The Olde West
The Old West began tens of thousands of years ago with the First Americans. Later arrivals would claim that the natives were just settlers and colonists like themselves. This was typically twisted logic meant to invalidate the originals and the extension of that logic meant that any extraterrestrial would be justified in exterminating all Europeans in Europe (and elsewhere) since they had meandered up to Europe from the birthplace of homo sapiens in Africa. It was dangerous business to lie about history because humans did not have a monopoly on the ability to read books and to learn lessons from those books. Books filled with lies might one day get the people who wrote them killed while the descendants of people who were honest about history might have no such worry.
But centuries before the First Americans were portrayed as "just settlers and colonists", they were portrayed as savages. Savages who crossed the ocean and killed whoever they found? Savages who apparently had never heard of winter and would have died at Plymouth Rock if not for help from them? Savages who made treaties and then immediately violated them?
The Maya and the Zapotecs built pyramids and had systems of writing as early as BC1000. They had scrolls and clay tablets and even codex (old books) which the missionaries accompanying the conquistadors promptly burnt when they discovered them. Later English and Spanish would claim that the Natives were savages with no civilization. In truth, only the bloodthirsty Aztecs deserved such criticism and yet even the Aztecs were acknowledged (quietly) by European scholars as a civilization. The Toltecs, by contrast, were so humane that they used wooden swords in battle to avoid killing their enemies. The world's first democracy was said to be in the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama long before Greece -- which had slavery and therefore was hypocritical.
The land north of the Rio Grande had cities, perhaps not as large as Teotihuacan but those cities existed. There were nations with earthworks throughout the central Midwest and a confederation in the east and pueblos in the southwest and potlatches in the northwest. Some southern tribes had evolved ways to avoid wars. There were prophets in North America too.
"I see a vision of another people."
The council sat cross legged in a circle. The pueblos of the Southwest had kivas and the tribes on both the northwest and northeast coasts had long houses. This tribe was humbler and sat on the ground. They did not build or use chairs and permanent structures like those other tribes because they were nomadic and followed the buffalo. Herds of millions might stretch over several states and when they moved it made the rolling thunder of the sky pale by comparison. You could feel the rumble through your feet.
The council did not ask questions because they knew that if they listened, then their questions would be answered.
This was a bit much even for the elders of the council who had to restrain themselves from asking if the prophet meant ghosts.
"Not ghosts or spirits." continued the prophet as if hearing their thoughts. "Not this season or this year. It will come in the time of our great-grandchildren's great-grandchildren." (meaning centuries from then, at the end of what others would call the 1400's)
No one said something stupid like it does not concern them then because a mature adult and a parent and an intelligent person always cared about the past, the present and the future. You were supposed to leave plentiful land for those who would come after you.
"They will come like locusts and destroy first the land and then, in the time of the great-grandchildren's great-grandchildren's great-grandchildren, they will destroy the water and the sky as well." (meaning starting in the 20th century)
Again no one spoke. No questions about why. Other tribes understood the nature of evil better and had the concept of the blessing way. No questions about how or what could they do.
"Teach your children so that when the other people arrive, you will not be surprised. Most of our descendants will die but our task is to somehow survive for the time when they stop killing us. They will bring strange animals and weapons. We must learn new ways without forgetting our own ways."
The elders nodded in gratitude for the vision that they did not understand fully but they taught their children nonetheless.
After Columbus arrived in the Caribbean and immediately started slaughtering the Carib and after the colonists swept from east to west, it became hard to teach the children because the missionaries did not like the Natives to learn Native culture any more than slave owners wanted slaves to learn to read. Most nations went extinct but some survived.
French frontiersmen went deep into the interior of North America seeking good sources of furs. First Nations were always interested in trade because trade was profitable, brought new items (either needed or interesting), brought news from far away places and broke the monotony of routine. Travelers were nothing new to First Nations because individual natives also traveled and traded with other tribes. These ruddy complexioned strangers, they called themselves French, took the time to learn several languages rather than use a translator and they often took a native wife. These voyageurs would transport pelts by canoe and regularly return. Such predictability won them friends among natives.
The English, by contrast, looked down upon the natives as savages and seldom bothered to learn the local language. Instead they used a translator like Sacajawea with the Lewis and Clark expedition. Supposedly they left England because of religious persecution (many whites claimed this rationale) but immediately proceeded to persecute the redskins -- who actually were less red than the ones who should have blushed. They thanked God instead of those who helped them, forgot any kindness and never forgave any imagined slight. Blood oaths, vengeance, feuds and scalping might have been predictable. There was later argument over who had invented scalping but victors write the history books to make themselves look civilized.
The Spanish might be seen as a different flavor of English. Only the language was different. The behavior was the same. Full blooded "Indians" always were the bottom caste of a fixed hierarchy with blue-blooded Castilians at the top. Many remarked on the prescience of Columbus in naming them Indians even though this was not India. But that was mostly south of the Rio Grande.
Settlers and pioneers were spreading and heading west. Many seemed to be passing through on trails blazed to various destinations west and sought a fresh start. Some were Mormons who, persecuted by Protestants, were seeking some place where they could be left alone. The Mormons also had a superior attitude and also sent their missionaries among the natives. They believed the Natives to be a fallen lost tribe of Israel.
At Sutter's Mill, near Coloma in Alta California (part of Mexico) on a Monday, James W. Marshall, a foreman working for John Sutter, found shiny metal in the tailrace of a lumber mill Marshall was building for Sutter on the American River.
"Look at this Mister Sutter."
"What is it Jim?"
The foreman held it out.
"Let's get it tested."
They tested it privately. No shout of Eureka! No dancing of a jig. Sutter was afraid. This upset his farming plans.
"Let's keep this quiet."
Marshall did not keep it quiet. Meanwhile, the Mexican-American War ended.
Newspaper publisher and self-promoter Samuel Brannan hastily opened a store to sell gold prospecting supplies and then walked the streets of San Francisco yelling: "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!"
"That's just a rumor." said one skeptic.
"Then what is this?" He replied holding high a vial of gold from an assay.
Gasps. Eyes bugged out. Delighted shrieks.
"I gotta find me gold prospecting supplies."
"Sir, you should go to Brannan's Store."
A half a year later, the New York Herald informed the East Coast about the discovery of gold. The news snowballed so that before Christmas, President James Polk addressed Congress to confirm the discovery of gold. Immigrants arrived from around the world and the United States (about to unite the states into a union in a civil war) began to get the reputation for having streets paved with gold. The white invaders were invaded by other whites from elsewhere in California, from the United States and from Europe and by South Americans and Asians and people of other parts of the world. Prospectors were white, yellow, black and even red. As Sutter dreaded, he was ruined as his workers left to search new lodes in Northern and Southern California and as squatters took over his land and stole his crops and cattle.
Looking upon the scene, one brave said to another: "The invader is invaded."
"What goes around, comes around." replied the other brave as they went back to panning for gold.
When townsmen learned about the discovery, San Francisco became a ghost town. The over land California Trail from East Coast to West Coast had many hazards including, commonly, death. Most rivers ran north-south but river men could pole you part the way west. Depending upon your point of origin, you could travel by sea but it took months to go around the tip of South America or you could shave a few weeks off the journey by crossing the jungles of Panama by canoe and mule (but probably get typhoid fever or cholera) or cross from Veracruz and then on the Pacific Coast catch a ship to San Francisco. Even the bay was choked with deserted ships.
An arriving newcomer asks a ship captain, "Where is everyone?"
In mid-sentence, the captain had slipped away and lowered a rowboat. The newcomer tore his eyes from looking at the crowded wharves and docks when he realized that he was standing there alone talking to himself.
From a distance, the captain had seen through his spyglass that other ships not finding a berth had dropped anchor. The newcomer was soon fighting with other passengers and crew over the remaining landing boats. Some who knew how to swim jumped into the cold shark-infested waters and swam ashore to look for horses and other supplies in the ghost town.
Meanwhile inland, wherever gold was discovered, hundreds of prospectors would collaborate to create a camp, give it a name (like Hangtown or Placerville) and stake their claims. These camps were affairs of tents and wood shanties for saloons and gambling houses. Some grew into boomtowns, some blew away into ghost towns.
In Washington, there were other thoughts.
"We need a transcontinental railroad."
"Yes, Mister President but we have a war to preserve the union to fight."
"We don't have to choose. We can do both things."
In big cities, there were still other thoughts.
"Mail is too slow. Could this new invention the telegraph be strung from coast to coast?"
"Some engineers say yes."
Back in San Francisco, later arrivals replaced the population of the ghost town and made a living dismantling some of the abandoned ships to convert them into docks, additional wharves, warehouses, stores, saloons, hotels, and landfill. New ships arrived with goods to sell to San Franciscans and to prospectors coming into town for business or pleasure. The red light district was not called the Barbary Coast for nothing.
By mid-century, most of the easy to find gold on the surface had been found and those with gold fever turned to more difficult underground sites. Between the increasing difficulty to find and extract and the competition and the greed, Americans began to drive out foreigners with taxes and physical attacks on foreign miners.
"Go back to China!" ["No." said a railroad president. "They work cheap."]
"You speak Spanish. Get out. You lost the Mexican-American War."
It got ugly but few left and more arrived.
The crush of invading immigrants and newcomers and prospectors were driving Native Americans out of their traditional hunting and gathering grounds and fishing waters. To protect their food sources and homes, some Native Americans responded by fighting back. This resulted in attacks on native villages. The Native Americans, out-gunned, were often massacred. About one hundred thousand California Indians were attacked and removed with over four thousand murdered in cold blood between 1848 and 1868. Those who escaped slaughter were unable to survive without food and they starved to death.
Some tribes and some individuals in almost every tribe adopted white ways of clothing and building homes. Some did not. Some tribes responded to the invasion of their lands by counter-attacks. Many (even most) did not. When treaties were broken by whites (as they invariably were), some natives went to the courts of the whites to enforce the treaties but because they were the courts of the whites, they usually ruled in favor of the whites. No matter what strategy-- peace, war, retreat, hiding, treaty, using Indian Agents, compromise, ignoring them -- nothing except genocide seemed to satisfy the whites.
"These savages don't know about mining and metal." said a mining king. His assistant, who knew mining history, rolled his eyes and said nothing about the fact that civilizations from the Aztecs to the Incas had mines and the people here worked metal before the conquistadors.
Merchants made far more money than prospectors during the Gold Rush. The wealthiest man in California during the early years of the rush was one Samuel Brannan, shopkeeper extraordinaire. He bought all the prospecting supplies available and was the first to open supply stores in San Francisco, Sacramento, Coloma, and other spots in the gold field where he re-sold those prospecting supplies at great profit.
Many Easterners moving West were intelligent enough to know that by the time they got to California, all the easy pickings would be picked and so, like Sutter, they were more interested in getting out of crowded cities and making a life with agriculture the way many of the founding fathers had done. Not with slaves doing the work because slaves cost money, because slaves ran off, because slaves were competition for available work, because slavery was wrong, and because slaves had been freed in the Civil War.
The transcontinental railroad arrived and the buffalo nearly went extinct.
"Woo hoo! Look at that one go down!" said the fool shooting at the buffalo from the train.
The train went on to the horizon and the buffalo rotted. By the time local natives arrived, the meat was fit only for vultures and coyotes. Stone Calf looked at the flies and maggots and looked at the metal railroad tracks and shook his head in puzzlement. How could people waste food and fur and the other products of a buffalo? This was the prophecy handed down for generations. It had come to pass.
Homesteaders grew in number with their farms but then ranchers arrived who saw the square miles of grasslands emptied of buffalo as perfect for grazing their herds of cattle and then driving to market. So identified with the cattle were the workers of these ranchers that they were called cowboys.
No farmer likes to have a field of crops eaten by wandering cattle and it was inviting a range war to run a cattle drive across a farm trampling everything -- crops, buildings and even the farmer's children -- in its path. Cowboys tried to stick to the trail but lightning, snakes and warning shots by farmers could spook cattle and make them stampede and go off the trail.
"Get your damn cattle off my land. Next bullet will go in you or one of your animals."
"Please ma'am. I thank you not to spook the cows."
The cattle panic.
"Oh lordy!" said one of the cowhands.
A quick-witted cowboy charges his horse in between the herd and the farm and manages to change the direction of the stampede away from it. The trail boss rides up and pleads with the lady farmer to spare his riders and his cattle.
"Please ma'am. We're doing our best. If you have a milk cow, then you know how skittish cows are."
"This is the third time this year. My family damn near starved last year because of cattle crossing damage." She watches the cowboys avert damage to her crops and lowers her rifle. "All right. Be on your way. Next time I won't stop with a complaint to the sheriff."
The trail boss could only grimace at this veiled threat of a posse and range war. He tipped his hat in courtesy and rode off. He couldn't say something like well don't have your farm so close to the trail since the farmers were here first and the trail was chosen by the ranch owners, the marshals, and everyone but those who used the trail. Cowboys starved too. And if barbed wire continued to spread, his days as a cattle boss leading cattle drives would be over. Cowboys might disappear too except on ranches -- ironically surrounded by barbed wire. "Don't fence me in" was the thought of many a cowboy.
"The paymaster ain't paying me enough to get shot." said one cowpoke to another as the cattle calmed down and returned to a slower pace.
The farmer's wife knew that to the cowboys she must have looked like a weak helpless widow ripe for the picking. She knew about desperadoes and drifters who raped and were long gone. The sheriff could not defend you out here and you might need an undertaker. But she wasn't a widow. Her husband was in town. Buying barbed wire.
Natives of Plains tribes shared the nomadic ways of cowboys and hence disliked the very idea of fence as restricting freedom. Tribes that had been fenced into half-acre lots without food or shelter or blankets -- except those infected with smallpox -- hated barbed wire. They were the first humans on Earth to experience a holocaust in a death camp.
Tribes that farmed or were left to wastelands deemed unsuitable for whites found that barbed wire had its uses. Whites might not know how to farm a desert but certain tribes had done it successfully for millennia. The desert and mountain tribes of the west were often left alone simply because they lived in places that no white cared to inhabit. Some tribes were well aware that their forbidding homes and geography gave the whites pause. Those tribes remained unconquered. Whites foolish enough to attempt to pass through uninvited might die trying.
The US Army soldiers usually won battles and wars with natives. Ironically, one of the reasons they won is because they employed Native American scouts and trackers who had no problem with this as long as the tribe being attacked was not their own. The one notable time when the "Indians" won became a rallying cry for whites determined to remember that one red victory and to forget all the massacres they won with superior weapons. And biological warfare.
After the civil war, dime novels of the type written by Ned Buntline made Westerners self-conscious about themselves. Some founders of towns had always had a self-promotional streak but out away from the big cities was a different reality. A Westerner could be starving, freezing to death out in the open in a sudden blizzard (perhaps on the way to Alaska), drowning while fording a stream, being shot by whites (or if white being shot by reds), suffering from some unknown disease, injured in a train derailment, or suffering any of a hundred other hazards including suicide from loneliness. So when apparently the rest of the nation and the rest of the world thought all us Westerners were a wild bunch of gunfighters, gamblers, and rotgut drunks; it was a bit much to take. For goodness sake, Eastern cities were crime-ridden. The Chicago area had been a dense forest before being clear-cut and before the Great Chicago Fire and long before clear-cutting became standard among Western loggers. And the South with its wild churches in pre-Revolutionary War times and slavery and then lynching after the Civil War was far more violent than the mild, mild west had ever been.
The myth-making just added to the woes. If that were not enough, Westerners had to listen to endless stories about "The End of the Old West" said in a manner that suggested that Westerners belonged in a museum. People in Eastern and European cities crowded to see "Wild West Shows" as early as 1883 -- long before "The Old West" officially ended. The person who made it official may have been historian Frederick Jackson Turner who in 1893 stated that the United States frontier was "closed." These wild west shows, in turn, led to tourists rushing to see the west before it was all gone. The same "Indians" who wore feathered war bonnets and full regalia for the Wild West Show would change back into street clothes (a Sunday suit or weekday Levis) between shows and then do a little tourism of their own seeing the sights in cities here and abroad. But Westerners got used to having their pictures taken and, a good thing too, or moderns might have no idea of what their lives were really like.
In small towns in the old west, if there was a photographer, then a family might pose for a group portrait like any other family. With the turn of the century from the Nineteenth to the Twentieth, the Old West seemed to be gone like the buffalo. Nostalgia and romanticized notions led to dude ranches, guest ranches and hunting ranches for the tourists.
Returning home after a tour in a show, one "Wild West" warrior said to another: "Now they are dead like us."
"What goes around, comes around." replied the other warrior.
Later in the century, ghost towns (cemeteries for broken dreams) were used as theme parks and the tourists would pose for black & white photos brandishing weapons. The real Western pioneers would shy away from posing with weapons -- painfully aware that the world viewed them as violent vandals and crazy criminals.
The Old West from 1865 to 1900 was in fact the middle west in more ways than one. The real Old West occurred back before the whites arrived and ended before the civil war. But that is a native interpretation and one held by only some natives.
The Manhattan Project gave the whites an excuse to make the Navajo Nation and surrounding lands a national sacrifice area to atomic power. Uranium should have been left in the ground but it was mined and the radioactive waste left everywhere. Even hogans.
The tribe of course knew about the uranium mining. However, the tribe was less than informed about the disposal of rad-waste. The Indian Health Service was among the last to be told. The Navajo were the very last to be told.
The loyal service of Navajo code talkers in the US military during World War Two meant nothing to the white government.
(of the Old West)