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The West of the Imagination Previous Next
Digital History ID 3155


In 1893, Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West show arrived in Chicago, popularizing the image of the West as a region of gun-toting scouts and cowboys and marauding Indians. For more than 30 years, from 1883 to 1916, Buffalo Bill's Wild West was one of the most popular entertainments. It toured the United States and Europe. It contained rodeo-like displays of cowboy skills, feats of marksmanship, riding and roping, and horse races. It also featured attacks on stage coaches and settler's cabins, a cyclone, and a prairie fire.

Until 1869, William F. Cody had been a farmer, teamster, trapper, solider, Pony Express rider, army scout, and buffalo hunter. He achieved fame as the result of a dime novel loosely based on his life that was published in 1869 and was adapted into a stage melodrama in 1871. The Wild West show helped to transform the West into a mythic space, more primitive and natural than the eastern cities.

No region is more shrouded in myth than the area west of the Mississippi River. In popular films and best-selling novels, the late 19th century western frontier was represented as a place where heroic, ruggedly independent pioneers struggled against an unfamiliar environment and brought civilization to a savage wilderness.

Throughout much of the 20th century, the cowboy and the western lawman were the classic American heroes. While other episodes from the American past faded, such as the era of the whale-hunting harpooner or the lumberjack, the western frontier remained a staple of American popular culture.

The very first movie to tell a story, Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903) had a western setting, and for 30 years, from 1939 to 1969, the Western was Hollywood's most widely produced action film, and John Wayne was Hollywood's most consistently popular star. Roughly a quarter of all Hollywood movies made before 1970 were westerns.

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