden would stand up for that. Thoreau chose instead to stand up for wildness and the savage heart.
We all know that impulse. When youths run away from home, they don’t run away to become farmers. They run away to become romantic isolates, lone riders who slit their eyes against steely distance and loosen the carbines in their scabbards when they see law, or any obligation, or even company approaching.
Lawlessness, like wildness, is attractive, and we conceive the last remaining home of both to be the West. In a folklore predominantly masculine and macho, even women take on the look. Calamity Jane is more familiar to us than Dame Shirley, though Dame Shirley had it all over Jane in brains, and could have matched her in courage, and lived in places every bit as rough as the cowtowns and camps that Calamity Jane frequented.
The attraction of lawlessness did not die with the frontier either. Look at the survivalist Claude L. Dallas, Jr., who in 1981 killed two Idaho game wardens when they caught him poaching—shot them and then finished each off with a bullet in the back of the head. In that act of unchivalrous violence Dallas was expressing more than an unwillingness to pay a little fine. He hid out in the deserts of Idaho and Nevada, protected by people all over the area. Why did they protect him? Because his belated frontiersman style, his total self-reliance and physical competence, his repudiation of any control appealed to them more than murder repelled them or law enlisted their support.
All this may seem remote from the life of the average Westerner, who lives in a city and is more immediately concerned with taxes, schools, his job, drugs, the World Series, or even disarmament than with archetypal figures out of folklore. But it is not so remote as it seems. Habits persist. The hoodlums who come to San Francisco to beat up gays are vigilantes, enforcing their prejudices with violence, just as surely as were the miners who used to hunt down Indians and hang Chinese in the mother lode or the ranchers who rode out to exterminate the nesters in Wyoming’s Johnson County War.
Habits persist. The hard, aggressive, single-minded energy that according to politicians made America great is demonstrated every day in resource raids and leveraged takeovers by entrepreneurs, and along with that competitive individualism and ruthlessness goes a rejection of any controlling past or tradition. What matters is here, now, the seizable opportunity. “We don’t need any history,” said one Silicon Valley executive when the Santa Clara County Historical Society tried to bring the electronics industry together with the few remaining farmers to discuss what was happening to the valley that only a decade or two ago was the fruit bowl of the world. “What we need is more attention to our computers and the moves of the competition.”