What is The Wild West
The Wild West is the word that that has been coined for a period in American history that coincided with the movement of the white settlers west wards. It was a turbulent period and dominated by gunmen, sheriffs or lawmen, red Indians and the settlers themselves. It was the age that opened America to development and perhaps what the USA is today would never have been in case this period had not existed.
This entire period was marked by courage, perseverance, adventure, inventiveness and strength of purpose. It was in fact in some ways the golden age of America and hundreds of movies and books are testimony to this period as the age that made America.
The Settlers and their Wagons
The white settlers who came from Britain started moving westwards from the eighteenth century onwards This was virgin land and home to the Red Indian tribes like the Apache’s , Cherokees and others. Obviously there was bound to be a clash between the settlers and the Red Indians and hence the settlers travelled in lines of wagons called the wagon trail. The fighting was bitter, but the Red Indian tribes were defeated as the settlers pressed forward. This was also the period when local laws were framed and is the genesis of the federal system of Government in the USA, where states frame their own laws.
Lawmen and Gunslingers
The period also brought to the forefront the rustler or cattle thief and the gunslinger who wished to make some money by his gun alone. To counter them local lawmen emerged called sheriffs who also made a name for themselves as fearless fighters and tamers of these gun slingers.
Outlaws and law men were the mainstay of the Wild West. The odd thing is that both these categories of men, one for the law and one against it were in fact interchangeable. Thus a lawman in one state was an outlaw in another state and vice versa.
Some of the outlaws made a name for themselves that still lives today. One of these was Billy the Kid. He was shot dead in 1881 by his friend a sheriff named Pat Garret and mind you he was only 21 and had shot 21 men by that time. In 1881 again in Tombstone, Arizona Marshall Wyatt Earp and his brothers along with Doc Holliday shot to death the Clanton gang members in a famous shoot out at the O.K Corral. And in 1882, another notorious outlaw, Jesse James, who is also a legend, was shot in the back by a close relative who wished to collect a reward of $ 5000 offered for him at that time. Jesse James and his gang had terrorized the west for close to 2 decades.
The Civil War
The Wild West got a further impetus after the end of the American civil war in 1865. Overnight some of the big plantation owners were reduced to penury and many took up the gun to become outlaws. Some of the outlaws were from good family and as they travelled westwards they left behind a trail of murder, bank robberies and looting.
The Rail Road
Another factor that opened up the Wild West was the rail road. The rail line was pushed forward from the east (New York) to San Francisco, a distance of almost 6000 km. As the rail line was built it was attacked by both Red Indians and gunmen. Great credit is to be given to the fearless rail road men who went out into uncharted lands. In fact this is another romantic episode of this period.
One gang who specialized in rail road hold ups was Robert Parker and Harry Lombaugh also known as the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid. They started their activities in 1899, but by 1901 the pressure of the law men had an effect and the duo fled to South America. This was the end of the outlaw and the Wild West, which by then had been tamed.
The Red Indian Wars
The Wild West was also the age of the Red Indian wars with the US Army. Thus men like Davy Crockett, James Bowie and General Custer have made a name for themselves. It is worth noting that the US government signed over a thousand treaties with the Red Indians, but each and every one of them was broken resulting in a war led by Geronimo. He was also defeated and he surrendered and was confined to a reservation, areas that were earmarked for Red Indian tribe’s men. These are still in existence at a lot of places. These are referred to as ‘reservations’
The United States Army – Building Legends
The US Army also built up its legends during this age. There were wars with Mexico and Red Indians. The Mexicans were defeated and California captured. One of the famous battles of the period was the stand of the US army against a horde of Mexicans at the Alamo. It is a hallowed spot in American history.
The Wild West was an era that has no parallel anywhere else in the world. It was a romantic era and has been immortalized by writers like Zane grey. This was a period where the men was strong and masculine with a macho image and the women were lovely but hardy companions. The west could not have been what it is without these hardy women who travelled with their lovers and husbands into the wilderness. This is the spirit of adventure and the white man must take credit for being in the fore front. One spin-off from this period is the lax gun laws in the USA. Everybody can own a gun just with some identification and the weapons can be bought across the counter.
Lastly I have no doubt that America would not have been what it is without the Wild West. It affected the Americans with a dare-devil spirit and the spill off is the shooting of Osama bin laden. I am glad such an age existed. Let’s see the movies and read the books of this period to savor that glorious age, for it will never come again. Gone with the Wind?