OUT ON THE FLAT prairie that stretches from Texas to the border with Canada, where the grasslands give onto scrub and switchgrass, flowering cottonwoods and sagebrush deserts, where Indian paintbrush and fireweed light up the fields, where mountains rise above fragrant, blossoming meadows and mesquite trees and all manner of cactus — saguaro, prickly pear, cholla, and Barbary fig — claim the ground, moving west, to the pinyon-juniper woodland, the domain of coulees and buttes, arroyos, seasonal rivers, broad canyons, and badlands to the north, the land where pronghorn and elk roam and bison once milled in herds so vast you could ride for days without spotting a break in the dark cloud, against another painted sunset a mounted figure sits like a silhouette in our imagination. Still, remote, unreachable, the figure turns and is gone.
What are we to make of our myths? The Marlboro Man has left us, but George W. Bush, as president, polishes his image by clearing brush at his Texas ranch. A decade later, Cliven Bundy assumes the mantle of anti-federal fervor in a showy standoff over Western grazing rights. Politicians from Arizona to Montana campaign in Stetsons and riding boots; the props and costumes of the Old West take on a second life as political theater; and the stance, the look — perfected by actors from John Wayne to Ronald Reagan — teaches us to read masculinity from superficial cues.
As one figure in the larger genre of the Western (itself but one entry in the vast canon of American frontier myths), the cowboy has nonetheless taken on an outsized role in our culture, thanks to more than a century of symbolic freighting in literature, politics, and film. The resonance of any enduring myth changes with the times, and the cowboy, being no exception, has evolved with the culture, shifting to reflect our beliefs and anxieties about racial, sexual, and economic identity.
Since the closing of the frontier, the “savage wars” of our country’s past have offered the presiding metaphor for our wars abroad, notably in Vietnam — which American troops described as “Indian country” and where they likened missions to root out rebel forces to games of “Cowboys and Indians” — and in the War on Terror. Describing the latter in its early years, Robert Kaplan remarked, “the American military is back to the days of fighting the Indians,” an idea that may have suggested itself to him when US troops abroad greeted him with the refrain, “Welcome to Injun Country.” Osama bin Laden’s code name to the soldiers who took him out was, fittingly, Geronimo.
Today, with Trump, we are developing a new language of regional ethnography to explain our political divisions. “Why do working-class conservatives seem to vote so often against their own economic interests?” David Brooks asks in an editorial from last July. “My stab at an answer would begin in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many Trump supporters live in places that once were on the edge of the American frontier. Life on that frontier was fragile, perilous, lonely and remorseless.” This precarious existence, Brooks claims, cultivated a lasting reverence for discipline and self-reliance, a theme picked up in a recent paper by three social scientists at Boston University — “Frontier Culture: The Roots and Persistence of ‘Rugged Individualism’ in the United States” — which finds that the length of time a county spent on the frontier correlates with current measures of its “individualism,” “opposition to redistribution and regulation,” and tendency to vote Republican. In other words, the residue of Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” is with us today; our political imagination still warps around the idea of freedom as unsettled land and the relative lawlessness of border regions.
But myth is not history, and to see the invention of the former, we must understand the latter. How does what happened on the frontier compare with what we now imagine?
The era of the historical cowboy was surprisingly short. Beginning in the years just after the Civil War, when Northerners suddenly developed a taste for beef, it ran until the harsh winter of 1886–1887, when a million cattle perished from cold and starvation in what is known as the Big Die-Up. The industry limped on after this, but the cattle boom had ended. The arrival of barbed wire turned the range into property and pitted ranchers against drovers. With the end of the trail drive, the cowboy became mostly a thing of the past.
For the two decades prior, however, cattle fever raged. In New York City, the Delmonico Brothers championed the American steak. Diners, who had preferred pork, now couldn’t get enough. The overseas market in Britain was strong as well, and semi-feral herds of longhorn in Texas had meantime multiplied until their number seemed limitless. The question was how to get them to market. Starting in 1866, enterprising herders began rounding up cattle in Texas and trailing them, over a couple of months, a thousand miles or more to railheads in the Plains States for sale and transport east.
In Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West (2017), Chris Knowlton follows the journey these herders took as the industry grew exponentially around them: 35,000 cattle trailed in 1867; 75,000 the next year; then 350,000 — and so on. He calls it “the largest forced migration of animals in human history” and estimates that “some ten million cattle would be driven north out of Texas.” At the boom’s peak, 50,000 cowboys were driving cattle on the range. “By some accounts,” Knowlton writes, “total investment in the cattle industry now exceeded the capitalization of the entire American banking system.”
The work was punishing and poorly paid, but with a tenfold markup on cattle sold in the east (compared with Texas prices), entrepreneurs and investors stood to make a fortune. Investment flowed in from England and Scotland, as well as from Eastern industrialists and speculators. The wealthy families of the Gilded Age — the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and dozens of others — all got in on the action. In 1884, Theodore Roosevelt struck out for the Dakotas to become a cattleman — too late to avoid losing money but not so late that he missed falling in love. His experiences trailing and ranching grew into three books and the early flame of the American conservation movement. “It was here,” he said, “the romance of my life began.”
Cowboys navigated hurdles of settlement and geography, rustlers and thieves, to get their cattle to railheads. As cowherds pioneered new trails, rail lines pushed deeper into the country and branched out. The cattle town was born — outposts like Abilene, Wichita, Dodge City, and Cheyenne — alongside industries of more and less dubious repute for trail-weary cowboys with a season’s pay in their pockets and businessmen and speculators who had traveled west in search of riches. The Chicago stockyards were established in this period, ready to receive the cattle arriving by train, and massive slaughterhouse and meatpacking industries grew up around new innovations in the refrigeration and transport of meat.
Heading west to become cowboys were romantic Easterners, the rich sons of wealthy families, young foreigners — German, Scandinavian, British, and Scottish immigrants — and large numbers of Southerners fleeing the devastated postwar economy of the Confederacy. Many veteran cavalrymen from the South saw potential employment on the range. For newly emancipated blacks as well, limited job opportunities and the grim prospect of returning to plantation work meant cowboying offered a life of greater freedom and egalitarianism than they were likely to find at home.
Despite what most fiction will have you believe, life on the range was a melting pot of nationalities, regional backgrounds, ethnicities, and races. Historians estimate that as many as a quarter of the cowboys of this era were black — a fact, along with the prevalence of American Indian and Mexican cowboys, largely erased from our cultural image of the Old West.
The American cowboy derived from the 19th-century Mexican vaquero, the import of a Spanish ranching tradition. (The word buckaroo, meaning cowboy, is thought to come from vaquero.) That the clothing, terminology, and technique of the vaquero became the American cowboy’s leads to the peculiar situation today where this prominent symbol of white American exceptionalism wears the garb, speaks the lingo, and adopts the iconography of 19th-century Mexicans.
But where the cowboy is concerned, these contradictions are more rule than exception. The image of the cowboy as gunslinger turns out to be another invention of filmic and literary mythmaking. Violence did afflict life along the frontier, where civic institutions were weak and conflicts with native peoples not infrequent. But shootouts of the sort portrayed in movies were rare. Cowboys, preoccupied with their demanding work, had little time or appetite for gunplay.
Between 1870 and 1885, at the very height of the cattle boom, historian Robert Dykstra has found that the total number of gun deaths in all major frontier cattle towns was 45 — or 1.5 per cattle-trading season. Of the 45 deaths, 39 came from shotguns and only six from handguns. Dykstra cites fellow historians who believe that life and property may have been safer out west than in eastern cities at the time. The “Wild” West may even have been less dangerous, on the whole, than 20th-century postwar America.
The disentangling of fact from myth proceeds in every direction. Although fights between cowboys and American Indians were not unknown, they were uncommon. What conflicts cowboys found themselves involved in were almost always with ranchers and farmers, who didn’t want wild cattle grazing on their land or infecting their own herds with disease. (Most fights involving Indians saw homesteaders and US cavalry on the other side.)
And if we have come to see the cowboy as an emblem of heterosexual virility, it is not for any lack of homosexual behavior among cowboys or along the male-dominated frontier. As an identity, homosexuality may have been little known, but same-sex couplings and encounters were not. Codes existed to indicate one’s interest or preference, and among those not so inclined, the practice was largely tolerated or ignored. In settled areas, “bachelor marriages” were not unusual. On the trail, to allude to Walt Whitman was to indicate an interest and openness.
It can hardly surprise us today to hear that the story we tell about some chapter of the past is a fond fiction. The question is what we can learn, by measuring the distance between history and myth, about the psychic and cultural needs that came together to create this story.
The Western genre evolved over a long period, with its faint beginnings in racy newspaper reports Eastern journalists wrote from the burgeoning cattle towns of Kansas. Until 1902, when Owen Wister published The Virginian, the single work that would create the Western genre we recognize today, stories of cowboys were the province of American dime novels, a descendant of the penny dreadful. With Wister — a Harvard graduate who wanted to write operas — and the Wild West shows that toured the country in the early 20th century, the genre found its footing, growing in popularity during the silent-film era (The Great Train Robbery of 1903 was the first Western film). John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) showed that the Western could be adapted to the vision of auteurs bent on cinematic art, and by the 1950s, when the genre became Hollywood’s most popular, the Western had entered a high-brow phase, deepening into something like America’s version of Greek tragedy. The cruder strains of the Western diverted into television in this era, leaving the filmic Western free to explore the evolving sensibility of the 1960s and ’70s, a period that saw the emergence of revisionist Westerns and other counter-narratives.
The breadth of the Western genre introduces some confusion in one’s thinking since it encompasses not only stories of cowboys but of the West’s settling more broadly: pioneer narratives, visions of life on the plains, stories of railroad construction, gold prospecting, and early mining settlements — the arrival of white society in western lands generally. This conflation is reflected in all we mean by cowboy stories too. The fictional cowboy can be a herder, rancher, thief, marshal, or nomad. The cowboy as knight errant — on the lookout for opportunity and disposed to violent adventure — lives alongside all the other possibilities: the cowboy as mercenary, maverick, outlaw, lawman, or everyman. In this final role, the cowboy is most often the individual pitted against society or the moral actor taking a stand in a fallen world.
But for all this variety, as an ur-entry in the mythic catalog, the cowboy displays several stable attributes: he is an avatar of capability and violence, of fighting and protecting; he is a loner, a man apart, with an impulse toward friendship and loyalty but a visceral mistrust of life in society’s bosom; finally, he is an ideal of masculinity and male sexuality. Each quality reveals a truth in isolation, but the three bear powerfully on one another and only in their confluence give the myth its enduring power.
Marshall McLuhan believed that violence was always about the quest for identity. Some years later, in an interview, he elaborated:
Yes, all forms of violence are quests for identity. When you live out on the frontier, you have no identity. You are a nobody. Therefore, you get very tough. You have to prove that you are somebody. So you become very violent. Identity is always accompanied by violence. This seems paradoxical to you? Ordinary people find the need for violence as they lose their identities. It is only the threat to people’s identity that makes them violent. Terrorists, hijackers — these are people minus identity. They are determined to make it somehow, to get coverage, to get noticed.
Without a reputation or meaningful place in the society, you fall back on yourself: your capacity to exert and resist power. If you find yourself reduced in status or robbed of identity, violence becomes the surefire means back into relevance. The public spectacle of mass shootings and the publicity-seeking behavior of terrorists are but two recent examples. Since time immemorial, the great threat to settled life has always been the aggression of those on the margins, with much to gain, little to lose, and bones to pick.
The cowboy begins as the man without a place, the drifter who has left society behind. His identity rests in his capability, which he realizes in violence — through, in his way, returning the hardness and toughness of the wild to society, as he carries these potentials, half-tempered and half-tamed, within him. Most often he embodies the constructive use of violence, in standing up to corruption and abuse, and almost always he reflects the fantasy of individual power, our desire to believe ourselves capable of resisting evil or oppressive forces.
But in returning to society to provide the violence that must stand as the frontline enforcement of the law, the cowboy becomes a figure not of the wild or its freedom but of a rudimentary social order. This tension is the contradiction of American frontier mythology in microcosm, insofar as western settlers, romanticized for their freedom from social and civic constraint, are precisely who colonized the wild, fenced off its freedom, and cultivated its natural open spaces. Historian Eric Hobsbawm notes the curious inversion of American and Canadian frontier myths — the former emphasizing the individual’s escape from society into the harsh freedom of the wild, the latter the imposition of order, in the form of society, on a violent and savage nature.
John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) drills down on the sore point where these mythologies meet: the transitional need for an antisocial, violent figure in establishing the society that will make him obsolete. James Stewart’s “Stoddard” — a young, idealistic lawyer and the very embodiment of civil society — is at once the spiritual and romantic rival of John Wayne’s “Doniphon,” a tough, self-sufficient rancher, and the beneficiary of Doniphon’s protection. Doniphon not only saves Stoddard’s life when his legal training proves no match for outlaw violence but relinquishes to Stoddard the woman he loves and confers on him the false reputation that will make Stoddard’s fame. Doniphon understands, in his way, that Stoddard is the West’s future and he its past. Long after, when Stoddard has become senator, returns to town, and at last reveals the truth of his undeserved reputation to a local reporter, the newspaperman responds, “This is the West, sir. When legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
This is one explanation for the distance between history and myth: settled life requires an idealistic belief in the triumph of justice and the type of figure who will achieve it. Civilized life rests on a foundation of uncivilized acts, and somewhere, sewn into the conscience of civil society, is a primordial memory of this original sin and the fear, at once, of this violent potential within us and of its having been bred out of us by society’s softening influence.
As Richard Slotkin documents in his monumental trilogy on the “Myth of the Frontier,” violent conflict is central to the entire canon, stretching back to the era of the first European settlers. Violence operates within the myth as a regenerative tonic to the spirit and invariably a vector of progress. At the turn of the 20th century, when the Western took form as a genre, segments of the ruling elite had begun to entertain the idea that the “strenuous life” out west offered an invigorating corrective to the degenerative and emasculating influence of life in eastern cities.
However quixotic, then, the cowboy myth responds to and calms the latent male anxiety that the possibility of violence has left him. If we are to believe McLuhan, one avenue to identity goes with it. But if the dream of the cowboy contains within it, in uneasy tension, the dual fantasy of being both free from society and society’s protector, where does its modern political romance with capitalism begin? What is it about the existential freedom of the cowboy — liberated from the bondage of materialism and the simple stuff of settled life — that evokes a veneration of industry, mercantilism, and profit?
From the start, investors and speculators streamed west to make a killing in the cattle trade. One does not have to look hard in Roosevelt’s writings on ranch life from the 1880s to find an early idealization of the Westerner’s “sullen and almost defiant self-reliance,” “his peculiarly American spirit of individual self-sufficiency, his impatience of outside interference or control.” Roosevelt saw in the cowboy “few of the emasculated, milk-and-water moralities admired by the pseudo-philanthropists,” but rather “the stern, manly qualities that are invaluable to a nation.”
On the other hand, it is the later conflation of self-reliance with capitalism’s excesses — of “stern, manly qualities” with cupidity — that remains to be explained. Roosevelt’s fame, after all, rests on two market-taming policies: trust-busting and conservancy. His role in inaugurating the American conservation movement grew out of his experience in the Big Die-Up, the horrors of which arose in no small part from an unregulated, speculative industry run amok. Add to this the peculiar fact that the left-wing Populist movement in this era found some of its richest soil in Kansas, that hotbed of dissolute cattle towns. Self-sufficiency in frontier cultures often went hand in hand with anti-corporate sentiment and an ingrained egalitarianism.
An alternative path to the cowboy as capitalist mascot runs through the figure’s other enduring symbolism, that of male sexuality: the cowboy as emblem of virility, patriarchy, and strength. Vital to the cowboy myth is the idea of men as women’s protectors, and not always in quaint, chivalric ways. It takes about 45 minutes of watching The Searchers (1956) to discover that we are in a very strange fantasy, one in which the sexuality of a young girl captured by Comanche Indians inspires John Wayne’s “Ethan” to devote years of his life to her recovery.
As Sebastian Junger recounts in Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016), the worry among settlers along the colonial frontier was always less of Indian kidnappings than of white defections. Thousands of colonials left their communities for native tribes, while essentially no native people of their own volition joined white society. Even kidnapped settlers — even those raised entirely in the colonial world — tended to prefer Indian life once they got a taste of it. Benjamin Franklin fretted that, “[t]ho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time [liberated whites] become disgusted with our manner of life […] and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods.”
What did it say about “civilized” life that those with cross-cultural experience preferred the offerings of Neolithic tribalism? “Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European,” wrote French colonist Hector de Crèvecoeur. “There must be in their social bond something singularly captivating and far superior to anything to be boasted of among us.” Indeed, he might have started by looking at the status, autonomy, and sexual freedom that women enjoyed in native cultures and were wholly denied in colonial society.
The Searchers is painfully aware of this history. When Ethan finds Debbie five years after her capture, married to an Indian chief, she tells her self-styled liberator that she has become a Comanche now and prefers to stay. Ethan tries to kill her on the spot, happier to see her dead than living as an Indian, an impulse so violent and strange that we must reconsider the entire motivation of his exhaustive search. What really was at stake? The scene echoes a moment in Ford’s earlier Stagecoach when, facing imminent defeat at the hands of an Apache horde, the gentleman Hatfield readies his last bullet to kill Mrs. Mallory, a Southern lady, and save her from capture and rape. As Glenn Frankel notes in The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend (2013), there is no saving Debbie from such a fate.
[Ethan’s] goal is not to restore his lost niece to the remnants of their broken family but to kill her, because she has grown into a young woman and has become a Comanche bride and, willingly or not, has had sex with Indians. He is bent on enforcing sexual and racial purity by performing an honor killing as twisted and remorseless as any carried out in the medieval recesses of the Middle East.
The film takes a bold step toward honesty then. It suggests that Ethan’s deepest fear is not what the Comanche may do to Debbie but what she, Debbie, may decide to do herself. It gestures at a perennial fear of “the other,” not as instigator of violence but as sexual rival, as allure. The desire to control always masks itself best beneath the desire to protect, and the Western is obsessed with the protection of women. We see the same preoccupation in D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), where the Ku Klux Klan is portrayed as heroic protector of white feminine virtue against black libidinal violence. (The basis of Griffith’s movie — a novel called The Clansman (1905) — was in fact a Southern offshoot of the “red-blooded” school of writing that had grown up around Western themes.)
If an overlap exists in our politics today between a fixation on race and on the reproductive rights of women, it begins with a man’s fear that he is sexually obsolete — that, given a choice, women will not choose him, and that the only way to retain sexual viability is through power. How else are we to square, for example, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s wistful claim that when he was growing up “women were sacred and looked upon with great honor” with his apparent disregard for his aide Rob Porter’s history of domestic abuse? Such inconsistencies only make sense when we understand the key question as who has power over, commits violence against, and sleeps with women.
A particular, fragile idea of identity, as it passes through a particular, fragile idea of sexuality, is at stake.
“The dark places are at the center,” George Steiner says. “Pass them by and there can be no serious discussion of the human potential.” What shrouded facets of the male psyche lurk in the shadows of the sundrenched Western?
For let’s be clear, the cowboy emerges from the male imagination, as the man’s image and fantasy of his own masculinity. Like the soldier or member of a sports team, the cowboy seems most at home in the company of other men, where a homoerotic thrill exists up to the periphery of a taboo. Male companionship, camaraderie, and physical intimacy are not just permitted but encouraged — to a point. This point is essential because it sanctions what can otherwise be confused for sexual flirtation. A movie like Brokeback Mountain (2005) proves so transgressive because it pushes right past the fiercely guarded point where male bonding bleeds into homosexuality.
But far stranger than its silence on homosexuality — an oversight that permeates many other masculine genres — is the Western’s touchiness and discomfort with sex in general. A diffuse romance may float in the air, but one senses an embarrassment and shame when it comes to the topic of sex per se. The cowboy is a loner. About him hangs the air of someone who has rejected and isolated himself before anyone else can, and the ideal he embodies is of the sexually potent man who keeps his power and potency to himself. Beyond his desire for freedom, the cowboy betrays an inkling of the male intuition that even sexual viability will not be enough, that there are hungers or longings inside him that may be unavoidably antisocial, even insatiable.
The cowboy’s emblematic act is his self-removal from society, and the fantasy this act makes possible is a redemption through self-sacrifice. The cowboy will return to society and give himself to save it. The martyr complex always takes this structure: a socially induced shame nurturing a furious individualism, combined with a simultaneous yearning for belonging and acceptance. The cowboy will give his life for the society that made him feel ashamed: it is the sacrifice that redeems the shame and ensures the grief and remorse of those who made him feel it.
But as a fictional genre, which is to say as a myth, the fantasy rests on the ultimate death or departure of the central figure, for to truly reengage with society would only renew the humiliation. Storytelling conventions demand that we hew to moments of trial and nobility, and this is the problem with art that acts as sublimation or wish-fulfillment: the very idealizations that ease a personal sense of inadequacy end up reinscribing the unrealistic ideal wherein the sense of inadequacy is born.
A fuller picture of human life would come at the expense of some vicarious comfort, for every man, even the most heroic, must live with himself through every minute of his life, and this is simply not, if we are being honest, an unequivocally proud experience. The dream of heroism, capability, and independence is thrilling, but costly, and the impossible ideal of manhood it sets up begins to explain how the cowboy’s self-reliance gets repackaged as the morally unbound freedom of capitalist enterprise. Consider that cutthroat capitalism, according to its own inner mythology, unites the antisocial and prosocial impulses in a strange amalgam. “Destruction” and “disruption” can be creative, productive, healthy. The impulse to turn one’s back on and even tear down what has come before is justifiable per the logic of some amorphous, overarching social gain. The cowboy epitomizes the belief that violence is a transitional necessity as society sets down firmer, more prosperous roots; modern-day capitalism believes the same.
The contradictions of the cowboy myth therefore converge on a central psychic need, the fantasy of taking spiritual revenge on the society that made you feel ashamed or insignificant, and at the same time showing yourself to be that society’s hero. Roosevelt in the end might have been too quick in exiling philanthropy from the Western soul: this may, today, be precisely the horse that the capitalist cowboy rides in on in his final act.
Our cultural moment is eager to reconsider the male and female identities passed on to us by movies and television, by music, by images and stories of the past. Such myths ferry spiritual prejudices beyond the era that created them and trap us in lives and behaviors we did not choose. They unite fantasies with nostalgia, and they grow stronger for this bond, overwriting the truth, which is always less romantic and more ambivalent than the fiction.
But simply to discard myths uninterrogated only returns us to the emotional confusion that first sought comfort in the story. The soul does not learn its darkness from stories but looks to them to explain the inner complexity we prefer to ignore in public. The answer, in short, is not to suppress but to encourage a greater articulacy about what is going on in the background of our stories and the foreground of our hearts. If this reminds us that we are more complicated, troubled creatures than we might wish to believe, all to the good. Seeing ourselves clearly is the only hope we have of making an actual choice.
In 1954, Chicago adman Leo Burnett dreamt up the Marlboro Man, an advertising campaign so successful that in its first year alone it grew Marlboro’s market share from one to 25 percent. We probably owe more of the cowboy’s enduring symbolism to this campaign — which ran for nearly 50 years — than we will ever know. The problem facing Burnett was the introduction of filters to cigarettes, a feature regarded as feminine. This was especially problematic when it came to Marlboros, which were being marketed at the time under the slogan “Mild as May.” Burnett’s job, in other words, was to sell men on women’s cigarettes. His answer, of course, was to sell masculinity to men.
Greg Jackson is the author of Prodigals: Stories. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, VQR, the Guardian, and the Los Angeles Times, among other places. In 2014, he was a finalist for the National Magazine Award in Fiction.