Book: The American West: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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The first chapter of this book began in the middle of North America at the Gateway Arch, its panoramic views offering a vantage point from which to contemplate multiple Wests and to conjure homelands before they became Wests; this final chapter takes its figurative roost on Mt. Lee in Los Angeles. What gives Mt. Lee its renown are the uppercase letters on its southern slope. First erected in 1923, the sign initially spelled out “HOLLYWOODLAND.” Shortened in 1949, its forty-five-foot tall letters spread across 350 feet now proclaim that “HOLLYWOOD” lies below.

As the global capital of mass entertainment, “Hollywood” has become a symbolic homeland for hopes and dreams. Yet like so much of the western past in which projections and realities have become entangled and distorted, the glitter of “Hollywood” the dream factory can obscure the grit of Hollywood the place. From atop Mt. Lee, it’s hard to get the close-up that would reveal the challenges of getting ahead and getting along in the most diverse of western American cities. Still, at least on smog-free days, the view from Mt. Lee extends across much of the Los Angeles basin and to the Pacific Ocean, a perch that encourages some observations about the recent history of the American West and concluding thoughts about the deeper history introduced in these pages.

The view on screen

Like “the West,” “Hollywood” connotes more than a current location. As a stand-in for the entertainment industry that supplied images of the West to the world, its roots can be found in nineteenth-century paintings, photographs, dime novels, and Wild West Shows. What changed about the imaginings in the twentieth century was the reach of cultural productions. Beginning with the 1903 movie The Great Train Robbery, “Westerns” dominated American cinema for a good part of the twentieth century. Although The Great Train Robbery was shot in New Jersey, moviemaking soon shifted to Los Angeles; the ample sunshine of southern California was conducive to outdoor shooting and its open, arid landscapes were appropriate for Westerns. During the 1960s, when the genre lost favor with Hollywood studios, foreigners put their own stamp on it. The most American of genres, Westerns, as the Italian director Sergio Leone recognized, now “belong[ed] to the world.” And far more than any scholarly statement, Westerns, whether made in Hollywood or abroad, influenced popular understandings of the western past.

In style and substance, many of the classic Westerns of the twentieth century took a pose and a page from their nineteenth-century antecedents. Motion pictures lifted shots and camera angles from still pictures; characters and plots followed dime novel formulas. These put white men front and center. Nonwhites and women of all races were relegated to secondary roles, or no roles at all. Heroes were strong and silent, rugged individualists who were quick on the draw and ready to shed blood to secure civilization’s triumph over savagery. No one embodied this ideal better than John Wayne.

Wayne and Westerns peaked in influence and popularity in the years after World War II. Between 1945 and 1965, Hollywood studios released around seventy-five Westerns each year—about one-quarter of the films they made. Television featured Westerns even more prominently. On the small screen at the end of the 1950s, twenty-eight series set in the “Old West” were on the weekly prime-time schedules of the major broadcast networks. These accounted for seven of the ten most highly rated programs. With the advent of the Marlboro Man in 1954, advertisements reinforced the message of Westerns. Like the characters played by Wayne (and the image he projected offscreen), the Marlboro Man was a self-reliant, sharpshooting cowboy who exemplified the ideal of American manhood.


8. A souvenir postcard from around 1909 shows a lineup of cowgirls from the 101 Ranch in Oklahoma. The 101 was a working ranch that covered more than one hundred thousand acres, but it was best known for the Wild West shows it began to stage in 1905. Like Buffalo Bill’s troupe, the 101 Ranch Company featured cowboys, cowgirls, and Indians (including Geronimo) and played to audiences across the United States and Europe.

In the latter part of the 1960s, changing times and tastes diminished the appeal of Westerns. Hollywood studios cut back significantly on the number of Westerns they produced; networks looked to other genres to fill out prime-time schedules. The Westerns that were made increasingly upended traditional formulas. In these “anti-Westerns,” the clear distinctions that had once separated white-hatted heroes from black-hatted villains gave way to grayer portrayals. Indians received more sympathetic treatments. Violence, formerly venerated as essential to the winning of the West, lost its redemptive justifications.

While the enthusiasm of Americans ebbed, Europeans remained enamored of Westerns. Ever since William Cody (Buffalo Bill) had toured the Continent with his Wild West Show, Europeans had embraced things western. In Germany, Indians particularly fascinated. The German novelist Karl May’s books set in the Old West continued to sell long after his death in 1912 and after the Western went into decline in the United States. Europeans also made their own movies about the West’s wildness. Most notable were the so-called spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone. These shared in the revisionist spirit of the era’s anti-Westerns, but Leone’s productions had a visual style that was unique. Filmed in Spain, based on Japanese movies, and starring a cast of American, Italian, and Yugoslav actors, Leone’s movies attested to the internationalization of the Western.

Back in the United States, the sprawl of suburbia supplanted the wide-open spaces of the Old West on big and small screens. In focusing on life in the subdivisions that sprouted around Los Angeles (and, to a lesser degree, every other American city), Hollywood productions returned to the original purpose of Hollywood. The original “HOLLYWOODLAND” on the famous sign, after all, had advertised not the capital of the motion picture industry but a suburban real estate development. In fact, “the industry,” which in Los Angeles came to mean the entertainment industry, had long promoted real estate interests by bolstering the local economy and by disseminating images of the good life in twentieth-century southern California.

Depictions of an older West diminished but did not entirely disappear. To some extent, Westerns relocated, with science fiction films and television series transferring classic plots, characters, and settings to the “new frontier” of space. Nonetheless, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, cowboys were much less visible than they had once been, especially after bans on cigarette advertisements removed the Marlboro Man from television.

Even as Wayne’s star waned and Westerns faded on American screens, westerners, some playing up their cowboy credentials, raised their profile on the national political scene. Of the twenty-two men nominated by the Democratic and Republican parties for the presidency in the elections from 1952 and 2012, eleven hailed from or were primarily affiliated with one of the nineteen western states (whose ranks, after a forty-seven-year break following the admission of New Mexico and Arizona, expanded in 1959 to include Alaska and Hawaii). That westerners made up half of the major party candidates reflected the tilt of the American population to those western states. That Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, often dressed and talked as if they came straight from the range to the stump suggested that the mythic cowboy hero still resonated with American voters, even if a shrinking percentage lived in the still wide-open spaces of the rural West or had seen many Westerns.

The close-up

At street level, the harsher realities of urban life press into view in Hollywood. True, Hollywood’s grime, crime, poverty, prostitution, homelessness, and hopelessness are hardly unique. They exist in many parts of Los Angeles and most of the inhabited places of the modern American West.

What is distinctive, at least in degree, is the heterogeneity of the populace in Hollywood and surrounding districts of Los Angeles. Ethnic enclaves such as Thai Town and Little Armenia are both parts of Hollywood. To the east of Hollywood are Los Angeles’s Filipinotown, Chinatown, and Little Tokyo. South from Hollywood is a vast and expanding stretch known as Koreatown and the small district of Little Ethiopia. To the west is Little Persia, whose growing population has led some to tag the Westside of Los Angeles as Tehrangeles. Across the Los Angeles basin, dozens more neighborhoods show up on maps with one or another ethnic/immigrant label. But like so many boundaries in the western past, the mappings that neatly delineate various “Littles” and “Towns” mask the fluidity of borders. The prevalence of polyglot mixes is not a new phenomenon, though post-1965 immigrations have certainly augmented the diversity of neighborhoods and the complexity of cultural blends.

Earlier in the twentieth century, Boyle Heights, on the Eastside of Los Angeles, epitomized the perils and possibilities of urban diversity. Attracting an assortment of newcomers in the first four decades of the twentieth century, this working-class neighborhood assembled Mexicans, Japanese, African Americans, European immigrants, and, most numerous of all, Jews. Most came to Boyle Heights because its housing was more affordable and did not carry the restrictive covenants that kept those deemed “nonwhite” (a category that still included most Jews in the early decades of the twentieth century) out of more well-heeled neighborhoods in Los Angeles. In the eyes of authorities, this ethnic variety was alarming. A 1939 report by a federal housing agency condemned the neighborhood for its “diverse and subversive racial elements” and determined that Boyle Heights was “hopelessly heterogeneous.”

To government officials, heterogeneity made Boyle Heights a bad risk for housing loans, but within the community, bonds developed across ethnic and religious lines. At the local high school, clubs formed to foster intergroup mixing, and youths especially enjoyed challenging their elders’ conventions by trespassing cultural boundaries. From these tentative youthful crossings, more enduring alliances emerged, some personal, through intermarriages, and some political, through the creation of organizations that made common cause for civil rights.

World War II and its aftermath tested these connections. Executive Order 9066 removed the Japanese, leaving homes and apartments hastily vacated and reducing the enrollment of the area high school by a third. Into this void came wartime migrants, including significant numbers of African Americans and Native Americans, attracted by jobs in defense industries. When the Japanese won release from the internment camps, they often found their return to former homes blocked by more recent arrivals. After the war, the diversity and unity of Boyle Heights suffered from the suburban sprawl that reshaped Los Angeles and other metropolitan areas. Gaining access to the privileges of whiteness, Jewish residents of Boyle Heights relocated to newly developed tracts in the greener (and whiter) Westside and San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. Immigrants from Mexico (and later other countries in Central America) filled the places left by Jews. Meanwhile, metropolitan planners fixed on Boyle Heights as a place through which to build highways. By 1960, five freeways cut through the neighborhood. These facilitated traffic between downtown Los Angeles and points east and south and encouraged developers to supplant citrus groves with suburban homes. The construction of highways, though, physically divided Boyle Heights, with “white flight” and new immigration turning the neighborhood more Latino year by year.

An outbreak of arson and violence in the summer of 1965 in the Watts section of Los Angeles reinforced the national tendency to see metropolitan patterns and problems in black and white. The episode began when the arrest of an African-American motorist set off an outcry against decades of mistreatment at the hands of the almost all white Los Angeles police force. Several days and nights of violence followed, leaving thirty-four dead, more than one thousand injured, and $40 million of property torched across an eleven-square-mile area. Along with other conflagrations that erupted in cities across the United States during the second half of the 1960s, the Watts riot called attention to widening racial fractures between white and black, rich and poor, and suburbs and cities.

The lines between white and nonwhite in Los Angeles and the West were, of course, more complicated, which became more apparent in the years after 1965 and came into fuller view when another “race riot” broke out in the spring of 1992. As in 1965, the events of 1992 had their immediate origins in a traffic incident. In the latter case, a high-speed chase ended with white police officers beating Rodney King, an African-American man, as he lay prone on the pavement. Although the brutality was captured on video, the perpetrators were acquitted, a verdict that caused simmering rage to boil over. Beginning in South Central Los Angeles, looting and arson spread over the next six days to other parts of the city. By the time a semblance of peace was restored, fifty-five people were dead, fourteen thousand arrested, and eighteen hundred treated for gunshot wounds. Property damage surpassed $1 billion.

During the 1992 riot and in its immediate aftermath, many in the media cast the disorder as a reprise of 1965, but closer scrutiny revealed important differences that attested to the changing demography of Los Angeles. Although both eruptions started in South Central Los Angeles, what had been a mostly black neighborhood in 1965 was no longer so in 1992. Its population was now approximately 50 percent Latino, and police records showed that this group accounted for 43 percent of those arrested, compared with the 34 percent who were African American. The targets of arsonists had also shifted. In 1965, around 80 percent of looted and burned stores had belonged to white (mostly Jewish) shopkeepers. By 1992, Jewish merchants had largely fled the area, while Korean-run businesses proliferated in South Central Los Angeles. Attacks on these stores reflected the animosities that had developed between African Americans and Korean Americans, particularly in the wake of the 1991 shooting of Latasha Harlins, an African-American teenager, by Soon Ja Du, a Korean-American shopkeeper. Yet much of the damage to Korean businesses occurred not in South Central but in Koreatown itself, where the residential population and those charged with arson and looting were mostly Latinos.

Even more than the Watts Riot of 1965, the violence of 1992 stained the reputation of Los Angeles, a metropolis whose remarkable ascent rested on the sunnier face it generally presented to the rest of the world. That Los Angeles became a great city—the foremost crossroads in western North America for peoples and products from north, south, east, and west—confounded expectations, providing a model that inspired emulation and condemnation. Unlike Cahokia, which was situated near the confluences of the continent’s major rivers, or the other metropolises that subsequently could claim to be the continent’s greatest gathering points, Los Angeles had none of the attributes that major cities typically possessed. Driven instead by the dreams of its boosters, by waters from afar, by federal investments in national defense, and, after 1965, by a new flood of immigrants, Los Angeles overcame its geographic disadvantages.

Defying the cycles of boom and bust that had characterized so much previous western development, the city and surrounding area registered staggering gains in census after census. Its sprawling, automobile-centric development found imitators across the West and the nation. At the end of the twentieth century, Los Angeles was also the most ethnically diverse metropolis in the United States, boasting the largest communities of Mexicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Koreans, and Filipinos outside their homelands. It had truly become the place where the world congregated. This was fitting because for decades Los Angeles, through “Hollywood,” had exported the western American fantasy to the rest of the world. But in the ashes of the spring of 1992, this dream took on a nightmarish tone for the peoples of Los Angeles.

The long view

On May 1, 1992, a tearful Rodney King stepped in front of a battery of cameras and microphones and issued a plea heard round the West and the world: “Can we all get along? Can we, can we get along?” With Los Angeles then ablaze, the answer to King’s query seemed an emphatic no. Indeed, with people who had come to the American West from the American South, from south of the United States, and from across the Pacific belittling and battling one another, the events of 1992 apparently validated the conclusion of the 1939 housing agency: heterogeneity was hopeless.


9. John Gast’s 1872 painting American Progress was commissioned to illustrate a western guidebook and was widely reproduced, making it one of the most familiar depictions of westward expansion.

This dystopic perspective from late twentieth-century Los Angeles contrasts with long-standing visions of the American West as a land of promise and progress. The legends that previous generations printed (and screened) about the American West conveyed hope, not hopelessness. Thus, in the early 1870s, Brewster Higley wrote the poem “My Western Home,” and for generations people have sung of a mythic range in which “seldom is heard a discouraging word.” Around the same time that Higley penned his homage to the cloudless skies of the Kansas grasslands, John Gast painted American Progress. At the far left of Gast’s canvas, Indians and bison slide into the shadows. In their place march a parade of pioneer types and the vehicles that carried them westward across the plains: prospectors and farmers, a covered wagon, a stagecoach, and a railroad train. Above floats an angelic female figure, carrying a schoolbook and stringing a telegraph wire to uplift and connect the nation from coast to coast. A few decades after Higley and Gast, Frederick Jackson Turner turned poem and picture into several thousand words that told a similar tale about western promise and national progress.

Notably absent from Higley’s poem, Gast’s painting, and Turner’s prose is evidence of the bloodshed that accompanied the westward expansion of the United States. All three expunged or considerably downplayed that aspect of American advance across the continent. In Higley’s poem, “the Red man was pressed from this part of the West.” In Gast’s picture, Indians retreat quietly from the scene. Likewise, Turner paid little attention to the wars that won the West. In his scheme, the frontier brought Indians and pioneers into close, if temporary, contact. But the pioneers’ encounters with Indians and their adaptations to “primitive” conditions were only a transitional stage that laid the groundwork for taming wilderness and transforming it into productive farms and bustling towns.

By no means did all historical presentations turn a blind eye to violence. Turner’s contemporary Theodore Roosevelt embraced it: allowing that the shedding of blood was not always “agreeable,” he insisted that it was the “healthy sign of the virile strength” of the American people. As historian and president, Roosevelt exalted in “our manifest destiny to swallow up the land of all adjoining nations who were too weak to withstand us.” He deemed it “desirable for the good of humanity at large that the American people should ultimately crowd out the Mexicans from their sparsely populated Northern provinces” and take the rest of the West from Indians too.

Historians of American Wests have now disavowed such claims on behalf of manifest destiny. Like the anti-Westerns that challenged older cinematic staples, the last half century of scholarship has inverted triumphant takes on the history of American Wests. Recent scholarship has tended to lament what historian Patricia Limerick has labeled the “legacy of conquest” and to spotlight the victims of American expansion.

In its simplest iteration, this legacy as a chapter in the longer history of European colonialism in the Americas can be distilled into two maps: the first showing the entirety of the Americas as Indian countries, the second shading only the tiny fraction of the United States currently reserved for indigenous communities. While the government of the United States maintained the fiction that American Wests were won through contracts, not conquests, the treaties with Indian nations (and, for that matter, with the Mexican nation) paid a pittance for acreage that was usually expropriated at the equivalent of gunpoint. Accompanying and closely correlating to the loss of land was the loss of people. True, the catastrophic fall in Indian numbers in the centuries after 1492 owed more to disease than to warfare, but a collective autopsy still finds that colonialism was a chief cause of death.

As with so many stories we tell about American Wests, this one requires elaboration. In the streamlined version that features only death and dispossession, a long story is made short. It banishes to a static and irrelevant “prehistory” all that came before the coming of Europeans. This version further misleads by treating the claims of European empires and the American nation as facts on the ground and not the fantasies they remained for varying durations. The long story prematurely turned short erases Indian countries from maps, missing entirely the ways in which for generations the territories of some Indian peoples expanded before they contracted. This story downplays the strategies Indians employed to contest colonial incursions and contain foreign impositions. Finally, it dismisses the adaptations and accommodations with which Indians defied the doom that their friends and foes predicted for them a century ago.


10. This map shows the federal and state reservations that remain in the hands of Indian communities today. Almost all of the 324 federally recognized reservations are in the western half of the United States.

Contrary to once prevalent views, Indians have not vanished. Instead, the census count for American Indians, which had fallen to 250,000 in 1890, slowly rebounded during the first half of the twentieth century, reaching 350,000 in 1950. Over the next fifty years, the census of American Indians registered more significant gains, topping two million in 2000. In 2010, more than five million Americans told census takers that they were at least partly American Indian.

In addition to their numbers, the hopes of Indians have been raised by the advent of casinos on reservations. In 1987, two small Native American nations in the desert outside Los Angeles won a Supreme Court case, turning back the claims of California and the federal government to prevent their gaming centers from becoming full-blown casinos. Their success sparked a national trend in American Indian development, where the fantasies of another western city, Las Vegas, were replicated on the slivers of land held by American Indians in many parts of the country. Profits from casinos stimulated economic revival and funded efforts at cultural renaissance, at least on those reservations that were close to major population centers.

But these gambling venues also triggered fights about tribal enrollment. Bitter divisions emerged between those who met blood requirements and those who were excluded from membership and denied a share of gaming profits. In Oklahoma, the controversies have been particularly acidic. There, the descendants of the African-American slaves of removed Indians have met continuing resistance in their efforts to gain enrollment in the tribes they consider their kin.

With attention focused on glitzy casinos and the newer opportunities and conflicts they generate, the grimmer realities of Indian life on most reservations often escape notice. Yet, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, statistics present a familiarly depressing portrait. Poverty rates among Indians far exceed the national average. So does unemployment, which reaches 80 percent on some reservations (where federal support provides the only jobs and the only buffer against starvation). Poor nutrition, disease, alcoholism, and suicide all contribute to lowered life expectancies, which fall well below the nation’s norms.

During the twentieth century and continuing in the twenty-first, Indians increasingly moved away from reservations. Although federal policies swung back and forth between encouraging the breakup of communal landholdings and tribal governance and trying to protect the autonomy and integrity of reservations, the push of poverty and the pull of outside opportunities steadily drew Indians away from tribal reserves. By century’s end, three-fifths of American Indians lived in cities. Not surprisingly, given its magnetic power, Los Angeles boasted the largest Indian population of any American city.

In Los Angeles and the other metropolitan areas to which they moved, Indians tended to blend. Rather than “Little Native Americas,” American Indians usually resided in multiethnic neighborhoods, sharing spaces and struggles with millions of others, some migrants like themselves, others immigrants from abroad. In these urban settings, particular tribal identities often gave way to a more general pan-Indian identification. But the blurring of distinctions went further than this, for urban Indians, like their neighbors, frequently consorted across ethnic lines.

As the long view exposes, ethnic crossings and cultural blendings were not new to American Indians or to the history of American Wests. Trade networks and traditions of intermarriage, captivity, and adoption opened precolonial Indian societies to items, ideas, and individuals from outside their ranks. With the arrival of Europeans and Africans, these tools for incorporating foreign goods, beliefs, and people expanded. Of course, Europeans exerted their own incorporating agenda. But while missionaries tallied their baptisms, the results of their efforts looked more like cultural convergences than outright conversions.

That preference for convergence over conversion prevailed through the colonial era and persisted into the period of the westward expansion of the United States. To be sure, pressures against the mixing of peoples built under the American regime, which sought to define races more precisely and to confine those deemed nonwhite into separate social and legal categories. These efforts did lead many American Indian groups to alter their traditions of membership, which had typically incorporated adopted captives on the basis of their cultural adaptation. Beginning in the late nineteenth century and taking on renewed meaning a century later, some Indians embraced the American system by using blood percentage as the essential criteria for enrollment. Nonetheless, the governments of the United States and its western states never fully succeeded in their sorting projects or in simplifying the demographic and cultural complexities that arose when people of differing origins and heritages shared the same space.

Nor have efforts to wall off the American West from the rest of the world ever created an enduring seal. The permeability is especially evident on the border between the United States and Mexico. While the Gasden Purchase in 1853 completed the territorial adjustments between the two nations, the permanence and security of the border has remained an issue. At times, the idea of restoring the pre-1848 border has inspired hopes and fears. One such moment came in 1915, when word of a “Plan of San Diego” circulated in south Texas and northern Mexico. The plot called for an insurrection by a “liberating army of peoples and races.” Press reports distorted the reality of this army, but combined with rumors that Germany was trying to induce Mexico to declare war against the United States, the newspaper stories reinforced concerns about the sanctity of the border and the loyalties of Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans in the Texas borderlands. More recently, an advertisement for a brand of vodka that mapped Mexico’s boundaries as they were before 1848 and as they might be again “In an Absolut World” triggered an Internet sensation. This uproar was largely confined to virtual space, but in the real world the battle to protect the border has been waged with bigger budgets for the Border Patrol and with the construction of a new fence across the boundary between the United States and Mexico.

To its proponents, the fence is the only way to keep the West American, but in many respects the projection runs contrary to much of the history of American Wests. Across the centuries, migrations and minglings of peoples have triggered struggles that have torn families and societies apart. Yet, dark and bloody as western grounds have often been, the longer view also offers examples of convergences in which common ground was found—at least for a while. Those episodes of concord, from colonial frontiers to multiethnic neighborhoods in the modern American West, provide evidence of barriers breached and accords reached, of people overcoming their differences instead of being overcome by them, of heterogeneity made hopeful.

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