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The myth of the cowboy

The myth of the cowboy


“Bonanza,” “Gunsmoke,” “Rawhide,” “The Lone Ranger,” …

We all loved these shows and want to identify with the heroes — strong, independent, active, resilient, a real individual making his own rules, just wanting to be left alone, especially by the government … white, handsome, getting the girl.

The trouble is that this image of the cowboy/gunslinger/hero is a myth, which means it’s not based on historical reality.

For one thing, up to a third of cowboys were black or brown, and another third or so were immigrants who spoke broken English at best. If they owned cattle, it meant they had money and land, which they probably got in various ways from the U.S. government, which was intent on getting the West settled rapidly in part to deal with the lingering issue of slave states and non-slave states, and also to access the natural resources..

These “individualists” were also dependent on the government for protection from the “savages” from whom they were taking the land — witness the many forts — and for the construction of the railroads and other infrastructure that enabled them to market their cattle.

“Little House on the Prairie” is another myth. Many, many girls (and maybe boys) have learned courage, resilience, resourcefulness, and frugality from absorbing Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series of children’s books originally published between 1932 and 1943. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s time we recognize that her daughter, Rose, did most of the writing and embroidering, and the object was to earn money. Fiction sells a whole lot better than reality.

So it may be fun to be a survivalist and/or to roar around in a pick-up with “rebel” flags flying and think you’re today’s pioneer or cowboy, but the real frontier now is learning to get along with all the other people in the world.

There are so many of us, and we’re both so alike and so different from each other. This country affords more than enough for all of us if we continue to appreciate our myths but base our actions and lives on documented reality — you know, facts.

— Mary Fahnestock-Thomas, Hamilton


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