|The West of the Imagination
|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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