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American West

09 Mar 2017Arts Essays

In his painting, “Against the Sunset”, Frederick Remington plays on the stereotype of the American West as man against the environment, a lonely quest taken on by nothing more than a man and his horse. His painting depicts the lone rider against a setting sun, shown by the yellow to red wash beyond the horizon. The color choice of reds and yellows instead of traditional sky blues is meant to show the unrelenting heat of the West. Coupled with the foreground sagebrush, it depicts the harshness of the climate that was fit for neither man nor beast. Remington’s painting is itself a myth of the West, leading the viewer to assume that life in the West was a solitary pursuit. He shows the environment as much more harsh than it truly was, using blurring of the foreground to again imply extreme heat and dusty conditions. In this piece, as in mch of his work, Remington chooses to focus on the cowboy and imply that the West was a lonely place where men fought the elements by themselves. Nothing could be further from the truth.

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In general, the American West was an environment best faced in groups. As Frederick Jackson Turner writes, the frontier was divided into “isolated settlements”, not a line of frontier towns as some might have thought. Unfortunately, Turner perpetuates the myth of the American West saying that the distance from the settlements to civilization forces people to adopt the ways of the natives and accept the trappings of the region as the best that is available, whether that be hide clothing or other trends adopted from the natives. (Turner, 201). Of course, the problem with this is that Turner is not very familiar with the region he writes about. He compares the adoption of native dress, using hides and furs, to the Iroquois and Cherokee, tribes not found in the region traditionally considered the American West. Like many Easterners of the time, he makes no differentiation between the Eastern native tribes and the Western native tribes, assuming that all are as civilized and generally peaceful as the Iroquois and Cherokee, though he fails to acknowledge that these tribes are civilized at all.

Turner further argues that as the population centers moved further West, the West became more “American”, that is to say more likely to conform to eastern modes of dress and speech and behavior. He approximates that all the land west of Missouri is arid and hostile, failing to recognize the lush grasslands and fertile ground of the area that would become American’s bread basket. Instead, he likens the natives to savages, quoting others who have travelled there and using their observations to decry the way certain native tribes treat their children. As such, Turner’s value as a primary source of American history is somewhat lower. He certainly used the scholarly method available to him at the time, but his writings are wrought with judgments, both his own and from others, that evaluate the West based on the standards of European society or even eastern American society. Neither accurately evaluated the West, but they did contribute to the growing mythology that would become many a young boy’s fantasy world for generations.

The West was actually tamed by wagon trains full of settlers seeking a better life, just as the East Coast was settled by ships full of settlers, not single explorers coming to the New World. But the romantic notion of the West did not include wagon trains, or death from dyssentary or freezing in the mountain passes. Sure, the West had a reputation for being hard, but showing that through the deaths of men and women and children and animals due to the environmental conditions did not feed the dream. So, a dream had to be created, in many cases long after the reality had ceased to be.
By the time Remington painted “Against the Sunset”, the West was being settled by train. It was still a foreboding decision to move West and try one’s hand at mining or ranching, but the days of horse-back riding and man against nature and the natives was generally past. Still, the myth continued. To this day, those who have not visited the American West still expect to see men on horseback and buffalo roaming the prairies. The prairies have been turned into corporate farms and buffalo only seem to roam in South Dakota, or on bison farms, but Americans enjoy the myth. The idea that the land was somehow more wicked and harder to tame than other regions seems to invoke a national sense of pride over the institution of Manifest Destiny. And, as late as the 20th century, American artists like Remington were still feeding the myth.

Remingotn’s work, unlike Turner’s western analysis, was at least fed by actual observations of the West. And, indeed, images like the one captured in “Against the Sunset” can still be observed in the right conditions, at the right location. For example, in the box canyons near the Rio Grande in southern Colorado, the climate and landscape can resemble what Remington depicted. Usually, the only use for horseback riding is for recreation, but even now, it would not be completely unheard of to see someone riding in the sage wearing a cowboy hat and boots, with the setting sun in the background. But it is not the lifestyle of the West or an everyday occurrence now anymore than it was in Remington’s day.

The Myth of the American West is much more appealing than the reality. It is much more romantic to think of men as real men, carrying a gun and fightin’ the Injuns than to think of the back-breaking labor to hew out enough pine to build a cabin or to break up the prairie grasses enough to plant crops and rely on the weather to feed you the next winter. Americans want the war of westward expansion to be romantic and sexy instead of full of hard work, disease and death. After all, who wants to claim their ancestor died on wagon train headed west when he drank foul water? It is much more amazing and interesting to claim that he was scalped by Apaches while running mail for the Pony Express.

Again, some of the myths of the American West have their basis in facts. Stagecoaches were occasionally robbed, though the bandits were rarely natives. Men did ride at full gallop between Pony Express stations on occasion to get the mail through. The western desert can be unrelenting in its heat and water is not always a plentiful commodity in the West.
However, to claim that men rode horses at break-neck speed around the West while fighting Indians and shooting buffalo over their shoulder is just a myth created by artists like Remington and “scholars” like Turner. The reality is that the West was won via wagon train, railroad and the American calvary.

Works Cited

  • Remington, Frederick. “Against the Sunset”, 1906.
  • Turner, Frederick Jackson. “Frontier in American History”. American History Association, Chicago, IL. 1893, pp. 199-215
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