Life always looks a lot better in hindsight. Movies have cleaned up and sanitized life in the West.
The romance of the West meant many things to many people. It’s a place that lives by its myths and legends. It symbolized hope, freedom and opportunity. It was about open spaces and a pristine land; its mountains that reached up and touched the sky. Colorado alone boasts 53 mountain peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation. Those same mountains possessed deposits of gold, silver and copper beyond a Spanish Conquistador’s wildest dreams. It turned out to be the richest treasure trove of natural resources in the history of the civilized world. And for the first time in history the finder got to keep what he found. Earlier, it became the property of a ruler, king or queen.
In the East men, women and children were living in crowded tenement houses and working long hours saw the West as a chance to own land of their own. The mills, factories and corporate bosses tried every means possible to get Congress to restrict the 1862 Homestead Act in order to prevent their workers from realizing their dream of land ownership.
It was the pristine, breath taking beauty of the Rocky Mountains, Cascades and Sierra Nevada, steep-sided canyons and wild rivers; the spectacular splendor of the Native Americans and their rich customs and culture; the cowboys driving a herd of longhorns up the Chisholm Trail; the mountain men exploring the untamed, pristine lands and marking trails for others to follow. Unlike the East, failure was tolerated; a person could come west, reinvent themselves and get, as Bret Harte said, “A fresh deal of the cards all around”; it was a place where common people could rise wealth and greatness. One could be dirt poor one day, and a millionaire the next. It helps us glimpse the magnificent forest of human possibility. It is from such glimpses that we draw the courage to be ambitious, to reach for the stars.
If it appears that I’m looking at the West through rose-colored glasses, I plead guilty, but I prefer to see a glass of water half-full rather than half-empty. I have been a western historian for more than fifty years and I am fully aware of the dark side of the West; the deadly epidemics, hard living conditions, sanitation, epidemics and lack of good medical care. It’s not a perfect world, never was and never will be, because people aren’t perfect.