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American Old West

Great Basin region, typical American West
Great Basin region, typical American West

The Western United States has played a significant role in history and fiction. The terms Old West and Wild West refer to life in western North America, beyond the settled frontier, during the 19th century, especially between 1860 and 1900.

Many accounts of Old West life have been highly romanticized. In typical Western fiction, the Old West is a dry landscape populated by cowboys, Indians, outlaws, gold miners, trappers and explorers. Thus conflicts generally occurred, and still occur, over water, since land without water is of little value.

Old West fiction has been a popular genre, featuring authors such as Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour. Movies such as those featuring John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, radio dramas, television, pulp novels and comic books all had popular Old West themes. In German culture the genre was so popular that it spawned another, the Kraut-Western , which is alive and well even one century after its debut. Karl May is the best-selling German writer of all time, due to his classic Wild West adventure novels featuring the unforgettable protagonists Old Shatterhand and Winnetou.

There is a non-fiction side of the American West, too, as in, for example, Robert Laxalt 's memoir Sweet Promised Land , in which Dominique Laxalt, his father, a Basque sheepherder, re-visits the old country. The book ends with Laxalt's desire to return to his home in Nevada: "... and he saw the mountains of the West rise up ..."

Nevertheless, the untamable mystique of the Wild West lives on... A fascination with a simpler world of salt of the Earth values, where men were men and women were damsels, fuels interest in Nashville and the Country Music scene, the rodeo circuits and the Western fashions of the 21st Century. Is it any surprise that Cowboy Action Shooting is one of the fastest growing sports today, combining marksmanship with the theatricality of an historical reenacting of the gunslinging Wild West days? The interest in the West seems eternal: maybe it's just because "a man's got to do what a man's got to do."

Actual events and characters

Certain events, locations and characters which actually existed are part of the history and folklore of the Old West. Among the towns of significance are Dodge City, Kansas and Tombstone, Arizona. Events include the Lincoln County War, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Custer's Last Stand, the Battle of the Alamo and the Johnson County War. Characters include Kit Carson, Geronimo, Cochise, Sitting Bull, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Annie Oakley, Wild Bill Hickok, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Bat Masterson and Buffalo Bill.

Fictitious locations and characters

Other famous locations and characters originate in fiction such as the television shows Gunsmoke and Bonanza, Western movies and fiction. For example, while Dodge City, Kansas, the setting of Gunsmoke, was briefly a wide open town and while Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp were lawmen there, Marshall Matt Dillon and the other regular characters of Gunsmoke are fictious characters. Likewise while Virginia City, Nevada was a real Old West mining town, the Ponderosa Ranch and the Cartwright family of Bonanza are fictious. Considerable poetic license has been taken with a number of the actual events and characters such as Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid as they have been protrayed in ways which reflect contemporary concerns more than the historical record. Certain books and movies such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Shane, High Noon, and the novel The Virginian stand out.

See also

Last updated: 11-06-2004 12:25:24