Wild Imaginations

During the nineteenth century the cattle business boomed in the western states.  These early pioneers faced many difficult challenges; the greatest challenge was overcoming their own fears and prejudices of the unknown.  The frontiersman’s lives became a symbol for an American dream ~ “The Cowboy Hero,” whereas the Native American’s imaged was misrepresented and exploited by American businessmen eager to make a buck, no matter what it cost the Native Americans.

The eastern states saw these men and women as Frontier Heroes, people who tamed a harsh land and fought the savage Natives who resided in that land.  Janice Rushing gives us an idea of how the East understood life in the West, and how the Easterners viewed the natives who inhabited the land, “In addition to these natural challenges, pioneer heroes also struggled with human evil” (Gerster and Cords 96).

As stories of the frontiersmen lives made their way back to the eastern states they became greatly exaggerated.  These tales became the symbols of good verses evil where our “cowboy hero” always fights the “savage Indians” who must be conquered.  The people began to see blood thirsty savages behind every tree and bush.  Noises in the night became the war cries of the battle hungry warriors.  Families would flee their homes to escape from attacking Indians that were never there, flee from attacks that only occurred in the vivid imaginations stirred by fear.

Man’s fear and an active imagination can be a very large obstacle to overcome for some individuals.  Often fear can spread rumors or myths, just as a wildfire spreads in a dry forest on a hot, windy day.  Glenda Riley gives many accounts of fear spreading myths through the western towns.  Riley tells of a group of families on April of 1857 that heard the “Indians are up on the Des Moines River and are going to come down to kill us” (Gerster and Cords 27).  The families abandoned their homes, and sent out spies “to see if there were any Indians around” (Gerster and Cords 27).  They found they had deserted their homes for nothing.

Riley tells of another instance of a young man in the Ackley area.  he woke his neighbors up yelling out “Wild Indians!”  It was discovered in the morning the Wild Indians turned out to be a man carrying a feather bed mattress in the night (Gerster and Cords 27).

Native Americans had good examples and bad examples in their tribes, just as any culture does.  Caroline Phelps was a newly married young woman who moved to southeastern Iowa in the 1830’s with her husband to trade with the Indians.  Caroline mentions that the Indians often drank excessively and fought with each other, but she wasn’t afraid of them.  Phelps also mentions the Indian women she became friends with.  She attended the Indian ceremonies and their dances.  Phelps’ daughter was even treated by the Indian doctor.  When an Indian friend died they mourned for their friend just as they would have mourned for a member of their family (Gerster and Cords 27 – 28).

A Marshall county woman recalls an account during the late 1840’s when she and her husband had been trading with a tribe of local Indians.  On one occasion her husband was physically attacked by one of the Indians over a dispute.  The woman recalls that a large group of his people came to her cabin to apologize for his behavior.  “They spoke very indignantly of the Indian who had so badly misused us, and said he was a bad Indian, and often quarreled and fought with his own people.”  She remembers that most of the Indians treated them kindly (Gerster and Cords 28).

Riley goes on to say how one young German girl remembers her Aunt Liz taking her to the Indian’s village and the squaws would give them brightly colored beads that they had made.  She remembers treasuring them greatly.  Her memories of the Indians were that they were very kind and she remembers an Indian who visited her family “who spoke very good English” (Gerster and Cords 28).

One woman even received a proposal of marriage from the son of a “powerful Indian chieftain” (Gerster and Cords 28).  He was willing to give up his whole way of life and learn to live like the white man if that is what it took for this woman to accept his marriage proposal.  This hardly seems like the acts of a “savage” man.

Another widely circulated myth was that the white women hated the Native Americans.  It was believed that the Native Americans dragged these women off and raped them; these women chose to return to their homes and not stay with their captors.  Riley explains that these “sagas of abduction, rape and escape made a thrilling story, meant to titillate Americans of the nineteenth century while venting their hatred of the Native Americans” (Gerster and Cords 26).

American society has always expected women to behave in a certain manner.  American culture would like us to believe in the myth that women of the nineteenth century were pure, and prim and proper, gentle creatures.  If it came to be known that women actually had desires, this would go against everything we believed, and our nation has always hated cultures we didn’t understand.  Mixed marriages were not easily accepted in this time period.  Researcher Dawn L Gherman, believed that “women of this time period actually had a streak of ‘wildness’ in their make up which caused them to occasionally long for the natural, the free, and the unrestrained qualities which they perceived in the lives of Native Americans” (Gerster and Cords 26).  If Gheerman were right in her conclusion that some women fantasized about being “white squaws” this idea would never be condoned by those who already hated the Indians (Gerster and Cords 26).

The majority of the frontiersmen were obviously not afraid of the Native American, because their lives were full of many social events.  The women organized quilting and literary societies.  These events were meant to bring about socializing in their communities.  They attended balls, circuses, and masquerades.  They had parties in which they danced all night in elegant homes (Gerster and Cords 24).

Churches were built and there were camp meetings held; the towns people pitched tents and camped out for two and three weeks at a time.  There were also log rollings to clear the land so they could build houses.  They held house warmings and played cards or checkers.  The local fiddle player would bring families together and they would dance all night.  These are hardly the activities of a town threatened with being attacked by local “savages” (Gerster and Cords 24).

The settlers saw the country change quickly.  Schools and churches were built.  The towns began to grow and the railroads came; roads began to be built.  The settlers began building bridges and soon the small villages began to resemble “up to date towns with all the improvements of the city” (Gerster and Cords 24).  It would have been hard for the Indians to sneak in and attack the settlers without someone noticing.  Many of the settlers were beginning to set up trading with the Indians and they were becoming friends with them.  It doesn’t make sense that the Indians would come in and attack the settlers for no reason.  Minor disputes are naturally going to occur as they do in any neighborhood, but that doesn’t make the Indians “Savage Beasts.”

Cattle became a flourishing business in the West.  many Southerners emigrated to the Western States, giving birth to the symbol of the “Cowboy Hero.”  Commercial business played this American idol for every cent they could get.  David Brion Davis writes, “There have been romances written and movies produced idealizing these phases of American history, but little boys do not dress up like Paul Bunyan and you don’t see harpooners on cereal packages.  Yet America has not had many episodes fully as colorful and of longer duration than the actual cowboy era” (Gerster and Cords 31).

The image of what the cowboy stood for was exploited by big business.  The “cowboy hero” was an easy trademark for commerce.  Can’t you just picture a big, strong, carved cowboy outside the store selling covered wagons, or on the front of the store where the guns are sold?  Many books were written based on the tales of the innocent women being saved by our brave “cowboy” legend fighting off the “savage” Indians, and of course our hero always won.  David Brion Davis writes about the Ten~Gallon Hero, “Despite the incongruities, the cowboy myth exists in fact, and as such is probably a more influential social force than the actual cowboy ever was.  It provides the frame work for an expression of common ideals of morality and behavior.  And while a commercial success, the hero cowboy must satisfy some basic want in American culture” (Gerster and Cord 31).

The views of the cowboys and Indians according to the eastern states were unrealistically based on stories revolving around the lives of the Frontier Heroes and not from actual experiences of the actual average Westerner.  Janice Rushing sums up the images of the lives that the Eastern states believed the Westerners lived, describing the danger, violence and evils they faced in everyday life.

Rushing notes that in addition to these natural challenges, pioneer heroes also struggled with human evil.  According to Rushing, this meant the Native Americans or the outlaw, “Whatever its form,” she observes, “evil is to be respected for its fierceness and strength” and its ability to provide  “a fitting challenge for the frontier hero.”  This combination of beauty and cruelty on the limitless frontier also gives the Myth much of its compelling power.  “It can inspire ordinary people to conquer immense hazards,” Calder writes, or “it can defeat them totally” (Gerster and Cords 96).

Myth and Reality have its place in American lives.  Myth can give men the capability to dream bigger dreams and make American lives better, just as the frontiersmen did, but we also need to be grounded in reality.  A civilization should not be deemed evil out of the fear of other men based on misunderstandings of their cultures.  In all reality, the frontiersmen probably learned many useful skills from the Native Americans about the land.  If we forget the actual facts of history preferring to live only in the fantasy, then man has already defeated himself.

Joy Elaine

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  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this JoyElaine
    And agree with everything written here!

    It appears that when stories are told they often get embellished with facts that make those stories more exciting or more profitable. The problem is, these stories sometimes become historical record of untrue events!!

    Those of us who do take the time to look, reach out and embrace other cultures such as the Native American, clearly see the richness and uniqueness that is there. Most importantly by interaction and interest in other cultures we can see that we are all connected, all similar inhabitants of one world.

    The Native Americans like any other peoples’ have wonderful gifts that they have brought and shared with us, and still do, we should acknowledge that fact and also celebrate their culture as we do our own.

    Native American Heritage Month is November each year.

    1. Thank you @Mari3 this was my first paper I wrote for the History Professor who said I would not pass his class being an English Major. However, he had not learned that I am not the ordinary English Major. I only spend this much time researching a subject if it’s something I believe in and it touches my heart. He announced in class that if we wanted to throw our ideas at him he would take the time to listen to us. I took him up on his word and I could tell I caught his attention. He is a teacher who doesn’t put up with people slacking off in class so I’m sure he was just ridding the class of baggage with his remark the first day of his class. Another female English Major had the same thoughts I did. . . “Who is going to tell me what class I can or can not fail?” She came back too. The male English Major did not. The other English Major and myself both passed the class with the highest grades.

      This teacher did indeed do his research and most of what the schools in the US teach our children are lies. I had never liked History until I took his class. He demanded hard work from his students and I often made myself sick with stress showing him just how hard I was willing to work. I think I gained his respect and that is what was important to me. Showing my Grandmother who was dying at the time my A++ grade felt pretty good too. My Grandmother was always very proud of me.

      This subject touches my heart because My paternal Great Grandfather married an Iroquois native American. They were both disowned by their families. The Irish side would not condone bringing a ‘savage’ into the family. The Native American side would not tolerate a low life scummy Scottish/Irish man into their family. I am one of the results of that marriage. I find it disheartening that I don’t have the means to have accurate information of these two people in my family history. All I know for certain is that my Great great grandmother was a midwife and her family had a lot of money. She must of still made a good income after being disowned because I have copies of paintings that were painted of them. Poor families could not afford that luxury. My Great great grandfather was married to another Native American woman who pronounced him dead. He showed up in later years married to my Great great grandmother and producing 2 daughters. . . my Great grandmother and my Great Aunt. Was he a low life Scottish/Irish man I don’t know maybe his first wife was a terrible woman. I do know that the Irish and Scottish were treated very harshly in American History.

      I feel the same as you. . . different cultures have such wonderful stories and talents. These differences create a beautiful human garden. . . what would it be like if all the flowers wanted to be a rose of the same color??? I prefer a human garden with all the facets, all the beauty, all the colors and all the different personalities and talents. I don’t understand why so many people want us all to be the same. Thank you for taking to the time to read my work and comment; that means a lot to me.