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The modern day United State of America was founded by immigrants who came from all over Europe and settled on this sparsely populated land in North America. The pioneers first settled on the East and they set out to conquer and establish settlements in the west of the country. To the early settlers on the East, the west was a savage land that needed to be conquered. An invisible yet powerful frontier line existed between the civilized East and the savage West. The American frontier myth essentially explains how the brave American pioneers built the nation by conquering the Native tribes that lived in the West and making the once savage land hospitable and prosperous.
One image that is closely linked to frontier history is that of the American cowboy. Whenever people think of the Wild West, they conjure up images of a cowboy riding in to save the day. In the minds of many Americans, the cowboy embodies the virtues of the pioneers and their conquest of the wilderness. This paper will set out to discuss the close relationship between the American frontier myth and the cowboy. It will show that the close relationship springs from the supposed role that the cowboys played in implementing the westward expansion.
The American Frontier Myth
By definition, a myth is a story with some historical basis that is used to explain a certain event or explain the origins of a nation. The American frontier myth is the story that explains how the pioneers conquered the land and created the United States of America. It highlights the values that the American people hold and explains how these values played a part in the formation of the nation. When the early immigrants came to America, they did not find an empty land. Instead, they found a land that was occupied by various native tribes. Creating a new nation, therefore entailed conquering the land. This conquest was undertaken from the East to the West.
For the pioneers, the American Frontier represented the divide between European Civilization and the Native occupied territories. The prosperity and advancement of the American people depended on the westward expansion.1 Through this expansion, the pioneers would not only increase the natural resources available to the American people, but they would also civilize the savage regions.
The myth of the American frontier is therefore a story of how the pioneers fought their way through a hostile land as they sought to expand the boundaries of the nation west. It is a story of brave men and women overcoming great hardships in their quest to build a democratic civilization in North America. In this story, the Europeans are regarded as a unified group of civilized people who engaged in a protracted fight against barbarians and a hostile land. For these pioneers, expanding west and exploiting the opportunities found there was necessary in the building of a powerful and rich nation.2 There is a deep relationship between cowboys and the frontier myth.
The cowboy was born in 19th century America following the demand for people to drive large herds of cattle from Texas to the Northern markets.3 Successful cowboys encountered and survived numerous dangers as they drove their herds north. Due to the perceived bravery and industrious nature of cowboys, the public developed an idealized image of these individuals. The relationship between cowboys and the frontier myth exists due to a number of unique attributes of the cowboy image.
Cowboys and the American Frontier Myth
The cowboy represents the capacity of the Europeans to impose order in a previously wild and hostile land. The primary quest of the frontiersmen was to push the frontier line forward until the Pacific Ocean was reached.4 The land to the west was savage and it was the role of the pioneers to colonize the territory and civilize its inhabitants. Cowboys embody the attributes that the pioneers needed to possess in order to achieve these goals. He was a survivor who was capable of staying alive in the hostile land. The cowboy was also able to use violence to impose order on the frontier lands. Successful colonization led to the establishment of communities modeled after the European cultural systems.5 Following a successful establishment of a settlement, the cowboy moved on west to impose order on new swaths of untamed space.
The American frontier myth acknowledges that the USA was created through the conquering of the Natives who first occupied the land. This subjugation often required the use of force and violence. The pioneers who moved and settled in the west were in constant threat of attacks from bandits and Indians. The cowboy appears in this context as the lawman who came to bring order and justice to the western settlements. He was ready to fight and kill all who would threaten the pioneer communities. The cowboy was a man who was willing to die for the sake of protecting his community.6
He confronted the criminal elements in the society and fought against the Indian tribes that threatened the expansion efforts of the pioneers. Through his gun, the cowboy was able to bring peace and justice to the previously wild land in the west. By playing the role of the lawman, the cowboy played a critical role in helping the pioneers advance west. His efforts enabled the settlers to progressively conquer the western lands until the country eventually stretched from the East coast to the West coast.
Courage and perseverance were some of the most important virtues in the American Frontier. Frontier life was harsh and very dangerous for the pioneers who dared to venture west. Expanding the American Frontier meant moving from well established European settlements in hostile lands that were either harsh or inhabited by the Native Americans. The frontiersmen would have to build new settlements in the Western lands and clear the lands for cultivation. In addition to this, they had to be on the lookout for Native Americans who often attacked their settlements. The cowboys represented the best of the frontiersmen since they were men who were willing to brave the dangers as they explored the west. The cowboys were accustomed to dangers in their occupation. During cattle drives, they were required to move vast herds of cattle through dangerous terrain.7
In addition to the threat of Indian attacks, they had to cope with windstorms and prairie fires. During the push west, the cowboy’s bravery made it possible to cope with the hostilities of the land beyond the frontier. The cowboy was a fearless man who would face danger without hesitation. They did not fear the violent attacks made by the Natives who were trying to prevent the pioneers from taking over their land. Instead, they courageously fought back and protected the settlements.
The cowboy embodied the ideal that the pioneers were free men who were deciding their own fate by moving westwards. The frontier myth depicts the pioneers as people who took action to make their own destiny. They were compelled to move west out of the desire to not only make a fortune for themselves, but also out of a patriotic duty to strengthen the nation by conquering more land. The many hardships of the west did not detract them from their quest. The cowboy personified these virtues of the pioneers since he was a free spirit who took charge of his destiny.8 Instead of remaining in the relative safety of the East, the cowboy charged onwards to create a better future for himself.
Another reason for the close relationship between cowboys and the American frontier myth is that these individuals exemplified the values of individualism and self-reliance that the pioneers fully embraced. The early settlers were from European countries where class distinctions played a major role in society. In England, the people were ruled over by the monarchy and class distinctions were prevalent in the society. People with titles were highly regarded while the title-less masses occupied the lowest rungs of the society. Many immigrants moved to the new world to escape from the European societies where people were judged based on inherited privileges instead of their abilities. The cowboy was a man who disdained class distinction and believed that each man should be judged on merit.9 He believed in the capitalistic values where each person had an equal opportunity to prosper through hard work.
Discussion and Conclusion
Most people make an automatic connection between the American cowboy and the American frontier myth. This innate association of these two occurs since the cowboy is presented as the person who led the conquest of the pioneers west. Through his relentless spirit, expertise and his bravery, he was able to rise above all troubles and help in the pushing of the western frontier. In reality, the image of the cowboy is not historically accurate. However, this imagined image of a cowboy who embodies the values held in high esteem by the American people has become widely accepted as the truth. People perceive a strong connection between the American cowboy and the frontier myth. Hollywood western movies have helped reinforce this connection by depicting the cowboy as a major player in the expansion efforts of the pioneers.
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This paper set out to discuss the reasons for the relationship between the American frontier myth and the cowboy. It began explaining how the American frontier myth was created. It also explained how the cowboy image was developed in 19th century America. The paper then discussed the various attributes of the cowboy that lead to his association with the American frontier myth. It has shown that the cowboy’s bravery and his resilience were attributes needed in the westward advancement of the pioneers. His ability to user violence to subdue the enemy helped in the colonization efforts of the frontiersmen. The relationship between the American frontier myth and the cowboy therefore developed since the cowboys embodied the attributes that helped in the conquering of the Wild West.
Even, Larry, and Pavich Paul. A Literary History of the American West. Texas Christian University Press, 1987. Web.
Frantz, Joe, and Choate Julian. The American Cowboy: The Myth and the Reality. Wesport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981. Web.
Hillis, Craig. “Cowboys and Indians: The International Stage.” Journal of Texas Music History 2, no.1 (2002): 10-25. Web.
Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1987. Web.
Sullivan, Tom. Cowboys and Caudillos: Frontier Ideology of the Americas. Popular Press, 1990. Web.
Turner, Frederick and Faragher John. Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner: the Significance of the Frontier in American History, and Other Essays. New York: H. Holt, 1994. Web.
- Frederick Turner and John Faragher, Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner: the Significance of the Frontier in American History, and Other Essays (New York: H. Holt, 1994), 15.
- Richard Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860, (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1987), 10.
- Craig Hillis, “Cowboys and Indians: The International Stage,” Journal of Texas Music History 2, no.1 (2002), 18.
- Turner and Faragher 15.
- Tom Sullivan, Cowboys and Caudillos: Frontier Ideology of the Americas (Popular Press, 1990), 121.
- Larry Even and Paul Pavich, A Literary History of the American West (Texas Christian University Press, 1987), 374.
- Hillis 18.
- Joe Frantz and Julian Choate, The American Cowboy: The Myth and the Reality (Wesport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981), 72.
- Even and Pavich 517.