Today we are delighted to present American Orchard’s first-ever guest post, by Ben Railton, Professor of English and American Literature at Fitchburg State. Dr. Railton is the author of several publications, including the just-released Chinese Exclusion Act: What it Can Teach Us About America (Macmillan, 2013) as well as Redefining American Identity: From Cabeza deVaca to Barack Obama (Palgrave, 2011). He also maintains the American Studies blog.
Myth and Reality in the American Southwest: On two folk heroes, and the competing frontier histories they reveal.
Even as a kid, encountering his stories in a compilation of tall tales, I could tell that Pecos Bill was a bit of a Paul Bunyan knockoff—an outlandish origin story (Bill fell out of a wagon as a baby and was raised by a pack of wolves as one of their own), similarly larger-than-life animal companions (his otherwise un-rideable horse Widow-Maker, the rattlesnake Shake that he used as a lasso), an equally mythic love interest (Slue-Foot Sue, who rode a giant catfish down the Rio Grande). So I wasn’t surprised to learn that Bill was a late addition to the “big man” school of tall tales, likely created in 1916 by Edward O’Reilly and shoehorned back into the mythos of Westward expansion and the frontier.
That Bill didn’t come into existence until a half-century after the closing of the frontier doesn’t lessen his symbolic status, however—if anything, it highlights just how much the mythos of the American West was and is just that, a consciously created set of myths that have served to delineate after the fact a messy, dynamic, often dark, always complex region and history. Moreover, that mythos was as multi-cultural as the West, as illustrated by Mexican American folk hero Joaquin Murrieta, “the Robin Hood of El Dorado”: Murrieta, a California 49er from northern Mexico, first came to national prominence in a popular dime novel, John Rollin Ridge’s The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta (1854); the tales of his banditry have been a part of the region’s folk history ever since, including a cameo as Zorro’s older brother in the Antonio Banderas film The Mask of Zorro (1998).
Yet however much Murrieta’s story has been fictionalized and mythologized, it did originate with an actual historical figure—and that distinction can help us see past the myths to some of the frontier’s messier, darker, and more defining realities. For one thing, Murrieta apparently began his outlaw career after he and his family were violently dispossessed of a land claim, events which connect to the social and legal aftermath of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. For another, his gang’s victims included not only Anglo settlers but also Chinese laborers, revealing California’s genuinely and often painfully multicultural community as of the mid-19th century. A fuller engagement with these histories would in part force Americans to confront the centuries of conflict and violence that have so frequently comprised the world of the frontier—but it would also allow us to push beyond tall tales of larger-than-life individuals and to recognize just how collective and communal are both the myths and realities of the Southwest, and of America.
Check out Ben Railton’s American Studies blog for more great posts.