When taking on the endeavor of debunking the myth of the American West, one must realize that the topic is enormous, and in order to cover the unit in three or so weeks some information must be left out. To make the subject more manageable, I will work off of my students' preconceived notions of the history of the West. To begin the unit, I will do the activity of "Chalk Talk." In the middle of the chalkboard, I will write the words "American West." Students will then silently, one at a time, go up to the board and write something about what they know of the topic. For example, one student might write "Cowboy" and another write "Indian." This will go on until no one has anything else to write. This activity allows the students to get their minds thinking about the subject, and it allows me to see what they know and what their myths are. The topics we will cover in the unit will largely be based on their initial misconceptions.
Patricia Limerick is a professor at The University of Colorado at Boulder. She has written many essays and books about the New Western History. In fact, she is a leading scholar in the movement. In her
Desert Passages: Encounters with the American Desert
The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West
, she debunks the myth of the West and reveals the truth that has been hidden from citizens by citizens for so long. She has been instrumental in my studies and research. She also has written many essays on the topic. Another great book from which I will use excerpts is
Over the Edge: Remapping the American West
, edited by Valerie J. Matsumoto and Blake Allmendinger. This book contains essays from various writers and helps uncover the truth and as the title says, remaps the West.
What is a Myth?
First I need to make sure students know what a myth is and also how myths can sometimes be misconceptions. According to
Webster's New World Dictionary
, a myth is "a traditional story of unknown authorship, ostensibly with a historical basis, but serving usually to explain some phenomenon of nature, the origin of man, or the customs, institutions, religious rites, etc. of a people." Basically a myth represents a culture's values and ideals and/or helps explain to people where they came from. The Yale New Haven Teachers Institute has a collection of units about myths. There are also great definitions of myths. I will use some of these also to help explain. The collection is from 1998 and the seminar is entitled, "Cultures and their Myths." These units can be found on the website teachersinstitute.yale.edu.
Why the Myth?
According to Limerick, all different peoples have some sort of creation myth. Americans, although we like to think we're too civilized to have one, have the American West. The story of the West helps us develop our identity as a people and understand where we come from. The Frontier is our most popular myth. We came over from Europe to a savage nation. We conquered the land and lived through the weather. Once we settle in the East we courageously headed west. Our brave, independent men fought the barbaric Indians, converting the enlightened ones and removing the useless ones. Pioneers built a democratic civilization, as we know it today, and once we conquered all we needed to, a new chapter in our history was written. The myth goes something like that. This myth has had such power in our culture and it has influenced many. Unfortunately, our actual history is much different from this story.
The fact is the history of the West is very complicated. The reason why the myth persists is that it makes it all seem so simple. For some reason, we like to fit everything in neat, little compartments of understanding, and the truth about the West is anything but. The West was and still is messy and confusing. The historians and teachers needed something manageable, and the endeavor of telling the truth about this time isn't that easy. Further, it isn't even over. We feel nostalgic about the frontier because we think that it has completely ended, but the problems of then are still largely the problems of now. Many of the issues that began during the move westward are still unresolved. As is seen in the lesson plans, the students will look in newspapers, magazines, commercials, and songs for on-going conflicts and stories in the West today, i.e. Native Americans v ranchers, oil interests v environmentalists, etc. Now the fact that the history without the myth is so enormous and perplexing, I don't expect to cover everything with my class. I feel that it is the exploration of the truth that is important. We don't need to understand everything now, but we need to learn to ask the right questions and know how to find the answers.
The myth of the West is filled with stereotypes of all the participants. The "white man" is seen either as a unified group of progressives fighting barbarians or as the victimizers of the natives. The "Indian" is seen as a unified group who were the victims of the whites' conquest. These simplistic views don't tell the whole story. Limerick says, "In Western paintings, novels, movies, and television shows, those stereotypes were valued precisely because they offered an escape from modern troubles" (
, 19). Entertainment lets us allow ourselves to believe that the past was a much simpler time with fewer troubles than we have now. When we feel overwhelmed with our lives and our society, we are comforted that it wasn't always this way. Regrettably, some might say, our history was always filled with conflict and trouble.
Frederick Jackson Turner was the founder of Western history. In 1893 Turner presented what is now his famous thesis,
"The Significance of the Frontier in American History."
Turner's thesis has been so respected that for a long time, no one disputed his ideas, which were largely selective. The history that he presented was the myth we all know. According to Turner, Western history ended in 1890 when the census showed that most of the land in America was taken. Turner's idea of the frontier condensed at least 10 groups of people into one simple category. He neglected to explore the diversity and race relations that truly make up Western history. Turner was a very nationalistic man whose story focuses on the English-speaking white man.