That Two-Word Phrase ‘Wild West’ Rings Magically in Our Collective Ear
Buffalo Bill Cody put it on his show posters—we put it on our cover
Wild West. That beautiful, or ruggedly handsome, two-word phrase still thrills us (everyone reading this magazine, I hope) after all these years—even those of us stuck in the Mild East. As evocative as “Hell’s Half-Acre” or “Hell on Wheels,” it conjures up visions of cowboys and Indians, mustangs and longhorns, Colts and canteens, Winchesters and whiskey, rocky mountains and great plains, roaming buffalo and playing antelope, gold rushers and land rushers, gunfights and saloon brawls, showdowns and Buffalo Bill shows. Small wonder that William Frederick Cody called his Western-themed extravaganza the Wild West, or that many of his imitators adopted those same two words when naming their shows (see related story, this issue). No surprise either that countless books and other publications have the term in their titles, that a TV show took the name The Wild Wild West (one too many “wilds” for my taste) or that the nation’s premier gunfighter-and-lawman outfit calls itself the Wild West History Association. Of course, some of us are of an age where we hold the dusty yesteryear so dear that the phrase Wild West is far more thrilling than Wild Women, White Wine, Who’s Who or even World Wide Web.
While going over our April lineup—and what could say “Wild West” more than the one-man stand put up by Nate Champion during Wyoming’s Johnson County War in 1892; or the Sioux attack on New Elm, Minn., in 1862; or the one-woman (one-night?) stand by the legendary Yellow Rose of Texas at the Battle of San Jacinto 175 years ago—I keep wondering about the origin of the ruggedly handsome two-word phrase Wild West. Who was the first to use it in reference to the Western United States during its relatively lawless frontier period? “Well, Buffalo Bill couldn’t very well have called it the Old West,” said one resident know-it-all. “The West was not ‘old’ when he started his show in 1883.” Another resident cynic added, “Cody certainly couldn’t have honestly called his brand of entertainment True West.” According to Don Russell’s 1970 work The Wild West or, A History of the Wild West Shows, Cody used “Wild West” in billing printed for the first show rather than the “Golden West” that partner Dr. William Carver preferred. But “Wild West” (the name) was going strong long before Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. As early as the 1840s folks were referring to the “Far West” as the “Wild West.” The opening chapter of Thomas Mayne Reid’s 1851 novel The Scalp Hunters is called “The Wild West,” and the novelist writes: “Away to the wild west, away toward the setting sun, away beyond many a far meridian let your eyes wander. Rest them where golden rivers rise among peaks that carry the eternal snow. Rest them there.” I am. I am.
And thank you all for resting your eyes on Wild West every couple of months. Before long, it will be a quarter century old; the premier issue was June 1988. That seems mighty old, but not too old. Occasionally, I get a letter from a longtime reader saying something like, “I’ve been reading Wild West since I was a kid”—readers slightly older than 25. But they can be forgiven. A dime novel called Wild West Weekly began its run in 1902. Street and Smith bought that periodical in 1927 and turned it into a popular pulp magazine, publishing 822 issues before it folded in 1943. In 1969–72 a California company and then a New York City company published Wild West, one of nearly 20 popular nonfiction Western magazines at that time. It has no connection with the current Wild West you hold in your hands, except of course that special name. How wonderful that the ruggedly handsome two-word phrase, no matter how long ago it was first spoken or used in print, still lives on here (Virginia), there (today’s West) and everywhere (worldwide). So, keep resting your eyes right on these pages, at least whenever you need a break from the modern world. Away to the Wild West!