Between 1850 and 1912, seventeen western states joined the Union, completing the continental United States. In 1860, America's frontier began at the Missouri River. Just 30 years later the United States Census Bureau declared that there was no longer a frontier at all. In 1848, California was a virtually empty Mexican territory, and San Francisco had only 850 residents. By 1900, California's population had reached almost 2 million and San Francisco was home to almost 350,000 people.12 Between 1860 and 1880, the US population increased by 60%, but western regions grew several times faster – the populations of Kansas and Nevada increased by more than 800%; Nebraska grew more than 1400%.13 In 1849, the Sierra Nevada mountain range was an unspoiled wilderness; gold seekers hazarded a cross-county trip by wagon train or an ocean voyage around Cape Horn or through the disease-ridden Isthmus of Panama. By 1900, tourists crossed the continent by train to visit California's Yosemite National Park and stay in the luxurious Wawona Hotel.
During the second half of the nineteenth century, Americans crossed and transformed the continent. The history of this western migration soon held a prominent place in American mythology. The western space itself was cast as synonymous with the nation's highest purposes – it was the immense stage on which the young nation played out its experiment in democracy. And Americans' conquest of that space grew into a romantic narrative filled with iconic images – the trailblazing pioneer, the dogged homesteader, the lonesome cowboy – engaged in a series of iconic battles – man versus nature, rancher versus farmer, cowboy versus Indian. In 1890, University of Wisconsin historian Frederick Jackson Turner gave this narrative an academic gloss in arguing that the frontier was the source of America's democratic values – wave after wave of pioneers had revitalized the American political experiment by learning self-sufficiency and individualism on the edge of civilized life.
As with all mythology, there are elements of truth in this epic narrative, but also a great deal of fiction. The real story of the West is more complex––in ways less heroic, but in others more rich.
In places, the romantic narrative is simply wrong. For example, the homesteader may have been hardworking and even risk-taking, but he received a huge assist in his adventures from the federal government, which first provided the land and then furthered his efforts by the building of railroads and colleges, subsidizing irrigation and forestation projects, and pacifying the Indians who challenged his claims to the land. (You can read about this here.)
In other places, the narrative is curiously ironic. For example, while the West was immediately celebrated as a "man's country," the western territories and states were the first to grant women the right to vote. Perhaps even more ironic, the rather prosaic facts behind these developments were soon replaced by narratives of pathbreaking heroines. (You can read about this here.)
In some instances, the romantic narrative had a loose connection to reality. For a decade, California ranchers and farmers did fight a titanic battle over water. But the pesky details of this battle square poorly with the romantic image of these contests. California's water war was waged in the courts, not on the open range. And the "ranchers"––Henry Miller and Charles Lux––were extremely wealthy cattle and land magnates, while the "farmer"––James Ben Ali Haggin ––was more of a real estate speculator than a dawn-to-dusk dirt farmer. (You can read about this here.)
Similarly, common laborers and small farmers did build democratic political movements. The Workingmen's Party in California and the Populist Party throughout the Midwest mounted insurrections against the established parties that revitalized American politics. But these movements were not founded on the principles of self-sufficiency and individualism. They demanded more, not less, government; they looked to the federal government to protect them from exploitive banks and railroads, and to nurse them through financial shortfalls by extending loans and manipulating the money supply. (You can read more about this here.)
Ironies and contradictions thus riddle the landscape lying between the fact and fiction of the American West. Yet, despite this, the West remains a critical part of Americans' national identity. In fact, the importance to Americans of the West and the frontier has only increased as their distinctive qualities have diminished. Conservationists, like John Muir, launched a movement to preserve vast portions of America's western wilderness before the end of the nineteenth century. During the same years, an assortment of boy's clubs, eastern philanthropies, and even authors dedicated themselves to cultivating the distinctive virtues engendered by life on the frontier. (You can read about this here.)
Nor do Americans of the twenty-first century seem willing to relinquish their fascination with their frontier past. Seraphim Falls, 3:10 to Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James – American film-goers still crave a good western. And with an adult audience of more than 45 million, county music is played on more radio stations than any other genre.14 From Cormac McCarthy to Louie L'Amour, there is a western novelist for the high, low and all brows in between. The Sierra Club claims a membership of 1.3 million. And about 5 million people visit the Grand Canyon annually.
But do Americans really understand the West that they celebrate? Read on and decide for yourself.