I have seen the white-face and the short-horn take the place of the buffalo; wheat and corn and alfalfa supplant the buffalo grass; and there are hundreds of prosperous towns and even cities on the very ground where I have killed buffalo and dodged Indians. It was a wild country, a wild life, and they were gallant men that lived it. All or most of them are gone... But it is better now; better all around.
In 1893, the 400th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the New World was celebrated in Chicago. It was called The World's Columbian Exposition, and it was so large, so ambitious, so self-congratulatory, that it took an extra year just to get everything ready. Twenty-four million people paid their way into the fair, more than had ever attended any other event in the history of the world.
All the western states struggled to outshine one another -- including the brand-new states of North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington. The California pavilion was shaped like a Spanish mission. On display inside were a goddess made entirely of figs and a conquistador built of prunes. For its exhibit hall, Montana reconstructed a mountain man's cabin. Kansas showed off a gigantic mural made of grain, and an entire herd of buffalo -- stuffed.
In a speech given at the fair, a young, unknown historian named Frederick Jackson Turner declared for the first time that the frontier had finally closed.
There were 63 million Americans in 1893. Seventeen million of them now lived west of the Mississippi. Only 90 years earlier, when Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory, he had estimated it would take a hundred generations for the United States to people the West. Americans had done it in less than five.
But beyond the fairgrounds, beyond Chicago, in the real West, for every story that was coming to an end, another was about to begin.
"The myth of the west is a very appealing one. The myth of the west is that there once existed a place which was free for the taking, and in which people who were willing to work hard, people who were willing to invest their own labor, could not only improve their lives, but they could improve the place themselves. That out of this labor, out of this struggle would come progress, would come a better world than they had ever imagined, not just for themselves and not just for their children, but indeed for the whole world. Stated that way, the myth has this extraordinary appeal. But of course what it does is mask an infinitely more complicated and more tangled story."
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