The way the west was won was with hard work and day in and day out simple living. It was not the wild west. That is the title of movies and penny novels and sensationalized depictions. When we think of the settling of the west we think of things like wagon trains, round ups, shoot outs and range wars and Wyatt Earp and Billy the kid or the James gang and bank robberies. Ok, some of that is a little true, some of that is not true at all and some is more mundane that you imagined.
I live in the west. I live in the middle of the west! I live in a town that to be honest does not fit the image of the wild west in movies and is rarely mentioned even though it is today the capital of the west. But how was it settled and how did it survive? Hint, it was with cold hard steel.
There are many myths about the west and how we tamed it. It was more boring than people have been taught by Hollywood and small penny novel publishers. I’ll put this in perspective. Many have seen the movie Unforgiven. Saul Rubinek played a man, W.W. Beauchamp, who was seeking a story about a legendary shootist. He was seeking the next Jesse James or Billy the Kid. He was a penny novelist and he needed a story to sell, true or not. The movie shows how Beauchamp was willing to bend and stretch the truth to make a good story.
Nothing new there. But most of our decedents did not come from the new west. They read about the west in these novels. It was an image formed and hammered out and based in some facts yes, but not as many as the far west, [Hollywood] would like you to think. We’ll cover a few topics to hammer out the real west, or at least more real west.
Lets head west, WAGON TRAIN! There was a TV show about that. It is shown in many movies and often helps set the plot conflict. Indians attacked them and many died on the way to the western promised land. Sorta.
Wagon trains were common. They were also dangerous. Most people died from starvation or dehydration or sun exposure or disease. Indians were not the conflicting culture that movies would like you to think. Or the news papers of the day that helped sell the violence of the Native culture so they could substantiate the manipulation of them much like Iraq in the 2000s. Sorry but true.
Indians almost never attacked. They tried to avoid us as much as possible. Few of the Native cultures were violent by nature. Think of Dances with Wolves rather than the other 99% of movies with Indians in them…
Most who died in wagon trains did so from the situation and lack of preparation. More turned back than died! There are many accounts of people having to leave behind belongings that they had planned to bring to the west. They overloaded wagons and oxen and mules and often ended up killing them from lack of water and over work.
Along wagon trails were great trunks full of fancy clothes and many things that were bulky and not needed. There were pianos and grand father clocks and cast iron bathtubs! In other words, Indians were not the problem, unrealistic plans was.
Once you got to the west, maybe to your government apportioned land that you got assigned, you had to work it to keep it. You had to make it work for you in order to keep the land that was given to you. That meant typically one of two things; cattle or farming. 99% of the time it was farming.
This meant plows and seeds and irrigation and weeding and home remedies for bugs. Great cinema huh? Most didn’t succeed. Drought and lack of farming skill drove most away. There were cattle drives. This was because no one area could support a great number of cattle. This meant they would move them from the south in the winter to the north in the summer. Think the mini series Lonesome Dove.
Driving Cattle did create conflict. Some might say the greatest western invention was barbed wire. Some would say it was what destroyed the west. But as the west was more populated it was harder and harder to move cattle as open range was less and less common. Think of the movie, ironically, Open Range.
As the west got more and more people, and eventually farms prospered, towns formed. Even before the railroads came in, which was pretty damn fast to be honest, towns became the hubs of culture. It was where people came to get supplies and socialize and connect with others. The towns in the west in the 1800s was a web site, when the railroad came to town if you were lucky, you were now part of the 1800s internet.
The railroad is what really settled the west. With the railroad the west was connected to the east and people who were not determined or hardy enough to travel by wagon, or wanted to bring that piano, could travel in the relative luxury of the railroad. It brought information faster and connected people and brought the west “on-line”.
Unlike the internet of today, there was far less conflict. The towns in the west were actually, boring. There was little real lawlessness. Most of the issues a lawman would deal with was drunks and petty theft. Great drama isn’t it. Hard to imagine why they don’t make movies and write novels about that. There is one possible, maybe, possibly, western style shoot out in recorded history.
Western style shoot outs were simply a novel adaptation of the classic duel. This was a literary invention, not a reality. For all reliable documented history, the shoot out is 100% fiction.
That does get us to some documented events that we seem to think make the west, the west. Lets start with the shoot out and the OK-Corral. Much like the Alamo, this is much more fiction than fact. The Alamo did happen, in the sense that there was battle and most of the defenders lost and died. But other than that most of what you have been told is fiction, mostly written well after the event. Mostly by people who were not alive or there at the time.
The OK-Corral did likely happen. There is a lot of conjecture of what it was. There were shots fired. There were people hit by those shots. Who was there is highly suspect. Who shot first is very suspect and will never be known. What it was about is pure Hollywood cause no one knows.
The guns didn’t settle any problem. In the end the “good guys” left town and the cowboys, were still there. The “good guys” were known for running rigged games of chance and collecting protection money to protect the small town businesses from them. The cowboys were just that, men who worked the cattle who got shot for not giving into the “good guys” games.
While were on the topic kinda, cowboy doesn’t mean what you think it does. It is in reference to the literal meaning. Men who work cattle ranches and often live on the range with the cattle. They rarely carried pistols. They were and are heavy and uncomfortable. They are also grossly inaccurate. The Colt 45 was not the gun that tamed the west, it was the plow. The rest is bull. If they had a weapon at all it was to hunt with. Not the kinda hunting you are imagining, but we’ll get to that.
The real west did include range wars. This was about ranchers fighting over grazing room or water for cattle. It did go to blows. Rarely. The Billy the Kid era was a real era but it was not as bloody as the penny novels would like you to get excited about.
Think of the tales of killing in the west like high school boys bragging about sexual conquests. The old saying is take his total and divide by three. Not a bad assessment. There is nothing to refute that people like Billy the Kid and the James gang did kill. But there is little to substantiate the numbers claimed by the game of telephone that history plays.
These were rare and isolated events. Deaths in the west were from disease and famine and accidents. Most people lived far from any medial help and most medicine was handed down and of the home remedy type. A cut from a plow or a harvesting knife could be deadly due to infection.
There are wonderful western stories about bank robbers and train robbers like the James Younger gang and Butch and Sundance. The number of banks reputed to have been robbed by the James gang is impossible. The most striking thing is that often there is a story in a major city newspaper about a small town bank being robbed by the gang, but when you check the records in the small town, not only was there no report of the gang robbing the bank, there is no report of a bank being robbed at all!
News then as news now, will embellish stories to sell papers. Today it is far less likely but it does happen. Then, there was no real way of refuting the story in a timely fashion that would interest people, so they simply went with the times and what sells. The same as more modern times like in my other writings where UFOs, disappearances of young blonde women of means, or political scandal only in an election cycle are the things that sell papers but are hardly reality.
Towns of the west had low murder rates. Reports of towns where you had to turn in fire arms to enter the town are exaggerated to invented. There were times when you had to, but they were around events when a great deal of people would come to town who usually did not and a celebration would include a lot of alcohol. Afterwards, the rule would go away.
Also, there is a real reason why this idea of having to turn in guns was not real. Few people owned them or carried them. They were damn expensive. Bullets then, like now are damn expensive. When you struggle to stay fed or keep the farm going, you didn’t spend a great deal of money on a weapon that you would likely never need.
The most common use of guns in the west was for hunting. For hunting rabbit. Most people in the west were farmers and they did not worry about wolves or bobcats or Indians or cowboys. They did not shoot a rabbit with a Winchester. My family still owns the ONE rifle handed down from my great, great grandMOTHER who settled on land in Windsor in a sod house. It is a 22cal. Perfect for rabbit or fox. Good eats.
Most people in the west were farmers. A Winchester or colt did not protect your crop from locusts or boll weevlils. The Indians were long gone and were not a threat anyhow. Desperadoes were largely a literary invention like the headless horseman or buried treasure. Survival in the west was dependent on community coming together to build a barn or help with illness or injury or the weather and how the crops faired.
The west was not won with guns. It was tamed with the plow and community and VERY hard work and eventually steel rails. We built cities out of the desert and made life where few would try. Dreams built the west. Most who came west did so with an idea of prosperity. Gold and silver rushes fed people to the west seeking opportunity and independence.
The government had to give away land to get people to go. It was not because the west was lawless and Indians were waiting to scalp you. [we did it too, not an Indian thing, sorry] It was a hard sell because the west was hard work. I am here in my writing room in the west surrounded by books and photos because people, generations before me, tamed the west with a plow and settled it with the railroad. Cold, hard steel.
Once the old west was settled, it was old news. In the meantime, the big city papers would run those stories as long as they sold. What they sold, was a fiction of the west that the west can never live up to. What they didn’t wrote about is why most people stayed. Newspapers cannot write what poetry captures nor shows the inspiration that Ansel Adams or William Jackson could.
When you think of how the west was won, think a bout callused hands and a warn plow and people who worked together to build a town. Maybe, the town you live in. THAT is how the west was won.