Chapter 13: The Myth of the Well-Armed Cowboy
The Hidden History of Guns and the 2nd Amendment
The Myth of the Well-Armed Cowboy
Leave Your Revolvers at Police Headquarters, and Get a Check.
—Signs posted throughout Wichita, Kansas, in 1873 and typical of other Wild West towns of the era1
The now-romanticized cowboys of the Old West were, along with slaves and Native Americans, the earliest victims of unregulated capitalism in America.
America was first settled in a big way by the British East India Company’s subsidiary the Virginia Company, at Jamestown (named after King James, the largest holder of stock in the corporation) in 1607. The land/state claimed by the company was named Virginia, after the “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth I, who, in 1600, signed the charter of the world’s first modern-style limited-liability corporation (the East India Company).
By the time of the American Revolution, the influence of the company and its subsidiaries had extended so far across the colonies that small businesses were loudly complaining that it was nearly impossible for small or midsized companies to exist.
In an open act of revolt against the company and the huge tax cut it got with the Tea Act of 1773, the citizens of Boston threw over a million dollars’ (in today’s money) worth of the company’s tea into the harbor. That set in motion the events that led directly to the Declaration of Independence.
But while a loud revolt against a big business monopoly was happening in the northern states, a far quieter one was happening in the South that would have an equally huge impact.
When they first meaningfully settled in the 17th and early 18th centuries, most southern farmers—even with the use of slaves—ran rather small operations, eking whatever they could by way of subsistence out of land stolen from the Indians.
To protect British textile manufacturers, the East India Company had successfully lobbied the British Parliament to pass a law banning the manufacture in the colonies of any sort of “fine clothing.” This predictably resulted in a huge export market for cotton to England, where clothing was manufactured for re-import into America, and by the late 1600s and early 1700s, cotton-arable land in the South had become highly valuable and expensive.
Small farmers found themselves being increasingly squeezed—throughout the 1700s and well into the 1800s—by high land prices, and by monopolistic and predatory shippers, exporters, and bankers. Add to that the jurisdictions that taxed land, and there was a strong incentive for successful cotton producers to grow their plantations to the size where they could have economic and political leverage in the increasingly monopolistic marketplace.
Thus, large plantation owners throughout the era routinely expanded their operations. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, it was largely through the murder of native populations, an effort aggressively aided by the young US government (see Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears). Later it was through what today are called buyouts and acquisitions, echoing the farming consolidations of the Reagan era—large slaveholding plantation operators gave their small-farm neighbors offers they couldn’t refuse and acquired their lands on the cheap.
With a few bucks in their pockets and pushed off their own land, many of these former southern dirt farmers moved west in search of new opportunities. The Civil War further consolidated the power of the large plantation owners and killed off hundreds of thousands of the smaller farm operators (who were conscripted for the war, the wealthy being able to buy their way out of the draft in both North and South).
These factors combined with the invention and widespread distribution of the cotton gin (1830s) and the railroads (which went transcontinental around the end of the Civil War) to make anything but big operations harder and harder to sustain.
After the Civil War, and particularly with the California gold rush and the widespread romanticizing of the cowboy myth by books and serializations in publications like the Saturday Evening Post (first published in 1821), there was an explosion of southern young men and poor families who wanted to move west.
Many, indeed most, of the “bandits” (a friendlier term in that era than “criminals”) were former Confederate soldiers who either were running from indictments for war crimes or had returned home from the war to find nothing left.
Some of the most famous of the “Old West outlaws” were these former Confederate soldiers, including Missouri “bushwhackers” (hide-and-shoot terrorists principally among the Missouri Confederates) like former slaveholders Jesse and Frank James. The bushwhackers were responsible, for example, for the 1863 slaughter of more than 150 men and boys in Lawrence, Kansas, an antislavery town.
America was birthed in genocide, killing as many as 100 million Native Americans over the course of five centuries, and in the early 1870s the country had just completed a bloody civil war over the enslavement of people brought here from Africa.
“Good white citizens” who bought and read books and magazines, however, weren’t much interested in reading that we’d outdone every other country in the history of the world at genocide, or that we’d fought a war to preserve an institution anathema to the high-sounding concepts laid out in the Declaration of Independence.
Out of this came the myth of the cowboy.
While in fact most actual cowboys were hardworking ranch hands and cattle herders, poorly paid and worked to death in often terrible weather, the fictional version sold to America in the post–Civil War era was an entirely different thing. Even the most brutal and sociopathic outlaws, like the James brothers and the James–Younger Gang, were transformed into tragic-but-noble figures by the pens of America’s novelists and magazine writers.
Overlooking their roles as criminals, rapists, and murderers was only part of the fictionalization of the Old West. Guns came with it.
In order for a fictional protagonist to be heroic, he must have some sort of super-ability. He must be so extraordinary at something that he can be turned into a legend, into someone to emulate—into, well, a hero.
And the heroic ability that America’s press fell in love with through the late 19th century was gunfighting.
Prior to the Civil War, most guns were handmade and thus quite expensive and often unreliable. The steel of the day was vulnerable to rust unless fastidiously maintained, and soft enough that weapons didn’t have a particularly long life if they were frequently fired.
That all changed with Samuel Colt’s patent in 1835 on a factory-manufactured rifle. The whole concept was in its infancy at the time, and Colt’s weapons had significant quality problems, to the point that by 1842 the US government was loudly complaining about his guns and he closed his factory.
Colt took a second run at it in 1846 to supply guns for the Mexican-American War, going into business first with Eli Whitney (the wealthy inventor of the cotton gin) and later branching into his own company. By the end of the Civil War, Colt weapons were the sparkling new technology of the era, and Colt himself was hailed as a visionary entrepreneur the way Steve Jobs is today.
Eager to jump on the bandwagon of the newest toys for boys, writers turned bushwhackers and common thieves who were competent gunslingers into the stuff of legend.
The shootout at the OK Corral didn’t happen at the OK Corral but instead in a narrow alley and was probably just a plain, old-fashioned bushwhack? No problem—simply rewrite the story. Jesse James had been a slave owner and was generally hated by everybody he came into contact with? No problem—simply reinvent him as a noble hero. Daniel Boone was just a pelt trapper and scavenger who couldn’t keep a job or a relationship? No problem—make him a legend.
From the Saturday Evening Post of the 1870s to Clint Eastwood’s Josey Wales, the legends were there to be made.
And layered on top of it all was the idea that there were people—lots of them—who occupied this continent and needed to be killed.
According to the writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the “Indians” were savage beasts who couldn’t be tamed or taught. The Africans brought here to work the fields were just one step up the evolutionary ladder from gorillas—a common theme in the art of the 19th century and before—and therefore didn’t fully experience “human” emotions or pain. (This so persists to this day that African-American patients in America’s hospitals are today less likely to be given painkillers or the same doses of painkillers as white patients.)2
Herbert Spencer took Charles Darwin’s theory of biological evolution and applied it to society, creating a concept often referred to as social Darwinism, which brought the final part of the formula into the mix. Instead of Jefferson’s random diary musings about the equality of the Indians to whites3 or the inferiority of Blacks, here now was an actual theory that took the white world by storm.
The victims of slavery and genocide were victims precisely because they deserved to be; it was their genetic destiny. Laying this theory out for the world, Spencer (not Darwin) coined, in 1864, the phrase “survival of the fittest.”4
By the 1870s and 1880s, as the myth of the cowboy had seized America’s imagination, this new “scientific” theory injected a potent new poison into America’s political and cultural bloodstream. Slavery and genocide weren’t wrong; white-controlled America was simply making appropriate use of “beasts of burden” in the first instance and cleaning up the gene pool in the second.
The idea so infatuated well-educated Americans that Teddy Roosevelt himself, speaking to the Republican Club of New York City in 1905, said,
If in any community the level of intelligence, morality, and thrift among the colored men can be raised, it is, humanly speaking, sure that the same level among the whites will be raised to an even higher degree. . . .
The problem is so to adjust the relations between two races of different ethnic type that the rights of neither be abridged nor jeoparded; that the backward race be trained so that it may enter into the possession of true freedom . . . while the forward race is enabled to preserve unharmed the high civilization wrought out by its forefathers.5
Earlier in his life, Roosevelt had been more blunt: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indian is the dead Indian,” he said, “but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth. The most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average Indian.”6
Roosevelt, an ardent defender of working white people, was much more skeptical about people of other races. From his 1902 letter in which he argued that any white couple who didn’t have children was contributing to “race suicide”7 to his boosterism of the Spanish-American War’s expansion into the Philippines by saying that Filipinos were “Chinese half-breeds,” he echoed the white rationalization for the extermination or subjugation of nonwhite peoples.
And the principal instruments of that subjugation, from the earliest days of the republic, were guns.
Teddy Roosevelt was also a deeply mythologized gunslinger who benefited directly from the myth of the cowboy. Americans glorify Roosevelt for leading the Rough Riders in guerrilla warfare during the Spanish-American War. Roosevelt’s Rough Riders borrowed their name from hunter and showman Buffalo Bill, who himself capitalized on the myth of the cowboy with an 1898 vaudeville show called “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World.”
President Woodrow Wilson so enthusiastically jumped on the bandwagon of eugenics—the “science” of racial purity—with American-government-produced eugenics posters rationalizing sterilizing “mentally retarded” whites and presumably (but not explicitly, although he did screen the KKK-recruiting film Birth of a Nation at the White House) all Blacks, that Hitler reproduced the posters in the 1930s and used American and British eugenics thinking to justify his “cleansing” of Germany.
American presidents from Roosevelt to Wilson were buying into the tenets of Darwin’s cousin Sir Francis Galton, the British father of the modern eugenics movement, which white people from South Africa to Russia to Norway to America echoed to justify their “white supremacy.”
Here, then, is the storm within a storm.
We committed genocide on a scale never before seen in the world, principally aided by the superior technology of guns.
We established a system of slavery, largely enforced by armed slave patrols.
When outlaws and sociopathic murderers—many of them ex-Confederate soldiers who’d fought to preserve slavery—rampaged across the West, American media romanticized their gunslinging ability and elevated the gun into a sort of totem of power and protection, in the hands of the mythologized “noble American rebel.”
And now, as white children are being murdered en masse in schools across the country, white America is finally paying attention.
There are solutions to this epidemic of gun violence and mass shootings, but they first require a clear-eyed reconciliation of America’s past with its present.
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