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The Wild East by Ian Hernon

Gunfights, Massacres and Race Riots Far From America's Frontier

I love America. I love the sweep of its history and the speed of change. But all great nations are built of myths. As a child of the 1950s, my early years were spent in front of a black and white TV watching Rawhide, The Rifleman, Wells Fargo, Bonanza, The Big Valley, Wagon Train and many, many more. Even at a tender age I knew that the reality wasn’t so black and white. The essential truth is that often terrible things were done for understandable reasons and good things emerged from evil acts. But expanding literacy, the movies and TV skewed the stories towards the Western frontier of romance, leaving behind the tales of the even more violent East during the same period.

Or at least, that is what I argue in this book: that the scale of violence was far greater east of the Mississippi/Missouri during the period when the West was won, yet the opposite appears true in the popular, and populist, imagination and recollection.

An 1890s poster advertising a circus bearing the Buffalo Bill name, evidence that by this time the myth-building of the West was in full swing. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress, The Wild East, Amberley Publishing)

This book has never been intended in any way to denigrate the Western pioneer ethos, rather to help understand the contradictions inherent in attitudes which downplay the historic role of the East as a hotbed of violent struggle. Those contradictions played a part in the election of the ‘outsider’ Donald Trump, an Eastern billionaire who inherited huge wealth but who purported to be on the side of the working man. An outsider, in other words, who was part of the pampered and moneyed elite rather than the political and intellectual elite.

In April 2016, while Trump was battling Ted Cruz for the Republican nomination and Hilary Clinton was slugging it out with Bernie Saunders on the Democrat side, I travelled through the cowboy states of Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming. I received nothing but hospitality and easy friendship in poor towns where the pioneer spirit remains the culture of ongoing choice. A 30-year-old bartender in a Billings, Montana, micro-brewery summed up the Wild West appeal of both Republican Donald Trump and Democrat/socialist Bernie Sanders: “They’re outsiders. They have a populist message which goes down well in rural areas where folk feel their voice goes unheard amongst the political elite.” That was a view repeated constantly. Such states in the heart of the “real” America provide answers to those in Britain puzzled by the appeal of the clownish Trump.  America’s “rim” is the Washington-central east coast, the west coast and the southern Bible belt, but the vast tract of the mid-west regards itself as the real soul of America and its people felt disenfranchised.

There the stereotypes repeated in New York, Los Angeles and London are either simplistic or untrue. The three states I visited have a complicated social history which constantly confounds analysts of the Right. Take Wyoming, for example.  Steeped in conservative cowboy culture, with the Republicans dominating the state senate for 80 years, it is proud of being the first state to grant women the right to vote – suffrage for women aged 21 and over was agreed in 1869, 50 years before Britain, while Montana followed in 1916. The reason, according to a grizzled 71-year-old Vietnam vet, was “folk knew it was unfair, and they did something about it.” The veteran, who fitted the cinematic stereotype of a prospector or mountain man but had been fluent in seven languages as a military interpreter, pointed out that Democrat Nellie Taylor Ross was the country’s first state governor in 1924 and was the first female director of the US Mint, serving from 1933 to 1953. “Mind you,” the veteran added, “it wasn’t until 1952 that Native Americans got the vote.” The truck-stop town of Hardin, Montana, on the edge of the Crow reservation, demonstrated the poverty endemic across former native lands and beyond. Here, and in much of the three states, families have a hardscrabble life far distant from the salons of Washington and New York and the studios of Hollywood. Here poverty has given common cause to old enemies, uniting them in contempt for the Establishment. Respect for common traditions, a strong sense of local community, and a distaste for welfare are other unifying themes. “We believe in work, not welfare,” said a motor mechanic in the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains, “and if Hilary Clinton had her way we would all either get it or pay for it.” A gambler in Deadwood, South Dakota, said: “These are the last three states left where if you break down on the road, the next car will stop. We help each other out here.” Such self-reliance is a matter of pride – if you don’t believe in big government, you shouldn’t claim the benefits of big government. The same is true of attitudes to the environment – this is the territory of Yellowstone National Park, the Bighorns, the Black Hills – and people want to protect their natural heritage to a degree unheard of in most of the US, and in Britain. Although a cynic might say that they want to save animals so they can shoot them.

New York's Bowery neighbourhood in Manhattan, a notorious den of gangsters at the turn of the twentieth century and proud home of the Bowery Boys. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress, The Wild East, Amberley Publishing)

Myths and downright fantasies have deep roots across America. Following the Revolutionary War, the new nation had to create its own history. Hence, the adventurer and all-round dodgy character Christopher Columbus was first popularized by Washington Irving in his 1829 biography, a book constructed almost entirely out of romance rather than history. It spun a fable of an individual who challenged the unknown sea, as Americans confronted the promise of their own wilderness, creating a land free of kings and class prejudice. Captain John Smith’s 1624 account of the Jamestown colony was devoured not because of its description of hardship and colonial greed, but because of his fabled rescue by the Red Indian princess Pocahontas, a legend that has persisted ever since. There is no evidence that the Mayflower’s pilgrim father ever disembarked on any rock, never mind Plymouth Rock, and the first written reference was penned 121 years later. And before they arrived, the Thanksgiving holiday had been widely practiced in Protestant Netherlands.

And there’s much more. The tale that the young George Washington admitted to his father that he had chopped down a prized cherry tree "I cannot tell a lie" was invented by Parson Mason Locke Weems in his 1806 book, The Life of George Washington: With Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honorable to Himself and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen, and further spread by Mark Twain, the novelist. The politician/planter Patrick Henry is best known for his 1775 speech kick starting the war for independence, saying: "I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me Liberty, or give me Death!" That was written 42 years later by another “historian”, William Wirt. There is also no evidence that Betty Ross sewed the first American flag – which attribution was first made during the 1876 centennial celebrations.  Add into the mix apocryphal exploits of such invented or exaggerated characters as the New England lumberjack Jigger Johnson, the Massachusetts clipper skipper and giant Captain Stormalong, and the Jersey Devil, and we can see that Easterners have no reason to feel superior or to sneer too much at Western mythologies.

Little Italy in Manhattan, circa 1900. Italian enclaves such as this popped up in numerous cities and saw the steady growth of organised crime centred on Sicilian families. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress, The Wild East, Amberley Publishing)

At the opening of the 19th century, 94 per cent of Americans lived in rural settings – by 1900 almost half lived in towns or cities. The population had grown 14 times as large, and the economy 70 times. The concentration was still east of the Mississippi/Missouri, and it is no wonder that the real frontier was by then in the battles between burgeoning capitalism and organised labour, between white supremacists and growing racial minorities, between fathers, sons and brothers to a degree not seen since the wars between the states. These are inconvenient truths. Mass strikes and insurrections in the East have been too often ignored in favour of fantasies going back to the Pilgrims and the Founding Fathers. Jeremy Brecher wrote: “It is at such times that the veil of stasis is rent and the opposing forces maintain and undermining the existing forms of society revealed.”

The author Mike Duncan has drawn explicit parallels between ancient Rome before its fall and modern America: “Rising economic inequality, dislocation of traditional ways of life, increasing political polarisation, the breakdown of unspoken rules of political conduct…” and “a set of elites so obsessed with their own privileges that they refused to reform the system in time to save it.” Robert Harris, the author of a trilogy of novels about the Roman orator Cicero, saw much the same: “Unscrupulous millionaires whipping up the mob to attack the elite and the whole democratic structure crumbling under that pressure…”

America claims to be a “classless” society, but the momentous upheavals of race, capital and organised labour have been airbrushed out of popular history by vested interests, resulting in a subsequent ignorance of the relatively recent past which leads in turn to aberrations such as misunderstood “populism” and a denigration of hard-won civil and social rights. Trumpism, some might say.

The docks in New Orleans. A great deal of goods were trafficked through her, making it a key battleground for various organised crime groups. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress, The Wild East, Amberley Publishing)

It was not always so. In 1900 The New York Post argued that the biggest threat to the American Dream was the upsurge in the number of millionaires which were seen as an affront to the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. Americans dreamt of social justice and looked to government to regulate and control rampant greed, while presidents such as Woodrow Wilson wanted America to be a beacon for democracy across the world. The various “America First” movements corrupted such visions into isolationism, a modern form of nativism and a narrow American identity in the most ethnically-divided nation on earth. Gerard DeGroot pointed to Warren Harding’s campaign to encourage only white immigration, writing: “His supporters complained about fake news and hyphenated Americans. The similarities are hard to ignore.”

And it is in the success of Donald Trump that we can see an illustration of self-delusion which again goes some way to explain the airbrushing out of popular consciousness of the Wild, Wild East. Many, including Trump’s own sister, have compared the President with the 19th Century huckster impresario P.T. Barnum who grew rich several times over with his freak shows, museums of curiosities, snake oil salesmanship and downright fraud. Both recognised that audiences are less interested in reality than spectacle. Historian David McCullough said that “Barnum was loud, brassy, full of bombast, vulgar, childish, surely just a little crooked – the ultimate, delightful phoney from a delightfully phoney era.” And Ben Macintyre wrote: “The similarities are striking. Both Trump and Barnum exhibit the skills of born salesmen, more concerned with profitable entertainment than strict truth. Barnum said he did not care what people thought of him so long as they talked about him, a principle Trump lives by. Both men became more famous and popular with every fresh gust of notoriety.” Audiences – and voters – can be “willingly deceived” and the taming of the West provides a better, clearer, more simplistic narrative than the long, messy, sordid and brutal industrial and racial warfare which created the world’s most successful capitalist economy.

For the liberal Left, also, that story can make uncomfortable reading. Impoverished Irish immigrants lynched blacks from lamp-posts, trade unionists did their best to enforce colour bars, and socialist ‘heroes’ took back-handers. But overall, the history of the Eastern half of the nation is a story of heroism, fortitude and stamina which more than matches the pioneer spirit demonstrated on the frontier.

Ian Hernon's new book The Wild East: Gunfights, Massacres and Race Riots Far From America's Frontier is available for purchase now.