Friday, October 20, 2023

The Scourge of the West?


Blackfoot Indian by Karl Bodmer
Blackfoot Indian, painting by Karl Bodmer ca. 1840-1843
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever wondered how folks from the Wild West would react to the western myths we believe today? What? Wasn’t the landscape filled with marauding Indians, brave lawmen, settlers packing heat, desperate outlaws, and bawdy dancehall girls? Well, yes—but also no. When it comes to understanding the American West, those of us who live in the modern day are at a disadvantage. The Old West is gone.

Echoes remain. We might attend a rodeo, employ western slang, ride a steam train, or gather to “swing your partner.” It’s possible to read diaries, newspapers, and official records from back in the day. Visiting a museum exposes us to fading artifacts in a historical building alive with forgotten footsteps. 

Rodeo image from cjuneau, CC BY 2.0
 via Wikimedia Commons

From remnants, we piece together a blurred picture. For some, imagining what should have been is more fun than ferreting out information. 

Take those marauding Indians, for example. Old western movies and popular literature would have you believe that Indians were just waiting to murder settlers at the drop of a cowboy hat. These “red devils” set up ambushes for their hapless victims Any sight of Indians signaled the immediate need to prepare for battle. (Fun fact: we still use “circle the wagons” to mean “hunker down and get ready to fight.”) The facts don’t really support this. 

Plenty of wagons were lashed together, but usually not for defence. They formed a makeshift corral so the livestock wouldn't stray at night. Also, skirmishes between settlers and Indians were rare. According to historical studies referenced by the Oregon Trail Center, during the main emigration years (1840-1860), Indians killed 362 emigrants. With all respect to the deceased, that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated 350,000 pioneers who traveled the trails. The number of Indians killed by settlers comes to 426, which is greater. 

Let’s take the long view of what happened to America’s indigenous population following Christopher Columbus’s arrival in 1492. At that time, North America boasted nearly 55 million people. By 1900, the native population had declined by 80% overall and 98.8 percent in some areas. How did they die? The answer isn’t an easy one.

A painting by Alejo Fern√°ndez between 1531 and 1536. It is the only state sponsored portrait of the First Admiral of the Indias called Don Cristoval Colon known today as Christopher Columbus in English.(1475-1545), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the days following the Civil War, soldiers crowded into western forts, many with the express intention of subduing Indians. Bored after the excitement of the war, they were chafing for a fight. By this time, Indians were wising up about the land grab going on. The last straw was when the railroads started laying track through their ancient hunting grounds. None of this, as you can imagine, encouraged thoughts of happy co-existence. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a book written by Dee Brown, describes not how the West was won, but how it was lost. Its pages recount the tragic fate of tribe after tribe of Native Americans. Violence played a part, but it wasn't the worst culprit.

When colonists came to the New World, they introduced diseases to which native tribes had no immunity. The most deadly, according to the Oregon Encyclopedia were smallpox, malaria, viral influenza, yellow fever, measles, typhus, bubonic plague, typhoid fever, cholera, and pertussis (whooping cough). Millions died in what was termed the "greatest demographic disaster in human history."

Painting of "Indian Burial Ground" by Seth Eastman, 1849–1855; Dakota graveyard with elevated burial sites, located seven miles above Fort Snelling along the Minnesota River. This graveyard served three Dakota villages; public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

Indians weren’t the only ones to suffer. The number one killer on western trails, claiming the lives of nine out of ten pioneers, was infectious disease. The hardship and privation emigrants endured weakened them so much that epidemics spread like wildfire.

So, what was the scourge of the West? Suffice it to say that it looked nothing like an Indian in war paint.

What's New with Janalyn Voigt

In Sojourner, one of my Tales of Faeraven epic fantasy novels, the hero and heroine must cross a swamp where fresh and salty waters collide. At the heart of this fenland lies a ruined castle that both draws and repels them. The more they travel toward it, the further away it gets. 

This scenario best expresses how I feel when editing one of my novels. I slash words, but then add even more of them. I write spare, and then fill in layers of complexity through rounds of edits. The book's length increases as the end moves farther away. You can imagine the effect this has on my moral. Perhaps you will share my joy at closing in on the final pages of this project.

I can't be alone in this. Have you ever experienced an ever-retreating endpoint?

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  1. Thank you for posting today. You certainly paint a different picture of the West than what I typically think about. Maybe it would be enlightening for me to find and read one of those diaries you mention. That is what I love about this blog and those of you who do the research and inform your readers of the true facts rather than the myths we believe.

  2. As I researched for my own historical books, I discovered the same things. Now that I live in Oklahoma I am learn more of the Native American's side of western expansion. Thanks for sharing that. And speaking of ever-retreating endpoints, I am dealing with that as I write my current contemporary romance. And I haven't even written the end for the first draft yet. I tend to go back and edit then continue to the next chapter, as a panster it has been a challenge.

    1. How lovely to live in Oklahoma. I once drove through part of the state and found it quite beautiful. We can commiserate on the trials of self-editing.