[For this year’s post-Valentine’s non-favorites series, I wanted to continue exploding some foundational American myths. Leading up to my favorite crowd-sourced post of the year, so please share your own non-favorites—in every category—for that collective airing of grievances!]
On one more important and one complementary reason to challenge a frustratingly persistent myth.
Until relatively recently I would have said that we had mostly moved past mythological narratives of the American West as a “frontier” into which heroic white “pioneers” journeyed, but in recent years I was forcefully reminded of that myth’s persistence in our collective memories and popular culture alike: by David McCullough’s latest narrative history bestseller The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West (2019), a book that in its title alone that introduces a handful of layers to that mythos; and then this past year by the promos for the new streaming TV show 1883 (a prequel to the hugely popular Yellowstone, which itself seems to depend a good bit on frontier myths), promos that include lines like “The road West was paved with blood.” Clearly our frontier/pioneer myths are still with us, and still defining far too much of our collective memories and narratives of the Western United States across the centuries.
The clearest and most important reason to challenge those myths is that they are literally white supremacist, focusing centrally (if not entirely) on white communities and histories to the blatant exclusion of the many other communities and cultures that were present throughout the West (often, indeed consistently, before the United States was part of those settings). I like to point to California as a particularly clear example: by the time Anglo settlers began arriving in the region in the late 1840s, there had already been longstanding Native American, Mexican American, and Chinese American presences there; any vision of those Anglo arrivals to California as “pioneers” requires erasing those cultures just as fully as discriminatory practices like squatting and laws like the Foreign Miners’ Tax and Anti-Vagrancy Act sought to. Some of the best and most consistent challenges to those erasures and constructions of more genuinely multi-cultural histories of the West can be found in Megan Kate Nelson’s phenomenal books, including The Three-Cornered War, her new Saving Yellowstone (from which she’ll share some stories in a Guest Post in this space very soon!), and her next book, a multi-cultural history of the West about which I’m very excited.
If that more genuinely multi- and cross-cultural history is the most important reason to challenge our frustratingly persistent frontier/pioneer myths, however, there’s also a second, complementary reason: how fully those myths likewise flatten the experiences and identities of the Anglo/European American arrivals. One of the books I read in college that has most stuck with me over the decades since is the anthology So Much to Be Done: Women Settlers on the Mining and Ranching Frontier (1990), edited by the historians Ruth B. Moynihan, Susan Armitage, and Christiane Fischer Dichamp. The anthology features numerous unique and compelling individual voices and stories, but I can’t say I remember any one of them specifically at this distance; instead, what continues to stand out is the way all of these readings helped me push past my own frontier/pioneer myths (created in my case, as for many of us of a certain generation, by the video game Oregon Trail) and toward a far more nuanced and multi-layered understanding of these lives, families, and communities. Ultimately, myths don’t serve anyone well (other than perhaps the most powerful), and challenging them benefits us all.
Last non-favorite myth tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other non-favorites, myths and everything else, you’d share?