Heroes of the American West: Self-Reliant Rugged Individualists Conquered the Frontier. It Is More Myth Than Fact, Historian Contends

“No other nation,” the historian David Hamilton Murdoch wrote in his 2001 book, The American West: The Invention of a Myth, “has taken a time and place from its past and produced a construct of the imagination equal to America’s creation of the West.”

From the book jacket: “”Americans have chosen to invest one small part of their history, the settlement of the western wilderness, with extraordinary significance. The lost frontier of the 1800s remains not merely a source of excitement and romance but of inspiration, because it is seen as providing a set of unique and imperishable core-values: individualism, self-reliance, and a pristine sense of right and wrong. As a construct of the imagination, our creation of the West is exceptional. Since this construct has little to do with history, David Murdoch argues that our beliefs about the West amount to a modern functional myth.” “In addition to presenting a sustained analysis of how and why the myth originated, Murdoch demonstrates that the myth was invented, for the most part deliberately, and then outgrew the purposes of its inventors.” “The American West answers the questions that have too often been either begged or ignored. Why should the West become the focus for myth in the first place, and why, given the long process of western settlement, is the cattleman’s West so central and the cowboy, of all prototypes, the mythic hero? And why should the myth have retained its potency up to the last decade of the twentieth century?”


“Westerns celebrate the heroic individual rather than the well-ordered—but inevitably vulnerable—community,” observed Sophie Gilbert in The Atlantic. “They glorify domination, whether over Native Americans or the treacherous terrain of the frontier. And they fetishize guns, which unfailingly allow heroes to safeguard democracy—never mind the collateral damage of bodies littered in the streets after each epic confrontation.”

This was part of a review of the Netflix TV series, “Godless,” about outlaws in the American West. Gilbert says the series is an American Western that more honestly portrays the settlement of the West as a story of blood and cruelty than simply a celebration of great American values such as rugged individualism and self-reliance.

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