« Return to this article

Know the West

Where does ‘the West’ begin?

When it comes to the myths and images of the West, Fort Worth, Texas, has created a cottage industry.

On a warm Saturday afternoon in Fort Worth, Texas, half a dozen cowboys got ready to shoot each other. The Brodies, a bank-robbing gang on the lam from the Waco jail, had returned to Fort Worth’s historic Stockyards to exact revenge on the folks that put them away: the town marshal and his dim-witted deputy. It was four against two, and the gunfighters stood a few yards apart, ready to draw.

“Marshal, I think they all want to know what you have planned to do about this,” squealed the deputy.

“Me?” replied the marshal. “We — as in me and you — are going to honor the Code of the West.”

The men squared up and reached for their revolvers. The leather on their gloves creaked as they tightened their grips on their guns. Their spurs tinkled as they dug their heels into the brick.

“Wait a minute!” cried the deputy – marking the sixth time the shoot-out paused for comic relief. “Code of the West? Is that the one where I gotta die with my boots off? Or die with my boots on?”

Boots on, boots off, it don’t matter to us,” said one of the Brodies. “Either way: You gotta die.

The marshal assumed a fatherly tone. “Honoring the code of the West means standing up for law and order, doing what’s right,” he explained. “You know, like Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Marshal Matt Dillon, and of course, Marion Morrison.”

“Marianne who?” the entire cast said in unison.

“John Wayne!” hollered somebody from the audience.

After a few more wait-a-minutes from the deputy, the men drew. When the smoke cleared, the evil Brodies sprawled dead on the ground, clutching their chests and sides. 

It was just another day’s work in the Fort Worth Stockyards, where the past is replaced with mythology and reality is obscured by illusion.

 

Twice a day on Saturdays and Sundays the acting troupe known as the Legends of Texas provides spectators with pistol duels and historic reenactments from the mid- to late-1800s in High Noon-style showdowns.
TOMO for High Country News

The gunslingers, a gang of volunteers who shoot each other twice a day on Saturdays and Sundays, sported horseshoe mustaches and spoke with thick drawls. Nearby, longhorn cows meandered through the streets. Whiskey was flowing at all the saloons, open containers were allowed on the sidewalks, and kitschy stores hawked everything from plastic trinkets to high-end hats and boots.

For visitors with slightly deeper pockets, Leddy’s offers high-end Western wear and handmade boots and saddles in almost every style and variety of leather imaginable.
TOMO for High Country News

If the Old West is a fantasy, the Stockyards is its muse. Here, folklore and legend are summoned through ritual and repetition, burying the reality of the cold-blooded past underneath family-friendly fun, complete with some of the West’s oldest phantasms: the dime-store novel hero, the courageous gunfights, the idea of a dusty frontier just waiting to be discovered. It’s clean and tidy, with no hint of the brutal scalp-hunters or paramilitaries who attended to the expansion of the nation’s frontier, no acknowledgement of their victims or their violent legacy.

“Established at the fork of the Trinity River in 1849,” reads the Stockyard’s website, “the Fort Worth Stockyards represented the last ‘civilized’ outpost for cowboys driving cattle to market along the famous Chisholm Trail.” Now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, it boasts daily cattle drives, rodeos, a Wild West show, livestock auctions, 14 restaurants, 13 bars, 35 shops and over 17 must-see attractions that offer an “authentic glimpse of the American West.” 

Fort Worth’s version of the West is distinctly different from what lies beyond the 100th meridian. Outside the gunfights, saloons and rodeos, Texas longhorns roam, serving as the region’s mascots, despite being uncommon in most other Western states, like Oregon or Utah. Out of all the ungulates, a buffalo might best represent the American West. But Fort Worth has remade the West in its own image.

“If you didn’t know it, you’re sitting smack-dab in the middle of the Chisholm Trail: the most famous cattle trail back in the days of the drives back in the late 1800s,” intoned a man playing famed Wild West showman Pawnee Bill during Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show, which is held every Saturday afternoon. “It’s where they would bring their cattle down close to the Trinity River. Well, the chuck-wagon cook could reload supplies and provisions to get ’em to the next stop before crossing the Red River into the Oklahoma Territory.”

A “New World” cattle breed, the Texas longhorn descends directly from the first domesticated cows brought to the Caribbean by Columbus in 1493. And every day, at 11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., they make a lazy parade loop around the Stockyards for onlookers.
TOMO for High Country News

A tourist takes a selfie beside a pen full of longhorn cattle at the Stockyards, Fort Worth, Texas historic district, which is focused on one concept of “the West.”
TOMO for High Country News

Like many of the Stockyard’s less-than-accurate storylines, this statement requires some context: The Oklahoma Territory was not established until 1890, while the Chisholm Trail was generally no longer in use by about 1884. This is a minor historical quibble, and I don’t fault a live performer at a Wild West show for mixing up dates or trying to simplify a story for international audiences. But it is helpful to know that before it was known as the Oklahoma Territory, it was Indian Territory, and it was essentially illegal for a settler and his longhorns to trespass. The Code of the West has its limits, apparently — then and now.

At Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show, which is held in the Cowtown Coliseum, a small herd of buffalo ran through before a man dressed as a Plains Indian came out to perform what Pawnee Bill dubbed a “ceremonial buffalo dance” of dubious cultural origin. A rider atop a galloping horse shot a single-action .45-caliber Colt revolver, and a woman used a mirror to fire over her shoulder, shooting stationary balloons out from between a man’s legs.

At Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show, performers re-enact the original spectacle from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Here an actor performs a “ceremonial buffalo dance” for onlookers. Whether the dance has any roots in Indigenous customs or practice is unclear.
TOMO for High Country News

The show ran twice that day before the rodeo began. Rodeo is big in the Stockyards, with a fairly large competition running in the Cowtown Coliseum every Friday and Saturday night. Twice a night on Fridays and Saturdays, a block away, another rodeo is held at Billy Bob’s, the world’s “largest honky-tonk.”

“The Stockyards are very historic; it was the last place that people could come and sell their cows before going into Indian Territory,” explained Autumn, a bartender at one of Billy Bob’s 27 bars. “So we’ve kind of basically built off of that and kind of stuck with the heritage.”

The violence of that heritage rarely appears in such elevator pitches, nor do any of its current iterations. In November, on the Friday night that High Country News was reporting there, country music singer Neal McCoy performed. The son of a Filipina mother and Irish father, McCoy’s merch table pushed shirts with the title of his newest single, “Take a Knee ... My Ass!” — a political anthem aimed at athletes like Colin Kaepernick and Megan Rapinoe, who have knelt during the national anthem at sporting events to protest police brutality and racism.

Country music star Neil McCoy performs at Billy Bob’s Texas - the world’s largest honky tonk. But Billy Bob’s isn’t exactly a local haunt. “You’re more likely to find someone from Australia than Texas here,” a bartender told us.
TOMO for High Country News

A group of young women at Billy Bob’s admire their portrait, which was taken on the back of a stuffed bull — one of many attractions the bar offers to patrons.
TOMO for High Country News

“A lot of people don’t like this song, and I understand,” he says before launching into it. “But you’re a dumbass if you don’t like it.” 

Only a month before and less than 10 miles away, a black woman named Atatiana Jefferson was shot and killed in her home by a white Fort Worth police officer named Aaron Dean while she played video games with her nephew. Nevertheless, a few people stood and took off their hats. Then a few more. By the end of the song, almost everyone was standing, swaying.

Founded in 1947, the Cattlemen’s Steak House is one of more than two dozen restaurants and bars that offer “an authentic glimpse of the American West” to visitors who venture into the Stockyards.
TOMO for High Country News

“I’ll honor the ones who gave it all, so we’re all free to go play ball,” sang McCoy. “If only for their sake, I won’t take a knee. O, say can you see? If only for their sake, I won’t take a knee.”

In McCoy’s performance, violence was removed, as it is, generally, in the Stockyards, replaced by a more favorable, friendly view of The West.

Just 48 hours later a new set of actors got ready to shoot it out, just a few blocks from Billy Bob’s. The Brodies had escaped again, and the dopey deputy was still unsure of just what constituted the Code of the West.

“The code of the West means standing up for what’s right,” the marshal intoned in his best John Wayne drawl. “Doing what a man has to do. You know, like Hopalong Cassidy. Like the Cisco Kid. Like the Lone Ranger. Like Leonard Slye.”

“Leonard who?” the entire cast said in unison.

“Anybody know who Leonard Slye is?” asked the deputy.

Nobody in the audience answered. A few minutes later, the Brody Gang lay dead in the street as tourists took pictures.

Tristan Ahtone is a member of the Kiowa Tribe and associate editor of the High Country News Indigenous affairs desk. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.