Why the American West Still Matters
The Closed Frontier
The Wild West rests in the past but remains mythic, large in the eyes of the world. Railroads, miners, dance hall girls, cowboys, pioneers and buffalo…these are just a few of the icons of a beloved place in history.
With his 1890 official announcement of its closure, the Department of the Census opened a debate about the nature of the frontier in America. Its director announced that the West was settled densely enough to conclude that a frontier, a contiguous border between wilderness and civilization, no longer existed.
Our National Character
A few years later, Frederick Jackson Turner advanced his frontier thesis that the western conquest was a sign and fruit of the American character. As noted on the Digital History site,
Turner argued that the conquest of the western frontier as the nation’s formative experience, which had shaped the nation’s character and values. Western expansion accounted for Americans’ optimism, their rugged independence, and their stress on adaptability, ingenuity, and self reliance.
In actuality, however, the settlement of the West had depended, to a surprising degree, on intervention by the federal government. The federal government had dispatched explorers to survey the region and cavalry units to confine Native Americans on reservations. It also provided land grants that funded railroad building, and, in the 20th century, support for dams and other waterworks.
Whether or not we agree with Turner that rugged individualism won the West, or argue that government policy and initiative drove settlers in that direction, the topic of the West remains open.
There is much to discuss about the hows and whys, the ongoing process of settling the lands beyond the Mississippi River. Native American tribes, African Americans, women’s history scholars, plant and animal biologists, engineers, geologists, industrialists, corporations, anthropologists, historians, environmentalists, literary scholars, artists, writers and filmmakers, to name just a few, still take an interest.
Across disciplines, these thinkers and policymakers struggle with matters of Indian policy, popular images of Native people, generational trauma, land and water rights, ecological impact of industry and energy needs, repatriation of tribal remains, racism, slavery, human trafficking, federal jurisdiction, transportation, planet and animal species endangerment and other historical issues that resonate from the Old West.
A Story in History
Given all of this, we haven’t even touched on the potentially meaningful power of any story about a difficult, violent time of change in our nation’s history. For example, for most of the last 500 years, the majority of persons on this continent have fought for basic civil rights. Much of that struggle is embodied in an epic conflict, the violence that stole the West from its first residents and enslaved people of many races.
So, even if we stop our considerations here, we may concede that the West as a place in history not only still exists, but still matters. May we begin to be honest about our history. Separating our beloved myths and images from facts, may we listen to other narratives, the disregarded voices that still filter from and about the American West. May we open our hearts to more stories. If we do, our American conscience and character may yet be positively influenced by our accounts of the Old, Wild West. We may also exceed our most treasured ideals.