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The Searchers, a 1956 Western epic directed by John Ford, was based on a novel by Alan Le May, whose story was inspired by actual events detailed in Gregory Michno’s “The Search for the Captives of Elm Creek” in the April 2009 issue of Wild West. Last year Western Writers of America voted The Searchers the No. 1 Western of all time. Paul Hutton, WWA executive director, called the film “a dark and brooding commentary on the stain of American racism” in which John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is “a man driven by deathless hate and perverse racism to find and kill the lost child taken from his family by the Comanches.” In the recent World History Group special issue 100 Greatest Westerns, the movie ranks No. 7, and reviewer Dennis Showalter comments, “Ethan’s obsessive racism, amplified by its overt sexual dimension, makes him at best an uncomfortable character, much less a hero.” As emotionally complex as the story is, it could have gone clear off the radar screen for 1950s complexity had Ethan been played by someone more closely resembling the historic Elm Creek Raid “searcher” who served as the model for Wayne’s character. That historic searcher, Britt Johnson, was a black man.

“Johnson’s tale is hard to document, leading a few historians to dismiss it as legend,” says Texas author Scott Zesch, who is researching the man who was still technically a slave (though he acted as a ranch foreman for his white owner, Moses Johnson) when Comanche and Kiowa raiders killed his son Jim and captured his wife, Mary, and two of their other children. Zesch has found several eyewitness accounts about this black Texan who searched not only for his immediate family members but also for other captives (mixed race and white). Britt wished only the best for the captives he sought, which would make him more heroic—if not any less obsessed—than the fictional Ethan. After Kiowa raiders killed Johnson in 1871, an obituary described him as “noble hearted” and a “stranger to fear.”

Perhaps it would have been too much to expect John Ford, best known for his cavalry trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Bravo) to cast a black man as the lead in The Searchers, though just four years later, Ford directed Sergeant Rutledge. Unsung black actor Woody Strode played the title character, a 9th Cavalry buffalo soldier accused of raping and killing a white woman. (That same year, 1960, Strode played the gladiator Draba in Spartacus.) At one point in The Searchers, several white women rescued from Indian captivity are shown to be half crazy. Ethan comments, “They were white—once.” Had it been Strode instead of Wayne playing Ford’s man on a mission, that line might have needed some adjusting, but either way the movie reflects a historical truth—Plains Indians often treated women captives harshly.

Hollywood Westerns, like John Ford himself, have usually shortchanged the perspective of native people looking East, but they cannot all be labeled “racist” anymore than they can all be called “historic hogwash.” In Circle the Wagons: Attacks on Wagon Trains in History and Hollywood Films, author Michno argues: “In depicting the western migration, early Hollywood is the winner. During the first half-century, Hollywood nailed the concept.” Later, he adds, Hollywood created white villains “more loathsome than any movie Indian had ever been.” Michno then reminds us about some frontier realities: “Indians attacked wagon trains of any size; they killed people, sometimes mercilessly; wagon trains circled up for defense; Indians circled around wagon trains; and the Army did come to the rescue.” Not always, of course. But today’s Westerns, he stresses, should not necessarily be viewed as more accurate just because they express cynicism toward the optimistic notion of hardworking settlers and pale-faced men with guns “winning the West.” No doubt there were racists in the Old West who weren’t so different from Ethan Edwards, but it’s too easy to forget that he is not representative of all Westerners; that there were also men of the West as unlike him, yet as similar to him, as Britt Johnson.