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Know the West

The mythic Westerner


Your latest issue on "great ideas" from the West contained some instances of historical revisionism (HCN, 3/16 & 3/30/09). For one thing, far from having to "scratch out a living ... competing against the likes of saber-toothed tigers, cave bears, dire wolves, mastodons, woolly mammoths and giant beavers," the evidence suggests that "early Westerners" actually drove all of those species extinct. Rather than showing Westerners' "genius for coming up with inventions and new ideas," I would suggest that this shows our genius for overexploiting resources until we have ruined our environment.

For another thing, the feds did not hire Buffalo Bill Cody to kill thousands of buffalo just to "supply meat for the crews building the first transcontinental railroad"; rather, they paid Cody, and many others, to slaughter buffalo en masse in a deliberate strategy intended to drive the Native Americans to starvation. Once deprived of their traditional source of protein, the Plains Indians proved much easier to cheat, pillage and massacre. At the end of this effort, the vast herds of bison that used to exist in the West had been reduced to just a few hundred individuals. This history shows another side of the Western character: brutality towards minorities, a callous indifference to animal life, and a willingness to waste on a staggering scale.

Although I love the West deeply, I have no interest in seeing its often horrifying history whitewashed to support some idealized portrait of the Westerner as the last, best hope of mankind. That's foolish, and worse, it sets us up to make the same mistakes all over again.

Ben Haller
Menlo Park, California