How the idealized cowboy helped build an imagined America

The potent Images of the cowboy and the six shooter have shaped the myth of the American West: pioneer freedom and frontier towns. It's the West of the imagination. In this first episode of a two-part series, IDEAS explores the myth of the West, and how the values of individual freedom and boundless conquest continue to feed America's political ideology through to today.

The myth of the Old West is ‘on the one hand triumphant, on the other hand deeply disturbing,' says historian

The cowboy is a potent image of American culture, creating a myth of the West: pioneer freedom, and frontier towns. Cattle drives. Wagon trains. It’s the West of the imagination. (Shutterstock)

This episode is part one of a two-part series called The Cowboy's Lament.

There's no more powerful story in the American imagination than how the West was won.

For many, the story of the cowboy on horseback, the sheriff with the tin star, and the ranchers on cattle drive all make up a myth of how the republic came to be. It's a story of romance: gunslingers and poker cheats and men who got rich on mines and railways. 

But the myth of the West — a tale of endless expansion on the frontier — has for 200 years been more than a story to tell around the campfire. It has become a tool to explain a political ideology, and a way to sugar-coat the expulsion and mass murder of Indigenous peoples. 

"It has to do with conquering nature and conquering the peoples that are encountered in the American West," says William Deverell, professor of history at the University of Southern California. 

"And so the myth is, on the one hand, triumphant. On the other hand, [it's] deeply disturbing because of the damage the myth has provoked on the landscape and in the hearts, minds and lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people."

Deverell says the roots of the myth have to do with a very American idea of independence and self-reliance that persist to this day. 

"The United States was a country that essentially had no past," asserts H.W. Brands, of the University of Texas at Austin and author of Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West.

"So it had to create a future. And the future for Americans meant westward expansion."

Martha A. Sandweiss, a professor of history at Princeton University explains how a 1872 painting by John Gast embodies the myth of the American West. (A note on language: she uses the term 'Indian' to reflect the context of the era in which the painting was created.) 1:51

'Unmapped' land open for business

It began with the Louisiana Purchase. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson bought an unmapped territory from the French that stretched from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Mississippi to the Great Divide. He opened it up for exploration, which really meant opening it up for business. 

A railway followed and from there grew settlement and the goal of turning wild resources into capital: gold, silver, untilled farmland were up for grabs.

Sitting Bull, also known as Tatanka Iyotake to his people, became chief of the entire Sioux nation in 1867. (O.S. Goff/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The problem, of course, was that the "unmapped" territory wasn't empty. People lived there, and had for thousands of years.

"Manifest Destiny, the right to go and seize land, is the foundational myth of the United States," according to Julian Brave NoiseCat, an Indigenous writer in Washington, D.C.

"There was this idea that the common man could just go west, and become a landowner, build a successful farm, and escape." 

Indigenous people, such as the Lakota Sioux in what is now South Dakota, were simply 'in the way' and with the intervention of the U.S. Cavalry, the federal government moved the tribes onto reservations or killed them in the process. The myth mostly glosses over this chapter of the story of the West, says NoiseCat.

"You know, we often turned the reality of how that land was procured and taken into a footnote where Native people were engaged in warfare and their lands were taken, and then they were put on reservations and, you know, we pat our hands together and that's that."

After the frontier closes

By the end of the 19th century, the myth of the West had taken hold. Historians downplayed the fate of the Indigenous nations who'd been in the way of commercial progress, and instead told a story of an America that built success from scratch, through the effort of settlers and farmers and cowboys. 

The problem, as a young historian named Frederick Jackson Turner told his colleagues at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, was that America had reached the finish line: the West was full. There was no more land to conquer. And that fact points to a massive question.

Advertisement for the World's Columbian Exposition (also known as the Chicago World's Fair), held in 1893. (Wikimedia Commons)

"What comes after the frontier is imperialism, right?" says Philip Deloria, a professor of Native American History at Harvard University.

"It's the continuation of this process of going out and conquering other people and taking their stuff, taking their land, and now it's just going to be global." 

After the closing of the frontier came the annexation of Hawaii, then the Philippines. From there, the story of American foreign policy in the 20th century unfolds: satellite states, Vietnam, the global marketplace, even outer space. 

The myth of the West continues to drive a political ideology of expansion.

According to Deloria, that expansion occurs through popular culture: dime novels, the stories of the Riders of the Purple Sage and — of course — Hollywood and the western movies.

Tom Mix was best known as a silent-film star. The American actor, born in Texas, appeared in many early western movies between 1909 and 1935. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

These artifacts of culture play up the romance of the West and keep the ideas of expansion and progress fresh in the American imagination. 

"It's a massive cultural infrastructure," argues Deloria, "that convinces everybody that there is this thing called the frontier, and that it's important." 

Guests in this episode: 

William Deverell is professor of history at University of Southern California Dornsife in Los Angeles.

H.W. Brands is professor of history at University of Texas at Austin, and author of Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West. 

Philip Deloria teaches Native American History at Harvard University. He is of Dakota descent, and his father, the late Vine Deloria Jr., was an Indigenous activist who wrote Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (1969).  

Julian Brave NoiseCat is an Indigenous writer in Washington D.C. 

Jennifer McMahon is professor of philosophy and English at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma. 

Joseph McBride is a film historian and author of Searching for John Ford. 

Martha A. Sandweiss is professor of history at Princeton University. 

Greg Grandin is professor of history at Yale University, and author of The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2020. 

*This episode was produced by Tom Jokinen with help from Nicola Luksic.

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