The not so Wild West
Recently re-aired by PBS and also available on DVD, The West is an eight-part documentary produced and directed by Stephen Ives on the history of the American West. It was written by Dayton Duncan and Geoffrey C Ward. Mr. Ives is of course an experienced producer, writer and director and has given us many films on different aspects of American history. Mr. Duncan has written films on Mark Twain, America’s national parks, the Dust Bowl and Lewis & Clark, among others, and Mr. Ward has written on Prohibition, the Roosevelts, Abraham Lincoln, etc. Ken Burns was a “senior producer” and he needs no introduction.
Another kind of shootin' in the West
What’s in a name?
The first insight in The West is in the name: it was, of course, only “the West” to the American explorers, soldiers and settlers from the eastern states. To the Mexicans it was the north, to the French-Canadians and British it was the south, and to the Chinese and Asian immigrants it was the east. To the indigenous peoples, the various Indian tribes, it was none of these things but the center of the world. The very name “the West”, then, presupposes a certain Frederick Jackson Turner-ish ‘American imperialism’.
But American heroes are largely Western heroes and the West exists as much in Americans’ imagination as it does in historical fact. In a way, a peripheral region has become central to American thinking.
This film was made in the mid-1990s, when the ‘new school’ of American history was in full spate, and indeed the likes of Richard White and Patricia Nelson Limerick are among the talking heads. So we get a good dose of the point of view of those who used to be pretty well ignored when talking about the history of the West: women, religious minorities, Native Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans and so on. Of course, many of the Native Americans’ ideas on the history of the West were also myths, just different myths.
The narrator is the splendidly-named and slightly Henry Fonda-voiced Peter Coyote.
Episode 1 is entitled The People and we start, rightly enough, with the Indians, perhaps about 3 million of them, divided, we are told, into seven language groups. They were traders: those who had never seen a bison wore buffalo robes, and seashells have been found a thousand miles inland. The Anasazi built roads and rock cities. All tribes referred to themselves as “the people” or “human beings” or simply “we”, “us”, while foreign or new people were called “the other” or simply “they”, “them”.
Worthy, informative, serious
Then we move to Galveston and the first incursions in the West of the Spanish. We are given the remarkable story of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and then the equally astonishing Francisco Vázquez de Coronado. The Pueblo rising comes next and a discussion of the importance of that crucial import, the horse.
Off for a spot of conquisting
The devastating impact of smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis, measles and diphtheria are described. These and other diseases killed far more of the indigenous population than any army.
A chronological rather than thematic approach is adopted, so we dot back and forth, for example returning to Spanish-Mexican themes every now and then. Personally I would have preferred to stick to one aspect and trace that through but that may be just me.
The importance of the North-West Passage is underlined, and the fact that when Lewis and Clark were, they thought, “the first” to meet certain native peoples, they found that these people often knew English words (musket, powder, shot, knife, son-of-a-bitch) learnt from the British sailors who had landed on the Pacific coast.
America, coast to coast
Episode 2 starts with William Gilpin (1813 – 1894) who is often quoted. He gives us the classic nineteenth century American view. “The destiny of the American people is to subdue the continent.” Yet certainly before the Louisiana Purchase and even for some time afterwards, the ‘destiny’ of the continent was far from manifest, with the Mexican-Spanish power from the south, the British and French in the north and the vast undefined territory of Oregon which need not necessarily have become American at all. California could have stayed with Mexico, or gone to France or Britain; there was no ‘inevitability’ that it would become one of the United States.
We have a look next at the mountain men. There were black, Mexican, Indian and even Hawaiian trappers but Joe Meek is used as an example. The danger of the life is highlighted, and the crucial importance of Eastern fashion: when beaver hats gave way to silk ones, the trade in pelts collapsed.
America grabs it all
Indians were no stranger to conquest and taking over or being pushed out of lands they felt they owned, or controlled. We see, for example, the Lakota pushing the Kiowa out of the Black Hills. These peoples understood the white invasion, when it came, though naturally they resisted it to the utmost.
Texans and Mormons
The point is made that the Mexican-Americans were an independent-minded people, often antagonistic to rule from Mexico City, to central authority generally and even to the institutional Catholic church.
We get Stephen Austin, Sam Houston and the Alamo. We also get quite a lot on Narcissa Whitman and the sheer arrogance of the assumption that anyone born West of the Mississippi was a heathen who needed to be converted, saved and made more Eastern. I never liked her and find it hard to lament her fate too much.
The Mormons come next, with Brigham Young as a Mormon Moses.
Episode 2 closes with the sonorous assertion that in only one generation Americans had seized it all.
Indians and gold
The next part is pretty well devoted to the Indians and the Californian gold rush. The Treaty of Fort Laramie was a bigger affair than I previously knew. Against a background of increased competition between Indian tribes for dwindling game, ten thousand from twelve different tribes gathered at Laramie. But the lack of understanding on the part of the whites was evident: in order to halt Indian-Indian conflict and protect settlers and travelers, they wanted to draw lines on a map and talk to a single chief. They thought that by promising fifty years of regular supplies and confining the Indians to certain reserved areas, they could achieve their aims. But that was fundamentally to misunderstand Indian culture and way of life.
Of course the gold rush looms large. Racial discrimination was rife among the miners - against the Indians, of course, and if the word genocide could be justly used anywhere it was in California, but also against any non-American miners. With huge numbers of prospectors competing for claims (there had been two thousand in the fall of 1849; there were thirty-five thousand a year later) the ‘American’ miners swiftly forgot that many of them had been immigrants or sons of immigrants. A crippling $20 monthly tax was imposed on non-American miners.
Massacres, from Mountain Meadows to the Washita
In episode 4 we go back to the Mormons. The Mountain Meadows massacre is dealt with, and its aftermath of shallow graves and auction of the settlers’ belongings, and we learn of Brigham Young tearing down the makeshift memorial to the victims that had been erected, which bore the legend Vengeance is mine, I will repay, sayeth the Lord with the comment that vengeance had been his, Young’s.
An early view of Mountain Meadows
After a brief excursion into the story of Juan Cortina in 1859 we get to the Civil War in the West, particularly the Confederate invasion of the West, Glorieta Pass and the odious Chivington. We hear of the massacre of Sand Creek, which the ‘Reverend’ Mr. Chivington never denied or regretted (“I stand by Sand Creek,” he said twenty years later) and for which no one was ever punished. We go to Kansas and Missouri to hear of Jim Lane and William Quantrill, and the 1863 attack on Lawrence (Lane’s home) with 183 men and boys killed and 185 houses burned.
And we hear of the so-called Fetterman Massacre (the death in battle of 80 men who had disobeyed orders and rashly charged Red Cloud’s band) which prompted Sherman to refer to “these Indians, the enemies of our race and our civilization.” And Custer’s ‘victory’ at the Washita, four years almost to the day after Sand Creek, when his forces charged into a village (Black Kettle’s again: this time the chief did not survive), a village which was flying the white flag (the American flag flying at Sand Creek had not protected them) and cut down women and children.
You shouldn't mention Fetterman and Sand Creek in the same breath, really
Assuredly, episode 4 is not one that recounts a glorious past for Americans.
The iron horse
Next come the railroads, and we are reminded that they accelerated the already rapid pace of change. The narrator tells us that “the West couldn’t be settled without railroads and the railroads couldn’t be built without the government.” However rich and mighty private corporations were, the huge investment and necessary land grants required federal intervention. Massive amounts were involved: in 1862 Congress granted $16,000 per mile for the flat rising to $48,000 for mountainous terrain, and these sums soon doubled. 6400 acres per mile of federal land were set aside, and when you consider the thousands and thousands of miles of railroad constructed, this represented land the size of whole countries.
Promontory Point, UT: historic day for the nation-building, manifest-destiny story of the West
Of course the film concentrates on the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific, and their construction of the trans-continental line culminating in the meeting at Promontory Point, Utah, but it also highlights the mushrooming of other railroad companies to criss-cross the continent with rails, linking previously remote places, speeding up communication and shifting huge tonnages of freight.
Buffalo hunters and cowboys
And all sorts of aspects of American life were affected by the railroads, from buffalo hunting to cattle driving. In spring 1874 Congress, alarmed by the near extinction of the buffalo herds, passed a law restricting hunting but President Grant vetoed it and indeed, hunters were often given free ammunition.
The romance of the buffalo hunter
Grant himself did not say expressly that the elimination of the staple food of the Indians would eliminate “the Indian problem” by starving them to death or forcing them to live on hand-outs, but others did say so, explicitly. And the cowboys, so iconic of the “Wild West” to all of us, are discussed too, average age 24, Indians, vaqueros, blacks and every other background besides.
Not the cowboy Hollywood showed us
The romance of the West
The romantic idea of the West as a land of opportunity, ambition and success is tempered slightly when one considers the number of farms that failed and settlers who moved on repeatedly, the high suicide rate and the fact that 40 out of every 1,000 whites were treated for alcoholism. And the inevitability of defeat of the Indians by the army also came to be called into question for a brief moment when Custer and his men were killed in 1876, the soldiers suffered another significant defeat at the hands of the Nez Perce at White Bird Canyon in 1877 and were driven back at Big Hole the same year. Of course with the benefit of hindsight we know that it was only delaying the inevitable but it didn’t seem that way to whites in the West in the 1870s. The capture of tourists in Yellowstone illustrated perfectly the clash of cultures and, if you like, the old and the new West.
In the long story of perfidy and broken promises which the whites, military and political, glibly gave to the Indians and then ignored when it was convenient to do so, General Nelson Miles’s anger when his promise to the Nez Perce that they may return to their homeland was overruled in Washington (or by Sherman anyway) is less understandable when one reflects on Miles’s own rescinding of his predecessor Crook’s promises to the Apache a few years later…
Immigrants and minorities
Episode 7 describes the extraordinary influx of whites of all kinds into the West, perhaps 5 million in the twenty years after the Civil War, swamping the few Indians left, by a ratio of approximately 40:1 by the 1880s. It wasn’t only the Indians who were swamped: in the 1870s Los Angeles was a small market town of perhaps 10,000 Hispanics. The arrival of the railroad and the speculators and settlers it brought turned LA into an Anglo town with the Hispanics confined to a barrio.
Some of the immigrants to the West, especially Kansas, were black and the movement of so-called Exodusters after the collapse of Reconstruction and withdrawal of Federal troops from the South is a fascinating one. Encouraged by the colorful figure of Benjamin ‘Pap’ Singleton, and rumors of $500 and free land, these settlers sought a different kind of freedom from the one they thought they had got from Abe Lincoln but which turned out to be illusory.
The laws designed actively to discriminate on the basis of race and the anti-Chinese mob violence are an especially unpleasant chapter of the history of the West. Less offensive to modern thinkers perhaps was the outlawing of polygamy (it became a federal crime) but there was even a move to disenfranchise Mormons. These changes led to the exodus of some Mormons to Canada and Mexico, though the Elders of the church accepted the inevitable, divested the Mormon church of many of its business interests and separated church from state. Utah became the 45th state of the Union.
Various interesting figures are discussed in this episode, such as FH Cushing, for example, but an illuminating comment on the West is provided by Richard White when he says that Buffalo Bill was “the one true genius the West produced” and I must say, that nearing the end, as I am at the moment, of Don Russell’s great biography of Cody, I tend to agree. Here was a genuine plainsman (for there was nothing fake about Cody’s frontier youth) who nevertheless made it his business (literally) to peddle the myth of conquest: in the Wild West show it was the Indians who did all the attacking. Buffalo Bill showed the conquerors as victims. It was an extraordinary conjuring trick, and it worked.
The end of the West?
The last episode opens with the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, which wad the context for Frederick Jackson Turner’s paper on the ‘closing’ of the frontier, and this provides the only mention in the documentary of Turner. The commentary underlines how self-congratulatory the exposition was, and how bizarre in some ways: a huge conquistador made of Californian prunes. 24 million people came to visit, a quite remarkable figure when one thinks about it. By that year there were only 63 million Americans, and 17 million of them lived west of the Mississippi. The 1889 land rush is described, the last flurry of land-grabbing in the West when 1.9m acres were claimed in a single day.
Buffalo Bill was considered too showy and commercial to be included;
the Wild West show set up outside
The devastating effects of the Dawes Act are described. Many of the motives for this legislation were admirable, at least in white Eastern eyes: turn the Indians into decent landowners and farmers. But it was also, of course, a giant excuse for snatching away huge tracts of the land that had been granted to them “in perpetuity” (perpetuity had a rather short life-span in American treaty-making terms). About 150 million acres, about two thirds of all the land, was taken away.
The appalling affair at Wounded Knee occurred against the background of the new West, a populated, industrial West (the town of Butte is taken as an illuminating example) and you are rather left with a sour taste in the mouth as this series ends. We are all so used to the myth of the wide-open West, land of opportunity, land of the free, where men made their own law with six-shooters on their hips and rode off into the sunset, that when we reflect in a sober way on the real history of the region and conclude that it really wasn’t like that – or anyway it was rarely like that – we are left with an abiding impression of – well, sadness.
The series rather peters out, I thought, with the The Virginian-ish story of Wyoming schoolma'am Ethel Waxham, and you kind of expect another episode to sum it all up. But all in all it’s an excellent documentary that anyone interested in the West would enjoy watching.