The 'trUth' behind the myths

William Cody: the man behind Buffalo Bill's Circus
Buffalo Bill

The heroic leader George Armstrong Custer
George Armstrong Custer

Jesse James<BR>(age 19, 1866)
Jesse James

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The 'myths' behind the truth

Dash for Timber, Frederic Remington

Dash for Timber, Frederic Remington

"When the legend becomes fact print the legend"
(Dutton Peabody, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Ford, 1962)

"When lives become legend, history and myth
merge so as to become almost indistinguishable"
(Visions of the American West, Gerard F Kreyche, 1989)


Beadle and Adams published the first dime novels in 1860, at a time when the American West frontier was still somewhere in the middle of the Great Plains. So the stories for the myths were created out of a history which was unfolding, yet like most popular culture, to make it more attractive and more readily accessible it was made ‘larger than life’. The public wasn’t concerned about the veracity of the basis for the fiction as long as it attracted and held their interest. The illustration on the cover as much as the reputation of the publisher sold the book. The presentation was garish, sensational, even lurid. The picture might be the heroine in grave danger, the hero arriving in the nick of time to save her, the villain lurking in ambush. Native Americans were depicted as demonic, sadistic, scalp hungry heathen savages just waiting to be outwitted. They would skulk around ready to terrorise any decent, godfearing white man or worse still, woman, who might venture near them, let alone have the courage to establish a settlement near them.

Beadle and Adams produced dime novels for 14 years, and they, together with their competitors, created an alternative to the American West, the mythic “Wild West” of the imagination. Some characters were given the names of real people like Buffalo Bill or Jesse James, others like Deadwood Dick and Denver Dan were invented. But imaginary or not, the stories traded on a fear of the unknown, and this lack of knowledge gave the authors license to invent situations which, although perhaps loosely based on fact had little, if any, foundation in reality. They were tales of exploration and adventure, loosely inspired by James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. Seth Jones, for example, was a brave and virtuous backwoodsman from New Hampshire, who was very popular and a great commercial success.


The first fictionalizing of the west seems to be credited to James Fenimore Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Tales, the most famous of the five being "The Last of the Mohicans" which was published in 1826 and was set in 1757 when eastern America was still a British colony. The first published: “The Pioneers”was set in 1798 and was to become the fourth in the sequence of the series. In 1757 the interior or land west of the frontier was an unknown quantity, few settlers had ventured west of the Appalachian Mountains, let alone as far as the Mississippi-Missouri and beyond. Even in 1826 knowledge of the Great Plains was severely limited and maps referred to the area as “ The Great American Desert”. “The Last of the Mohicans” is set in New York state at a time when the British are being challenged by the French. The evil and treacherous Magua is the villain, while Natty Bumppho is the hero, helped by his Mohican friends Chingachgook and his son, Uncas. They all become embroiled in the British – French conflict at Fort William Henry and its aftermath. Magua’s Hurons, furious that the French leader, Montcalm, has granted the British troops safe passage to save further bloodshed, lie in ambush in the forest. After a subsequent series of adventures during which Cora, one of two daughters of Lieutenant Colonel Munro, is coveted by the malevolent Magua, there is a cliff top fight in the climax of the story to build towards a precipitous and exciting conclusion. It was this kind of scenario which was used by the dime novelists to bring cheap excitement into the homes of ordinary Americans. Bearing little relation to reality it took on a reality of its own.


Owen Wister brought respectability back to the western genre with the publication of “The Virginian A Horseman of the Plains” in 1902. Born in 1860 in Pennsylvania, he worked as a bank employee in Philadelphia but moved west aged 25 to improve his health, and from 1891 he spent his summers there, writing and gathering material. His novel was based on his experiences which he recorded in a diary, and so had a loose but very individual and limited basis on the “real” west. Just as the Leather Stocking Tales helped to establish plot lines for the dime novels, the plot of “The Virginian” was to set the standard for years to come, as the reluctant hero becomes involved in sorting out other people’s problems while pursuing a romantic interest with Molly Wood. On the ranch, in Medicine Bow, Wyoming, he becomes our hero by outdoing the other hands, showing more intelligence, skill, fortitude, wit and gunmanship than any of his contemporaries, but remaining a quiet man whose admirable qualities include not pushing himself forward unless it becomes essential. Four motion pictures were directly based on the book, starring Dustin Farnum, Kenneth Harlan, Gary Cooper, and Joel McCree, respectively in the eponymous role. The television programme "The Virginian" was introduced in the 1962-63 season, and was based on Wister's book. James Drury was the Virginian, Doug McClure was Trampas, and Lee J. Cobb was the Colonel.

But it was not just the movies and the T.V. spin off which were influenced by Owen Wister’s creation:
All the essential characters are to be found there: not only the noble, nameless hero, but also the eastern tenderfoot narrator, the high-spirited, virginal schoolmarm, hostile Indians, cattle rustlers, the shrewd camp cook, the callow kid, the devious, doomed villain. (Castle Freeman Junior, Harvard Magazine July-August2002)
Authors like Zane Grey used these simple characters and plot lines as the basis for countless works of fiction which, while taking the subject matter away from the lurid tales of the Dime Novels, were hardly of greater merit in taking the reader any closer to the “real” West. When directors were looking for material on which to base the first silent movies it was only natural that they chose such plots. This developed into the famous “B” movies, and the radio and television shows which would dominate prime listening and viewing time.
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© Chris Smallbone March2006