America has a panoply of national icons. Those shared images that we believe personify the Nation and its people. They can cover a wide range of themes, including people (e.g. Mt. Rushmore), things (e.g. the Statue of Liberty), and events (e.g. Neil Armstrong’s footprints on the moon). Probably our first national icon was George Washington, “the Father of our Country,” his image showing up in all manners of contexts honoring his dedication and leadership to the Country. From that original icon, the catalog of our treasured imagery has expanded unendingly. These icons tell us about ourselves, and the values and principles we believe in, even though our preferred icons are specific to each of us. Taken together, they can inspire our aspirations and guide us in our decision-making.
In the late 1800s, we added a new icon to our portfolio: the American Cowboy. For years preceding, individuals had banded together to expand the American boundaries westward, some of whom found work in managing cattle herds. But after the Civil War there was a new mass migration from the eastern United States determined to fill in that great expanse of open space called “the Plains,” a vast, minimally inhabited gap in the middle of America. It was an area lying from Canada to Mexico, from just west of the Mississippi River to the Rockies, an arid, often brutal expanse made more feasible for settler occupancy by the installation of the trans-continental railroad and the resulting expansion of national trade.
And so they came, farmers and cowmen eking out a subsistence living from the oft-unforgiving land, while concurrently creating the small, rural frontier towns that still dot the contemporary landscape. Spread over such a broad territory, it was very much a “make it on your own,” self-sufficient life. That included the need to protect one’s self, family, and possessions from those thieving varmints who were hell-bent to take it away from you. Lacking an established local police presence, and a military force spread thinly over too vast an area defending settlers against Indian wars, security had to be achieved by one’s own abilities.
And so it fell to frontier justice. Where a badge was available, fine. But where not, justice was in one’s own hands – hands that held a rifle and a six-gun. The weapons of the hunt also served as the enforcer of law and order, delivering “do what you need to do” ad hoc justice. And so the myth, the icon, of the American Cowboy, was born out of this setting.
The Cowboy was a product of the Great Plains, but was nevertheless adopted by the cities in the East and Far West United States. Thanks to the dime novels and ballad songs of the times, the romanticized image of the independent, solo drifter wandering the plains, accountable to no one, living his life as seen fit, burned its way into the national psyche. Even the “bad guys” were elevated to mythic status. Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Butch Cassidy and Sundance, the Clanton brothers may have been outside the law, but they bowed to nobody, including the law of Pat Garrett, the Earp brothers, and Wild Bill Hickok. Dodge City, KS; Tombstone, AZ; and my hometown of Fort Smith on the Arkansas border of the Indian Territory (backdrop for the “True Grit” movies) served as stages for the Cowboy’s performance.
As is often the case with icons, the truth was far less than the myth. Being a Cowboy was typically a low-paid, lonely, unstable, non-family life. And it turned out to have a short timeline. By the early 1900s, “civilization” caught up with the Plains, and the Cowboy gave way to towns, local governments, automobiles, merchants, schools, and churches. Arizona, New Mexico, and the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) achieved statehood, with all the attendant expectations of civilization. The frequency of murders and associated mayhem brought calls for an end to the lawlessness and uncontrolled violence. Gradually the rifles went into display cases; the holsters into the drawers – no longer the mandatory fashion accessories.
But if the fact of the Cowboy died, the myth stayed on. The images that had been created from the dime novel became tangible across the country by the Buffalo Bill Cody traveling “Wild West Show.” The advent of moving pictures made Roy Rogers, Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, and William S. Hart box office leaders. Legendary lawman Wyatt Earp retired and went to Hollywood to become a movie advisor, mentoring John Wayne and director John Ford. Zane Grey western novels topped book sales; western art (e.g. Frederick Remington sculptures) gave majesty to the disappearing Cowboy.
The tools of frontier justice disappeared from the streets. Instead, violence returned its focus on the South’s continuing assault on “freed” African-Americans through the mid-20th century, with a Depression Era side trip into gangster violence (Bonnie & Clyde; John Dillinger) and Mafia internal turf wars. Today, the Cowboy of 1870-1900 may be long gone, surviving only in pale imitation of its once self. But the heritage of his history remains implanted in the minds of a substantial number of Americans. The rodeo is an annual event across the country; dude ranches offer simulated fantasy excursions; fans in western clothing dance at western music shows. Far from where the Cowboy called home, the Cowboy legacy lives on. It is a legacy of the independent loner, going his own way, refusing to be told what to do, dispensing justice as he sees it, avenging perceived wrongs at the point of a gun.
Horrifyingly, this legacy is being reborn in modern America. The gun has now resurfaced in our social places, held by those unable to separate old myth from current reality. Funded by the gun manufacturers, promoted by the NRA, protected by vote-seeking politicians, inflamed by made-up claims of racial and ethnic threats, condoned by federal and state leaders (including intentionally divisive rhetoric from the highest and lowest levels of society), and legitimized by overly misguided judicial rulings, guns are now back on the streets of America. The Cowboys are back, reliving their own versions of the Wild West and vigilante justice. We are once again settling our disagreements and fighting off “enemies” with bullets – far more bullets than ever came out of a six-gun – in an increasing carnage of innocents.
To fight this carnage, some politicians and short-term thinkers propose that we all get a gun to protect ourselves, as if flooding the citizenry with guns is going to magically eliminate gun warfare. More guns in the hands of even well-meaning citizens is a recipe for more gun deaths, not less. But what happens when/if here-to-fore victims start shooting back? Will we finally descend into the race/cultural internecine war that white nationalists and Russia have been seeking to provoke?
I will not be getting a gun, even though as a teenager I learned to shoot one quite well. I will not participate in giving credence to insanity. I will not patronize establishments than allow guns on their premises. Nor is it the Moslem immigrant from the Middle East, or the Central American mother and child, that I fear. It is the modern American wanna-be Cowboy, typically male, white, aged 18-30, caught up in learned hatred, that I fear most.
America had its time to play Cowboy long ago, and determined to give it up in favor of community and laws. We need to put the guns back into the drawer – figuratively and factually. Make our streets, schools, businesses, and churches into safe places for gathering, not war zones. Allow our teachers teach, not guard schoolhouse doors. Make politicians’ substantive commitment to responsible gun safety a Priority One litmus test for how we vote. We, and our ancestors, have worked too long and too hard to reach a still incomplete level of “civilized” to now let that achievement be lost. Our Cowboy past informs us of what was thought and done then, and how we arrived at now. That past does not tell us what our future should be.
Let the legacy die. Enough is Enough. Do Something.
© 2019 Randy Bell https://ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com