The mythical Wild West is as powerful a trope in U.S. history as any. As a maritime historian, I learned long ago to see that trope as distinctive, rather than take it for granted. Most U.S. citizens don’t know that, once the new republic recovered from the post-Revolution depression and disorder, its merchant shipping fleet began to challenge that of the former mother country’s—not just in the Atlantic, but in the Far East. The rivalry continued until the 1850s, at which point the two maritime powers—one, a still-young upstart New World spin-off; the other, the greatest maritime empire the world had ever known—were neck-and-neck both technologically and, in some trades at least, at the bottom line.
Then, two things happened, and their interrelationship did not bode well for the young country’s deep-sea trade—or, more broadly, for its sense of connection to the wider world. First, the U.S. was close to achieving its long-held expansionist dream (known in the history books as “Manifest Destiny”) of becoming a continent-wide power by defeating and displacing native powers with whom it had long uncomfortably co-existed or from whom it was too removed geographically to have anything to do with. As this process advanced, the burning question of the hour was, Would new Western territories permit chattel slavery, as existed in the South, or not?
As Walter Johnson makes clear in River of Dark Dreams, the Southern “slave-ocracy” was far from the languid, backward-looking, insulated European-style landed gentry it is often portrayed to have been, especially through the fuzzy lens of romantic historical fiction. These people were very much plugged in to their world; they were a restless group of businessmen in possession of vast wealth. Their “way of life” was not fading away; it was making money, and lots of it, and there was more to be made if they could expand their gang-labor plantations not just westward, but southward, into the Caribbean and Central America. American cotton was feeding an ever-growing demand for machine-made textiles in Great Britain and New England.
Outside the South, though, most people either worked for wages in a rapidly-industrializing North and Midwest, farmed their own small holdings, or dreamed of doing so, and looked West for that very opportunity. These people correctly saw their prospects and those of the slave-ocracy as incompatible. What they did not see was that there was no economic Great Wall of China at the Mason-Dixon Line; that they were all playing different roles in the same integrated economy.
As we all know, the question of how westward expansion would proceed was not resolved peacefully. In fact, the war from 1861—65 was unprecedented in its all-consuming savagery; military historians tend to see it as an ominous preview of the Great War of 1914—18—a preview unfortunately largely ignored by the European military establishments.
So, after having turned its attention westward, the U.S. turned the rest of its attention and energy to self-destruction and self-preservation. Its business was at best severely interrupted—or turned to war production—and at worst, destroyed. The main beneficiary? Her Majesty’s Dominions, as Great Britain won the maritime race when its main rival forfeited, and would remain unrivalled for another half-century or so. Queen Victoria was also Empress of India. She did not need American cotton. The South was isolated by blockade. Southern delusions were shattered. The South itself was shattered.
The myth of the cowboy, the open range, the freedom of the ordinary person to walk away from the hopeless mess and crowds and noise of settled society and strike out for a noble life of rugged individualism and self-sufficiency, was born in the aftermath of a conflict that scarred this country so badly it would never recover—or at least it hasn’t yet. The cowboy has nothing to do with the factory or the plantation.
As more and more ordinary people migrated westward to fulfill that age-old dream of yeoman farming, out from under the landlord or the boss or the master, they formed towns and made rules. They went to church and conformed. Ranchers consolidated vast holdings of what had been the buffalo range. They took full advantage of a new invention: barbed wire.
The myth of the cowboy was fueled, not extinguished, by the extinction of the cowboy himself.
Ironically, the rancher, who as much as anyone was responsible for that extinction, took on the trappings of that myth, and retains them even today. Those trappings go far beyond the hat, the boots, the horse, and the rifle. The rancher—the mythical one, at least—defines his way of life by running a private domain stretching to the horizon. As long as he works enough to keep it going, he is master of all that surrounds him, including all the living creatures, human or otherwise, within his miles and miles of barbed wire—or imaginary lines on a map. To the maximum extent possible, he accepts no authority other than his own. Compromise with other people who have to live together is marginal to his existence. If the government tells him he can’t shoot wolves, he snorts in contempt and re-loads.
The cowboy, though, was an itinerant hired hand, living an arduous and insecure life. The cowboy did not chase wealth and stability. He did not chase power. He did not claim vast tracts of land as his exclusive personal domain.
The problem with The Myth of Montana, as it actually exists in our society, is that it is not the myth of the cowboy, but the expropriation of that myth by the rancher. It is, at its core, a blending of the desires for autonomy, personal space, and wealth. It seeks to take and possess as much as possible for the use and pleasure of the individual—to expropriate a part of the earth and post it—No Trespassing.
There are more than seven billion humans on this planet now. We cannot afford The Myth of Montana. Its attraction distracts us from the reality that we must live in societies, and that our best investment of energy and attention is in learning how to live in those societies with far more felicity than we do now, or that we have ever been willing to work for. That does not mean we become diminished, depressed shadows of our best selves, trudging along the well-worn ruts of a cooperative cop-out in some gray Nietzschean nightmare. We are terrified of “Ants Marching.” We are told that if we ever abandon our devotion to the notion of rugged individualism in the pursuit of personal gain—if we ever walk east, away from The Myth of Montana—that we will be headed straight for Erich Hoenecker’s East Germany.
We are right to be determined never to find ourselves in Hoenecker’s East Germany. We are right to approach “socialism” with skepticism. (We should approach everything but love with skepticism.) On the other hand, what attracts people to a Sarah Palin has to go. There is no more Montana—of the mythic sort, anyway. It is most fortunate that among American wilderness aficionados of the early 20th century was Theodore Roosevelt. We can visit Montana and Wyoming and Idaho and have our breath taken away by the rugged grandeur of those wide open spaces only because there are public lands out there, set aside for all of us. The ranchers own the rest of it. It’s posted—No Trespassing. National and state parks exist because societies made collective, cooperative decisions to create them.
There are vast, dangerous, and un-owned wildernesses left on our planet—the oceans. Unlike Montana ranches, though, the oceans connect us to each other, rather than isolate us from each other. The oceans—which the American collective consciousness has marginalized since the late 1850s—still carry 90% of the world’s trade. We live in an intricately bound and connected world—we always have, whether we choose to apprehend that or pretend otherwise. Isolationism will not do because it is not reality and it cannot be reality. We will not make better trade policy by making policy that cuts off trade. We will not solve problems related to different people moving around on the planet by building pretend walls in our minds or on our borders. We cannot create a good life or a good future for ourselves with barbed wire.
When I taught American history, the last question on my final exam showed the students two maps. One was of the eastern seaboard, the Atlantic, the coasts of Africa and western Europe, the British Isles. the other was the iconic map of the current continental U.S. that’s programmed into our brains in early childhood. I asked them which map accurately reflected the way British Americans and citizens of the young U.S. saw their country and their world. I must have done something right, because as I recall, they never got that one wrong. The ocean wasn’t a barrier; it connected the eastern shores to the West Indies and the markets of Europe, Britain, and, ultimately, Asia. We built ships.
I think we would be well-served by recalling this—something our forebears knew, but that we, as a society, have forgotten for so long now. This is our reality, not the Wild West. This is our future. We are very lucky to have Glacier National Park. We should treasure the West as we always have. But it is past time we let go of The Myth of Montana.
for Sal Mercogliano