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Thoughts on History

In 1907, Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show paid a visit to Brooklyn, New York. My grandmother, then a child of eight, got to see the panoply of the West-that-never-was that Cody paraded before audiences around the world. It must have been a stirring sight for a little girl from the city who did not get west of New Jersey until in her sixties–and then no farther than Chicago–because the impression the show left stayed with her all of her life. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, when the television networks devoted most of their prime-time viewing hours to “horse operas,” she would watch nothing else.

There was for her, and is for most Americans today, an attraction about the lore–both factual and fictional–of the West that is hard to resist. It is the region most often associated with America by people of other lands and has spawned a whole genre of art and literature; an immediately identifiable way of dressing; and a host of characters, both admirable and disreputable, who are a significant part of our national identity. The West has been the site of some of our proudest examples of courage and perseverance, and of some of our greatest failures as a nation, particularly in regard to our treatment of Native Americans.

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Ken Burns and his colleague, Stephen Ives, whose new documentary series, The West, promises to keep Americans glued to their televisions for more than 12 hours, as eight episodes unfold on September 15-19 and 22-24. Both men hope that this look at the West will spark the same kind of interest that greeted Burns’s 1990 opus on the Civil War. In the wake of that series, people scurried to libraries, bookshops, and video stores to check out or buy anything that might further enlighten them on the conflict that so badly rent the nation. They also visited battlefields and other historic sites to get a firsthand feel for the places where the drama was played out.

As ambitious a project as The Civil War was, The West offered Burns and Ives an even more daunting challenge. As Ives observed when I spoke with him, the story of the West, unlike that of the Civil War, could not be told in a single narrative that encompassed all episodes. It was, he said, like “trying to paint one of those Albert Bierstadt canvasses. You have to start with this epic scale, and yet you begin with small stories, foreground and background–intimate stories that are based on biographies, based on people, based on events. And ultimately, if you work with the canvas long enough, the larger picture becomes clear to you and is possible to be rendered. [We had] to find the small stories, individual stories, that added up to powerful, dramatic episodes that had a beginning, a middle, and an end, and then find how those larger pieces ended up creating one large narrative of the whole history of the West.” More thoughts from both Burns and Ives on the making of The West can be found beginning on page 30.

Complementing the interview on the series are profiles of two of the many fascinating individuals who populated the West in the mid-nineteenth century. The life of the first, Jim Beckwourth, could not have unfolded anywhere but the American West. Like Buffalo Bill and other flamboyant characters, Beckwourth helped to blur the lines between myth and reality by telling outrageous tales about a life that needed no embellishment (page 36).

Seth Eastman, the other person featured, was a U.S. Army officer and an artist who, while stationed in the West during the 1840s, recognized how much the lives of Native Americans were changing and sought to capture much of their daily activities and culture for posterity. We are fortunate to be able to illustrate the article with reproductions of several of his works, which are part of an important collection purchased by Minnesota businessman W. Duncan MacMillan in 1994 with the intention of making them better known and more accessible to the public.

Margaret Fortier is the editor of Women’s History and American History magazines and a historian with extensive experience in research and writing for historic sites and museums.