Most people, when they think of the American West, think of gun fights in dusty streets in front of saloons, Indians kidnapping helpless white women and children, and gangs robbing banks. Hollywood has done a great job of perpetuating these myths, when in fact, shoot outs were relatively rare. Our modern society is much more violent than the wild west ever was, as long as you set aside the gratuitous genocide of a million Native Americans in order to take their land.
According to The Culture of Violence in the American West: Myth versus Reality, although government oversight and protections were not prevalent in areas that were not yet granted statehood, people would often join groups for mutual protection due to their extreme isolation, and create constitutions of their own. In many cases, people who violated these rules simply had to be threatened with ostracism to bring them back in line, because in the remote vastness of the west, isolation could mean certain death.
This article goes on to say that interactions with the Native Americans were relatively peaceful until 1865, which coincides with the end of the Civil War. Before then, settlers were more interested in trading with them, as a profitable pursuit, and tradesmen realize that it’s bad form to kill off the customers. Therefore it was generally agreed that native people had a right to their own land.
Efforts to obtain land were negotiated by treaty until right after the war, so violence wasn’t considered the ultimate solution. (Whether those treaties were fair and enforced is another story entirely.) But in 1871, Congress voted not to ratify anymore treaties, and the violence greatly increased after that.
After the Civil War, railroads really took off. This meant the acquisition of land, not only for tracks, but also for acquiring the iron needed to make these railroads, and the towns needed to support them. The generals who practiced a successful scorched earth policy in the American south now turned these same policies on native villages, with the same result.
This fascinating article goes on to conclude:
“These men utilized the state’s latest technologies of mass killing developed during the Civil War and its mercenary soldiers (including the former slaves known as “buffalo soldiers”) to wage their war because they were in a hurry to shovel subsidies to the railroad corporations and other related business enterprises. Many of them profited handsomely, as the Credit Mobilier scandal revealed. The railroad corporations were the Microsofts and IBMs of their day, and the doctrines of neomercantilism defined the Republican Party’s reason for existing (DiLorenzo 2006). The Republican Party was, after all, the “Party of Lincoln,” the great railroad lawyer and a lobbyist for the Illinois Central and other midwestern railroads during his day.”
So, rather than the shoot-em-up culture that you see in the movies, we really need to think of the west as a relatively peaceful place, until greed and politics, coupled with the violent experience of a bloody war, swept in and changed it entirely.
Some more fun facts, according to this article:
There is only documentation of 8 bank robberies in the 15 Western states during 40 of the “wild West” years.
The vast majority of Westerners did not wear anything similar to the Stetson cowboy hat we think of today. The bowler was much more common.
Cowboys were much more likely to carry a shotgun or a rifle than a six shooter. They thought of guns mostly as tools to protect cattle.
Also, according to Noam Chomsky, the shoot-em-up Western folklore took off after the Civil War because gun manufacturers were seeing a severe downturn in business now that they weren’t producing for the war machine. They wanted people to think it was necessary to have a gun for protection, they wanted them to think men were basically lawless and violent, and they wanted them to feel manly while using guns to protect their women and children. So they created a wild West culture that didn’t really ever exist, to boost sales.
I know. I know. This is all very disappointing. It’s fun to romanticize history. Especially when the truth is so much more gruesome. But the vast majority of the violence in the west had more to do with greedy land grabs, racial prejudice, and political manipulation than lawless, independent-minded early Americans sowing their wild oats.
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For the first time in my life I can say I feel sorry for Kim Kardashian West. It’s got to be terrifying to have a gun pointed at your head. No doubt it’s traumatic to be robbed and to fear for your life. I hope she’ll get some therapeutic support.
But having said that, the other outrage, that no one seems to be talking about, is the fact that she had 11.2 million dollars’ worth of jewelry to steal in the first place. I can totally understand why you’d want to maintain a million dollar lifestyle. Truly, I can. I wouldn’t turn it down. But anything beyond that, you really ought to be ashamed of yourself. The fact that her jewelry alone surpasses that tells you everything that’s wrong with the one percent in this country.
How do you happily ride in your limousine past homeless people and food banks, through neighborhoods with inadequate drinking water, with 11.2 million dollars in jewelry in your suitcase? How do you sleep at night knowing that women are forced into prostitution just to feed their children and yet spend your bounty on baubles? What makes your need for a necklace supersede the need for adequate clothing for thousands of children? How do you even justify that in your mind?
I just can’t grasp the mindset. Is there something about having a big fat bank account that automatically shuts your mind off from the human condition? Do you think you have more of a right to go to bed on a full stomach than anyone else does? How can someone buy diamonds while other people are starving?
And why aren’t we more outraged?
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I saw that tag line in a Facebook advertisement for therapy, and it made me think of a conversation I had with a friend from Burma. He said, “In the West, you think you deserve happiness, so you get upset, depressed, anxious or bitter if you don’t have it. In the East, we don’t expect happiness, so we’re delighted when it comes our way.”
Like many things, it’s all a matter of perspective. And it is a good question. Why do we think we deserve to be happy? What makes us so special? Do we think we were born with some sort of golden ticket? “Happiness, Admit One.”
It’s natural to strive for happiness. But it might be healthier to look at it as a gift rather than a right. That way, when you don’t have it, you don’t feel like it’s some sort of failure on your part, and when you do have it, you’ll feel like you’ve won a prize, and can appreciate it all the more.
From now on I’ll be a day behind in my telling of my trip, because last night I spent with family, and I wanted to give them all my attention. You understand, I’m sure.
Well, Kentucky was my first new state in a long time, and now I’ve driven through another: Illinois. For the first hour, my only impression was slate grey, because I hit this unbelievable wall of fog right at the state line, as if nature follows human geography. It was quite surreal.
Even stranger was the radio station I landed on. They asserted that humans bred with angels and produced giants, and because of this God sent the flood to wipe them out. I find it rather terrifying that there are people out there who believe this stuff, and that they can vote.
I came across the best business model ever– a gas station that includes a puppy park, and makes a point of informing you of that on the highway. I got gas there instead of its many competitors for that very reason, thinking my dogs might enjoy a leashless romp. But it turned out to be a tease, because they haven’t built the thing yet. So my dogs peed in the corn field next to the station.
Speaking of stops (or actually ones to avoid), I spent a long time reflecting on the fact that I’d be driving right by Ferguson, Missouri, where the riots have been going on. Oddly enough, I saw no sign for this town on the interstate, which gave me the unsettling feeling that I never quite knew where the danger lay. Riots, my God. It’s heart breaking. But to be honest, the way the economy is, and the racial tension, especially with the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, it amazes me that we aren’t seeing more riots. There’s a lot to be angry about, and this is a scary time to be American.
Around noon I crossed the Mississippi River and passed Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri. It was strange how insignificant the crossing of our biggest river was. Probably because I was caught in a traffic snarl of old rusty bridges and mostly had to keep my eyes on the road. The arch is beautiful, though, and it means that I’m now officially in the West.
I’ve got to say that this country of mine is massive. I’ve been driving for days and I’m only about 1/3 of the way to my destination. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be a pioneer. I doubt the average European immigrant had any concept of the size of the journey they were embarking upon. And back then there was no infrastructure, no motels, no highways, no restaurants, nothing but a lot of unknown. I don’t think I fully understood how brave these people were until this moment.
Momentary panic set in when my radio completely died. I have South Dakota and Montana in my future. Imagine facing that in silence. But a simple fuse replacement solved the problem. Whew.
My only other thought is that on my way to my niece’s house, I passed Knob Noster, Missouri. There’s a joke in there somewhere, but I’m too tired to make it.
Next stop: Chamberlain, South Dakota!
Check out part 4 here!
I dreamt of a village in a desert out west. The people had gathered around a campfire to listen to an old man tell stories. He traveled from town to town to recount the tales of their people. He told cautionary tales to teach the young ones how to behave. He told the stories of how the people came to populate this land. He sang songs to honor the ones who had gone before him. He also carried important news from one village to the next.
On this night, after the storyteller spoke for a long time, a young girl stood up. “Storyteller,” she said, “what news of my sister, Desert Flower, who went north with her husband last summer?”
Storyteller replied, “I have not seen your sister, young one, but I have heard…”
Suddenly, instead of words, hundreds of tiny spiders issued forth from his mouth. The young girl cried and ran to her mother’s arms.
The people had no words for this. The spiders ran in all directions and rapidly disappeared. The old storyteller acted as though nothing had happened.
The next morning the old man was gone, but the little spiders remained. They would show up in unexpected places, and would often pour out of the mouths of the people themselves. They went with the men on the hunt. They crawled among the corn being gathered by the women. They scampered with the children at play.
The people tried to kill the spiders, but for each one that died, it seemed as though three more tiny spiders would show up and scurry away, sounding like whispers as they went.
Finally in desperation the people went to their leader. “What should we do, Wise One?” they asked.
She told them to remain silent until the new moon became the full moon. Only then would the spiders disappear. This was hard on the people. They loved to commune with one another.
As the days passed, they began to focus more on the hunt and on the harvest, forgetting the spiders entirely. Thriving on attention but no longer receiving it, one by one the spiders disappeared.
Finally, the full moon rose, and the people came together to celebrate their freedom from the spiders. They spoke of how much they missed each other and valued one another.
There were no spiders to be seen. Oh, they would come back to visit from time to time, as spiders do, but now the people knew them for what they were, and could stop their spread through silence and neglect.
The spiders, you see, were gossip.
[Image credit: globalneighbourhoods.net]
I’m recovering from a cold and completely devoid of inspiration today, so I’ll leave you with the 4 extremes of my travels.
The furthest west that I’ve been is Santa Monica, California.
The furthest east that I’ve been is Göreme, Turkey.
The furthest south that I’ve been is Mitla, Mexico.
The furthest north that I’ve been is Saint-Siméon, Canada.
How lucky am I? 🙂