Billy, Jesse, and other legends

Friday, August 5, 2016

Over the weekend, I watched the eighth and final segment of AMC's, "The American West." As stated in the information cover for the show -- "Spanning the years 1865 to 1890, 'The American West,' will show how -- in the aftermath of the Civil War -- the United States transforms into the 'land of opportunity.'" Once again, I was reminded of just how much, the facts, legends, and myths of the American West, shaped so much of how Americans and the rest of the world perceive us.

Also stated in AMC's information about the show was the list of contributing celebrities that had previously performed in classic western films. This roster included, Robert Redford, James Caan, Burt Reynolds, Tom Selleck, Keifer Sutherland, Mark Harmon, Ed Harris, and many more.

In the "about the show" cover sheet, the list of famous western legends included, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and General Custer. The show's premise was to relate to modern day viewers, the little-known stories about these legends. If you missed all or parts of this series, you are in luck. In the cyber world we live in today, these are all available online and in reruns.

My own affinity with western history and "westerns," dates back to my youth. My grandfather was an avid reader of the famous western "dime novel." He was born in 1890, the same last year that this series spanned. I can only imagine the tremendous effect the "Old West," had on young boys of his period. For them, the Wild West was both recent and real.

The Jesse James segments were especially interesting. Our local area has a close connection to Jesse, and the sentiments that are considered to be the causes, that led him to his life of crime.

The roots of the Civil War can be traced to our own "Bushwhacker" history. Jesse, his brother Frank, and others who served and fought for the lost cause of the Confederacy (some were not officially a member of the Confederate Army, but rather served in bushwhacker groups), found themselves lost and bitter after the war. Many lost much of their wealth and land. For several, like Jesse and Frank, it was an easy evolution to a life of crime. They became folk heroes to millions of southern sympathizers.

Billy the Kid was also a member of this post Civil War crime fraternity. One thing I learned about him that I had not known before was the terrible childhood he had endured. It was easy to see why his anger and resentment towards society, led him on his path.

Crime in the old west led society to turn to some legendary lawmen, like Wyatt Earp and Pat Garrett. The show portrayed these men as crime fighters, but it also delved into the vigilante style justice they often employed. Violence was equally shared by both sides in this western saga.

These shows also highlighted two other legends of the west, "the native American Indian" and the "American Cowboy." As the United States settlement moved westward towards the "Great Plains," a conflict between cattlemen, settlers, and Indians, became inevitable.

Indian leaders like Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse fought a long, but futile, war, to try and stem the relentless tide of movement westward. Their nomadic lifestyle, made it impossible for the two cultures to live in harmony. The Indian moved naturally over vast areas, as they followed the buffalo herds. Homesteaders and cattle ranchers, wanted to own and control specific tracts of land.

The conflicts between these groups have been well documented, in both history and venues like books, movies, and television. One of the most tragic parts of this history was the destruction of the great American buffalo herd.

The buffalo herd numbered in the millions. The very nomadic lifestyle of the American Plains Indian was tied to the buffalo. One historical fact that many don't know about this time, was that the Great Plains tribes, did not come to dominate those vast areas in great numbers, before the time of discovery in the new world. It was only after the Spanish introduced horses, that these tribes had the mobility to follow closely and remain in contact with these herds.

The battle between the Indians of the west was both certain in its inevitability and its eventual result. It will forever remain a source of anger for the remaining Indians even today, but the settling of the western hemisphere by Europeans was never in doubt. Their overwhelming numbers and their technology, made any defense of the West impossible.

We never stray very far from this past western connection. A few friends of mine are planning a trip to St. Joseph, Mo., in a few days, to watch the Chief's preseason camp. They asked for our thoughts on Facebook, for places to visit.

St. Joseph was the launching point for much in the Old West, and it has one museum that is with the time, "The Pony Express Museum." The vastness of the west and the need for communications in the time before the railroads and the telegraph, led to this famous mail system.

Young riders left St. Joseph, with saddlebags filled with mail. They rode at breakneck speed, changing horses at regular station intervals. Just stop for a minute and imagine how fast those young riders and their horses must have galloped.

The movie and television western has fallen out of favor in recent decades, but for those of my generation, the West, cowboys, Indians, rustlers, highwaymen, and lawmen, are still some of our favorite childhood preferences.

Lucky for all of us, the television has several channels that still offer many of those old shows and movies. As in the words to the beginning of each episode of The Lone Ranger -- "Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. From out of the past come the thundering hoof-beats of the great horse Silver. The Lone Ranger rides again!"