October 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 5
It’s hard to choose the most overrated of the West’s many overrated heroes. It’s a fool’s congeries that has to include George Armstrong Custer, who made the biggest mistake of his short, vainglorious life when he decided to attack an Indian encampment down on the Little Bighorn. It has to give a nod to Zebulon Pike, father of a half-century misconception that the Great Plains was fundamentally uninhabitable, and to “the Pathfinder,” John C. Frémont, who without Kit Carson to lead him around by the nose could not have found his bum with either hand. Certainly any assemblage of the overrated must include Sacagawea, to whom more monuments have been erected in the United States than any other woman before or since, and about whom so much hagiographic prose has been written that Bernard DeVoto was inspired to remark that “many antiquaries and most trail markers have believed that Lewis and Clark and their command were privileged to assist in the Sacagawea Expedition, which is not quite true.” Finally, can we leave out that nasty little runt William H. Bonney, alias Billy the Kid? I think not. If he didn’t shoot twenty-one men by his twenty-first birthday (an accomplishment his defenders deny), then why talk about him at all? If he did, then we probably ought to place Sheriff Pat Garrett, who shot and killed him at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, at the top of the list in our underrated category.
For the West’s most underrated hero, one is inclined to vote in Jacob Davis, the man who in 1873 invented riveted pants and made Levi Strauss a household name. But a more serious historian might rather cast his ballot for John Wesley Powell, not because he was the first man to run the Colorado River but because his 1878 Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States should, to this day, be required reading for every state legislator and regional planner west of the hundredth meridian. Powell understood the limitations on development imposed by aridity and warned of it repeatedly— to a largely deaf audience that continued to believe implicitly in the future of the American West as a pastoral Canaan. Powell observed that in a region where the average annual rainfall is less than 20 inches, water becomes the controlling factor in all forms of habitation. Too many folk in the modern West remain impervious to that fact.