“The Real West”
When people talk about the “Wild West” or the “Old West,” they are usually referring to the people and events from the western part of the United States during the second half of the 1800s. Contrary to what you may know about the old west, the “Real West” was considerably different than the west depicted by Hollywood and popular culture. This romantic view of the Old West, usually depicted in western movies and novels, shows the American old west as a time of gunfights, gambling, and attacks by Native Americans. However, in reality most inhabitants of the West did not even carry a gun or even witness a shootout. Without the romanticism that has contributed to this myth, the old west however was still a rough and wild place. Far from the control of the government, the west was ruled by its own way of life and set of rules.
Often popular culture depicts the old west as nothing but a bunch of ghost towns. While this may be true in some respect, many of the settlements established in the second half of the 1800s are still thriving towns to this day. What we know as the “wild west” was actually a period of only forty years, or as someone there would have said “between two go and get its and two hooks and a holler.” The expansion into the west was for those who needed a “New Deal.” There were a variety of people who went west during this time but usually they had one of the three motives in mind: A) to get something, B) to get away from something, or C) just to get there. Regardless of their reasoning, the settlers who moved west helped shape what America would become making it one of the most powerful nations in the world.
Various factors caused this great westward expansion in the 19th century, contributing to the West’s lawless reputation depicted in popular culture. For example, the Californian gold rush of 1849 caused a mass of mining towns to spring up overnight in areas that were previously uninhabited. Most of these migrants were young men looking for adventure and to gain fortune quickly. Based on these demographics, businesses associated with the west such as saloons, gambling dens, and brothels would spring up throughout the west, and with them problems would arise. Being so far from the established government and officers who would enforce laws, myth has the general public to believe that these western towns were without rules and structure, leading to a lawless way of life. In reality though, these settlements would actually settle disputes through make shift governments made up from local miners. This provided some sense of authority and justice until the federal and state governments were able to expand and organize providing a more sound legal system. In spite of some specific incidents that occurred, Hollywood has been the real perpetrator behind this myth of the old west by expanding the stereotype.
The old west really began to take shape with the introduction of the railroads. The first railroads were granted land on each side of their tracks by the federal government to encourage the nation’s growth west. Each mile of railroad track laid, the railroads would receive ownership of land on each side of the track, which would be sold extremely cheap to settlers to encourage growth in these areas. With land available for cheap prices, settlers were able to move into the densely populated area. The railroads then served as the primary mode of transportation and goods and allowed for better communication between communities. Women were able to join the men out west and gradually the west shaped into a growing place capable of raising children in functional communities, thus becoming much less wild.
The old west is an interesting topic once the myths of popular culture have been removed. Though not heavily romanticized as in film and literature, the stories of the lives of those first pioneers are just as interesting. By removing the myths associated with the area, one has a better understanding of the history of this great nation.