The True Grit Behind Old West Symbolism - Atlas Obscura
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The True Grit Behind Old West Symbolism

article-imageNeon cowboy in Laughlin, Nevada (photograph by Arturo Sotillo)

The 21st century American West — stretching across the Great Plains of the Dakotas to the deserts of Arizona and California — is a place where wooden longhorn steers sit atop steakhouses, neon cowboys encourage gamblers on the Vegas strip, and lone stars emblazon everything from flags to beer cans. All of this iconography is so familiar, so much a part of the cultural fabric, that it seems to have always existed, just like the sunsets and starscapes of the desert sky.

Many of these symbols have murky origins, informed by dime novels and movies as much as from historical facts. In the most self-aware scene in of one of the most famous movies about the American West, a reporter declares: “This is the West, sir, When the fact becomes legend. Print the legend.” The director of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Ford, was one of the many Hollywood figures who helped create the mythology of the American West, and now it’s tough even for the best historians to untangle the truth from the legend. Even tougher, perhaps, is making an argument that the difference matters.

Yet every image has a tale to tell. 

HORSESHOES

article-imageHorseshoe nailed to a crossing sign (photograph by Stacy Clinton)

Horses made the rapid settlement of the North American continent possible and are so closely associated not only with white settlers, but also American Indians, that it’s easy to overlook the fact that the equines aren’t indigenous.

Horses arrived shortly after 1492, and soon became as important to many of the North American tribes as they were to the new settlers, whether they be Spanish or Northern European. The settlers also brought with them folklore that indicated that horseshoes, when nailed over doorways or on sailing masts, warded off evil spirits. Eventually, the evil spirits got downplayed and the horseshoe just became a totem of good luck, especially when pointing upwards. The shoes became ubiquitous throughout the Old West, above doors and tossed onto pegs in the eponymous game.

article-imageDonald Judd’s “Monument to the Last Horse” in Marfa, Texas (photograph by Rob Zand)


LONE STARS

article-imagevia Boston Public Library

The Texas flag, emblazoned with a singular star, gave birth to the state’s still prominent nickname — The Lone Star State. Whether on beer cans or barns, houses or hotels, the star is inextricably linked to to Texas.

In all likelihood, however, the tradition of decorating barns with five-pointed stars probably originated with German settlers in places like Fredericksburg and New Braunfels. Barn Stars are also traditional in Pennsylvania German architecture and likely have their origins in both pagan and Christian teutonic symbolism. German settlers brought many touches of home to Texas, especially in terms of architecture and food, which are still evident, but it’s the barn stars that were most likely the inspiration for the Texas state symbol.

article-imageSouthwest Airline’s “Lone Star One” (photograph by Pieter van Marion)


LONGHORNS

article-imageTexas longhorn (photograph by foqus/Flickr user)

The Texas Longhorn, another animal that transformed the North American continent, can be seen in everything from the University of Texas mascot to steakhouse decor across the west. These rough and tumble steer, with their expansive horns, became central to the cattle drives from which so much of the lore of the Old West rose The cattle were imported to North America by the Spanish, and they were likely a cross between two different ancient breeds of European cattle. Thanks to their hardiness, longhorns could survive the long and grueling cattle drives across states like Colorado and Texas, and they became the reason cowboys, the very human embodiment of the Old West, were needed at all.

article-imageLonghorn statue in Johnson City, Texas (photograph by straight-nochaser/Flickr user)

COWBOY HAT 

article-imageCowboy hats at the rodeo (photograph by Emilio Labrador)

The modern cowboy hat, known colloquially by its brand name Stetson, was first manufactured in Philadelphia 1865, long after the settlement of the West had begun. In fact, hatter John B. Stetson based his design off a hat he made for himself while panning for gold in Colorado. 

While there’s little doubt the Stetson hat, with its wide brim, became popular quickly, it was not the singular hat of the cowboy until the rise of Wild West shows and dime novels. Further solidified by Hollywood cowboys in the 1920s, the movies would have everyone believe that no other hat was ever worn west of the Mississippi River. Today, wearing a cowboy hat mainly signifies that a person has embraced country and Western music and culture, not necessarily that they are about to go out and drive some cattle.

article-imageA cowboy hat sign in Santa Rosa, New Mexico (photograph by Charles Henry)

CROSSES

article-imageA wooden cross tombstone (photograph by Woody Hibbard)

The simple cross marking the grave of a deceased person, usually on a hill, has often been cinematic shorthand for the harshness of the American West, and it’s no myth, these tombstones were prominent in the West. 

In early colonial American life, gravestones were simple, stone markers with rounded tops and only occasionally had symbols carved in them. Unless the deceased was Roman Catholic, crosses almost never appeared on the stones as a motif. However, a lack of access to stone and a common need to bury people quickly and inexpensively caused the residents of the American West to invent a new way of marking graves — when they bothered to mark them at all. During times of lawlessness in places like Tombstone and Deadwood, the local residents regularly wound up with bodies that they needed to bury cheaply and quickly, and often without a funeral. Improvised graveyards, called Boothill Cemeteries, sprung up on the outskirts of towns. If someone bothered to fashion a marker, crosses were simple to make and could be fashioned from spare wood or whatever materials happened to be around. Eventually, these communities became more settled, and more formal cemeteries with traditional stone markers sprung up. Yet it was the makeshift Boothill Cemeteries that were used in dime novel illustrations and later in the movies. Today, people can visit Boothill cemeteries, but the crosses are often the sturdier replacements of the long gone originals, which were never really meant to be permanent.

article-imageCemetery at Terlingua ghost town in Texas (photograph by Brandon Burns)

SAGUARO CACTUS

article-imageSaguaro cacti (via SonoranDesertNPS)

Distinctive for its tree-like height and protruding arms, the saguaro cactus only grows in the Sonoran desert of Arizona. However, their silhouettes instantly evoke images of the lone cowboy in the desert thanks to filmmakers who didn’t worry about accuracy and used saguaro cacti in movies that took place all over the West, from Texas to Nevada.

The saguaro grows slowly (as in 1.5 inches every ten years) and can live up to 150-200 years, although it is fragile and can only grow under specific conditions. Today the unique-in-the-world cactus has become shorthand for everything that is strange and wonderful about Arizona, appearing on neon signs, postcards, and t-shirts.


article-imageNeon cactus (photograph by sookie/Flickr user)

THE SIX SHOOTER

article-imageGrave of Wild Bill Hickock in Deadwood (photograph by Jennifer Kirkland)

Perhaps no other firearm is more closely associated with the American West than a six shooter revolver. Revolvers were first developed in the early 1800s, and by the end of the Civil War, the six shooter was practical and cheap and became the weapon of choice for legendary gunfighters like Wild Bill Hickok, who carried at Smith & Wesson No. 2 at the time of his death.

Although used elsewhere in the world at the time, the quick draw gunfight and gunfighter became such a part of the mythology of the West, that the revolve still evokes images of that time and place. In particular, the image of two crossed six shooters appears on t-shirts, in sculpture, and even on gravestones (including Hickok’s) across the West.