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Inventing the West

The Lives and Legends of Buffalo Bill

by Don Russell
University of Oklahoma Press, 514 pp., $22.95 (paper)

The Business of Being Buffalo Bill: Selected Letters of William F. Cody, 1879-1917

by Sarah J. Blackstone
Praeger, 320 pp., $26.00

The Real Wild West: The 101 Ranch and the Creation of the American West

by Michael Wallis
St. Martin’s, 672 pp., $21.95 (paper)

Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West

by Isabelle S. Sayers
Dover, 89 pp., $8,95 (paper)

Will Rogers

by Ben Yagoda
University of Oklahoma Press, 409 pp., $18,95 (paper)


Way back yonder in 1983 Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger edited an illuminating collection of studies called The Invention of Tradition.1 In his introduction Professor Hobsbawm plunges right into the task at hand:

Nothing appears more ancient, and linked to an immemorial past than the pageantry which surrounds the British monarchy in its public ceremonial manifestations. Yet, as a chapter in this book establishes, in its modern form it is the product of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. “Traditions” which appear or claim to be old are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented.

A few pages later Hugh Trevor-Roper is similarly blunt in dealing with the Highland tradition of Scotland:

Today, whenever Scotchmen gather together to celebrate their national identity, they assert it openly by certain distinctive national apparatus. They wear the kilt, whose color and pattern indicates their “clan”; and if they indulge in music, their instrument is the bagpipe. This apparatus, to which they ascribe great antiquity, is in fact largely modern. It was developed after, sometimes long after, the Union with England against which it is, in a sense, a protest. Before the Union, it did indeed exist in vestigial form; but that form was regarded by the large majority of Scotchmen as a sign of barbarism: the badge of roguish, idle, predatory, blackmailing Highlanders who were more of a nuisance than a threat to civilized historic Scotland.

Whoa. Several historians then proceed to march around the empire that once was, shattering immemorialist pretensions as readily as the great markswoman Annie Oakley shattered the glass balls tossed for her at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World.

I thought, when I read The Invention of Tradition, that if these scholars ever turned their attention to the “traditions” of the American West there would soon be nothing left but the Golden Gate Bridge. But of course we don’t need to import tradition-busters. We have Yale for that: the many eminent graduates of its American Studies program have spent the last half-century turning Old West “traditions” inside out, with a certain amount of help from discontented souls at other schools.

Before Professor Hobsbawm really settles down to work he has this to say about the basic nature of some of the “traditions” which he and his colleagues will soon be reducing to rubble:

The object and characteristic of “traditions,” including invented ones, is invariance. The past, real or invented, to which they refer imposes fixed, (normally formalized) practices, such as repetition.

It’s a sad, but, to my mind, inescapable fact that most of the traditions which we associate with the American West were invented by pulp writers, poster artists, impresarios, and advertising men; excepting, mainly, those that were imported from Mexico, whose vaqueros had about a three-century jump on our cowboys when it came to handling cattle. I don’t know at exactly what point a skill becomes a “tradition,” or equipment and apparel (ropes, wide-brimmed hats) become “apparatus,” but many of the skills associated with American cowboys were Mexican skills moved north and adapted to Anglo-Saxon capabilities and needs. Now, pulp fiction lacks much, but it doesn’t lack what Professor Hobsbawm calls invariance. (The editors of Ranch Romances would just call it the formula.)

As it happens there was an incident—a tragic incident—in the career of the famous nineteenth-century frontiersman Kit Carson which illustrates what can happen when an “invented” tradition and stark, uninvented reality collide. Kit Carson—a guide, but a very superior guide—was one of the most famous Americans of the nineteenth century. Buffalo Bill Cody named his only son after Kit Carson; there was a movie about Carson’s exploits as early as 1904. The movie was ephemeral, and so was Carson’s great work as a guide for John C. Frémont, Stephen Watts Kearny, and others. Today it would be hard to scare up one hundred Americans who could say with any accuracy what Kit Carson actually did, and ninety-five of those would be Navahos, who remember with bitterness that in 1863 he evicted their great-grandparents from their homes and marched them to an unhealthy place called the Bosque Redondo, where many of them died.

Kit, whose efforts on behalf of Frémont are well described in David Roberts’s new book, A Newer World: Kit Carson, John C. Frémont, and the Claiming of the American West, had become a dime-novel hero as early as 1847-1848, by which time he had already managed to keep Frémont alive through three difficult expeditions.

In the fall of 1849, however, real life and the dime novel smacked into each other with a force that Kit Carson would never forget. A man named James M. White was traveling with his family on the Santa Fe Trail when they were attacked by a raiding party of Jicarilla Apaches, who killed James White and carried off Mrs. White, her child, and a servant. Pursuit was not immediate, but pursuit was eventually joined. Kit Carson lived nearby and was asked to help. In the brief autobiography which he dictated in 1856 he says that the trail was the most difficult he had ever been asked to follow; but, near the Canadian River, the rescuers finally caught up with the raiders. Carson charged immediately but was called back. The commanding officer, Captain Grier, had been told that the Apaches wanted to parley. They didn’t. After taking a shot or two at the soldiers, they killed Mrs. White and fled. Here is the scene in Carson’s words:

There was only one Indian in camp, he running into the river hard by was shot. In about two hundred yards the body of Mrs. White was found, perfectly warm, had not been killed more than five minutes, shot through the heart with an arrow….

In the camp was found a book, the first of the kind that I had ever seen, in which I was made a great hero, slaying Indians by the hundreds and I have often thought that Mrs. White would read the same and knowing that I lived near, she would pray for my appearance and that she might be saved. I did come but I had not the power to convince those that were in command over me to pursue my plan for her rescue…. [my italics]

Kit Carson was illiterate. He could sign and perhaps recognize his name, but all his life he took orders—often foolish and sometimes barbarous orders—from his superiors: men who could read. He was never insubordinate. The dime novel found by Mrs. White’s still-warm corpse had to be read to him, or summarized. He was long haunted by the hopes that had been raised by that dime novel, hopes he had just failed to fulfill. Except for recording the fact that he married Josefa Jaramillo, his “Little Jo,” Mrs. James M. White is the only woman mentioned by name in his autobiography.


A year or two after reading The Invention of Tradition I compiled, for my own amusement, a long list of people who had a hand in inventing the West. I lost the list but remember that it began with Thomas Jefferson and ended with Andy Warhol, the latter for his Double Elvis, in which the King appears as a gunfighter. In between came gunmakers, boot makers, saddle makers, railroad magnates, painters, Indians, actors, directors, liars of many descriptions, but not, by golly, very many writers: only Ned Buntline, Zane Grey, Max Brand, and Louis L’Amour. In influence, probably the most important of these was Buntline (Edward Zane Carroll Judson). It used to be said that all Russian literature came out from under Gogol’s Overcoat; by the same, if sillier token, incalculable reams of American pulp followed from Buntline’s model, and, along the way, he had as much to do as anyone with persuading a skilled buffalo hunter and middle-grade scout named William F. Cody to become the actor (later impresario) Buffalo Bill.

My old list actually served to make a simple point: the selling of the West preceded the settling of it, sometimes narrowly but other times by decades. In The West of the Imagination, the Goetzmanns père et fils some years ago made this point in relation to art, but it can bear a wider application.2 As early as 1843—five years before Buffalo Bill was born and just about the time the Plains Indians were beginning to be alarmed by the numbers of immigrants plodding west along the Platte River—the far-seeing P.T. Barnum stabled a small herd of buffalo in Hoboken. When he had them chased, for the amusement of huge crowds, some of the buffalo, not realizing that they were actors, took the whole thing too seriously and ran off into a swamp. Sometime later Barnum teamed up with James “Grizzly” Adams, who eventually succumbed to too close an association with bears, but not before he had ridden a specimen named General Fremont down Broadway.

It was quickly evident to Barnum and Buntline that the West could be made to yield a popular culture bonanza; it only needed to be promoted intelligently, and, for a time, before some of his bad tendencies, such as the one for bigamy, began to create problems, Buntline did promote it intelligently. By the middle of the nineteenth century he and his colleagues had the dime novel; what they needed next was the movie camera, so that all that pulp fiction could be converted into pulp film. Then all the dime novelists could start turning out scenarios, and be paid by the week instead of by the word.

Fortunately, during the long wait for the movie camera, the nation had a few other things to deal with: the Civil War, the repeal of slavery, abolition, Reconstruction, financial panics, the building of the railroads, Mark Twain, the Gilded Age, and, still, the Indians of the plains and deserts, those noisy barriers to the rapid suburbanization of the country.

Meanwhile show business, perhaps most notably in the long career of Buffalo Bill Cody, did its best. The researches of Cody’s most substantial biographer, Don Russell,3 have now been acutely fleshed out, particularly in iconography, by Joy Kasson in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History. In sheer celebrity, probably the dominant “Western” figures in the last quarter of the nineteenth century were Custer, Cody, and Theodore Roosevelt, with the great resistants Sitting Bull and Geronimo in the permanent but prominent opposition, and with Sitting Bull’s Little Sure Shot, Annie Oakley—who had rarely been west of Cincinnati, except to perform—representing the Western Girl. (She acted in a melodrama of that name in 1902.)

The impulse of scholars such as Joy Kasson, and also of curators, to go to the iconography—usually that means the advertising art—rather than the autobiographies of these heroes is certainly wise. Speaking of Cody, Kasson says that his autobiography “confounds easy distinctions between fact and fiction,” a polite formulation that allows her to avoid saying that it’s a pack of lies; as much could also be said for the self-promotional meanderings of Custer, Theodore Roosevelt, and many another Westerner or pseudo-Westerner. All of them, without hesitation, “confound easy distinctions between fact and fiction.”

  1. 1

    Cambridge University Press, 1983.

  2. 2

    Norton, 1986.

  3. 3

    In The Lives and Legends of Buffalo Bill (University of Oklahoma Press, 1960).

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