The American West

July 25 [Mon], 2011, 17:46
  From a modern day perspective, the history of the American west is seen as valiant American soldiers defending themselves against attacking, savage Indians. This however, is a common misconception. The two most eminent historians of the late 1890's Frederick Jackson Turner, and Buffalo Bill Cody told their histories through essays and stage shows respectively, which further propagated historical inaccuracies. Tuner's history spoke of free land, which was peacefully occupied and the creation of a unique American identity while Buffalo Bill's history told of violent quarrels with the Indians who occupied the land. Because of their stark contrast in the perception of westward expansion both cannot be right, so the American vision of western expansion is seen as an amalgamation of their two differing ideas. It was turner who argued that "the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development," and to a degree he was correct, but by comparing Turner's ideas with those of Buffalo Bill's and with what we know now to be historical fact one could not whole heartedly agree with Turner's statement.

  Initial, Turner's statement rings true. The American advancement west most definitely explains American development. Turner believed that the migrants who settled the American frontiers developed their American identity this way as he said "The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization. Since progress can also mean cultural progress, the growing equality and growing nationalization contributes to American development. Also Thomas Jefferson believed that moving westward and spreading America out kept the young nation from befalling to tyranny, therefore it was the westward expansion that is partially responsible for America's democratic ways. For Turner, the icon of the log cabin symbolized progress as well. According to Richard White, "Turner symbolized the initial regression from which future progress sprang with the long cabin." The frontier line marked a regression in technology and civilized living, but it also marked self-reliance. Also, with the knowledge of the success of westward expansion it is this regression that marks the beginnings of American progress, as if, at the frontier line, the country had to move one step backward to move two steps forward.

  Where it becomes easy to disagree with Turner is his belief that there was ever "free land." Tuner called it "peaceful occupation of a largely empty continent, making the Indians incidental and just part of nature. Richard white argues that Turner "recognized conflict with the Indians, but for him it was merely part of a much larger contact with wilderness that engulfed settlers in a primitive world and necessitated the pioneers' initial regression." Without this availability of "free land" the American advancement cannot be seen as just peaceful. This view does, however, go along with the perception of western expansion in American history.

  Buffalo Bill Cody's west was a more violent re-telling of the same history. Where Turner left the Indians out of his version, Cody's history gave them a pivotal role. This role was to portray the Indians as hostile natives who attacked the American settlers. Many of Cody's set pieces featured Indian attacks, for instance Custer's Last Stand and the Capture of the Deadwood Mail Coach by the Indians. Cody told the violent side of American western expansion, but he told a biased story.
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