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Cowboys and Indians
False Histories of American Folklore

Cowboys and Indians
  • The Virginian (by )
  • Riders of the Purple Sage : A Novel (by )
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (by )
  • Edgar Huntly (by )
  • Cowboys of the Wild West : A Graphic Por... (by )
  • Songs of the Cowboys (by )
  • The Book of Cowboys (by )
  • Adventures with Indians (by )
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Early film, folklore, and certainly literature romanticize and fictionalize the histories of cowboys and (the incorrectly named) Indians. Charming and bold, or, uncivilized and dangerous, the early idea of the cowboy and the early idea of the Indian create concepts of what should be and what isn’t genuinely American.   

In Owen Wister’s The Virginian, a highly adept rancher journeys with an unnamed narrator, also known as  “the tenderfoot,” and demonstrates life in an untamed western region. He exemplifies a practical kind of knowledge acquired by action and experience. Zane Grey’s novel Riders of the Purple Sage, depicts cowboys in a similar light. They are a tenacious sort of genteel, vowing to protect the inhabitants of the land with what was described as a righteous violence. 

Both authors originated from eastern states (Wister hailed from Pennsylvania and Grey’s family were early inhabitants of Ohio); and, while they spent a great deal of time visiting and working in the western frontier, they created characters and settings based off of speculation. In film, director John Ford created motion pictures sympathetic to the tragic loss and devastation Native Americans faced because of their forced removal. However, his early film Stagecoach, starring “cowboy” legend John Wayne, mistreats and misrepresents the experiences of American Indians. That portrayal of an entire people as fierce, bloodthirsty warriors fueled common misconceptions that pervaded film and literature for decades.    

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer shows a highly antagonistic character. “Injun Joe,” the villain, plots vicious revenge, as his evil nature is characteristic of his genealogy, or, his “Indian Blood.” Edgar Huntly, a 1799 novel written by Charles Brockden Brown, typifies Native Americans as contemptible characters. The protagonist, Edgar Huntly, sleepwalks through a morbid forest and happens upon a tribe of Lenni Lenape natives who’ve captured a young white girl. He kills them with no remorse, and restores innocence to the small girl. In James Fenimore Cooper’s classic The Last of the Mohicans, hero Natty Bumpo relies upon the skills learned by his Mohican stepfather even as he declares himself separate from and superior to Chingachgook. In her autobiographical series, Laura Ingalls Wilder relates a disturbing encounter with Indians and her mother’s hatred of them.

Surely, not all artistic endeavors praised cowboys and demonized indians, but there remain multitudes of texts and films that attempted to, and succeeded in, drawing a hard line of what was and what wasn’t the idea of the genuine American.

By Logan WIlliams



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