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Homestead History
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ut it seemed that the frontier had not yet been tamed. In 1918, the wet years ended, and Montana plunged into a drought. Homesteads which had yielded as much as thirty bushels of grain per acre suddenly yielded less than three. The twentieth-century homesteaders discovered the same hard lesson that their nineteenth-century counterparts had learned: Uncle Sam's "free" 160-acre plots were far too small to produce a profitable crop in the arid West. A mass exodus began, and within seven years nearly 70,000 people left the state. Yet, even as thousands of would-be homesteaders gave up their claims and high-tailed it out of Montana, another version of the West was already taking shape. The backbreaking struggles of homesteaders and other pioneers were absorbed into the larger, romantic myth of the West. Americans would gloss over the grueling (and deadly) wagon trains, the drafty, bug-infested sod houses, the coffee spiked with pebbles and navy beans, the wholesale slaughter of the buffalo, and the genocide of the Indians. Homesteaders would become the supporting characters in a West where the stars were valiant cowboys, bloodthirsty Indians, gun-slinging desperados, and dastardly outlaws.

As early as the 1840s, this version of the West was forming in America's popular consciousness. From the "captivity narratives" in women's magazines to the sensationalized accounts of the Donner Party's disastrous journey to California, it seemed that America preferred a fictionalized version of the West to the real thing. In 1843, P.T. Barnum staged Indian dances and a "Great Buffalo Hunt" for eager audiences in Hoboken, New Jersey. Beginning in the 1860s, "dime novels" -- so called because they cost ten cents -- painted a thrilling picture of western life for thousands of readers across the country. Heroes and heroines such as Deadwood Dick, Hurricane Nell, and Calamity Jane inhabited a West fraught with terrible perils and thrilling rescues, forbidden romances and mistaken identities, heroes who were "better than saints," and villains who were "worse than devils."

frontier fact
In the year 2002, nearly half of all small farms are run by people over the age of 55.
The writers of dime novels -- many of whom had never been west of the Mississippi -- presented many of their stories as fact, though they often did not contain a shred of truth. The dime novels laid the foundation for hundreds of western writers who followed and presented a similar view of the West that persists to this day. In 1999, Larry McMurtry, author of LONESOME DOVE and scores of other western-influenced writings, wrote, "Readers don't want to know and can't be made to see how difficult and destructive life in the Old West really was. Lies about the West are more important to them than truths, which is why the popularity of the pulpers -- Louis L'Amour particularly -- has never dimmed."

Cabin interior. Courtesy of the National Archive.

More often than not, homesteaders and other pioneers in the works of these "pulpers" are hapless victims, in dire need of rescue and redemption from noble cowboys. The image of the pioneer was reduced to that of a wagon train under attack, or a cozy cabin set in a pastoral wilderness.

Other forms of popular entertainment also contributed to this "alternate reality" of the West. In 1883, the year in which FRONTIER HOUSE is set, William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody staged his first Wild West show in North Platte, Nebraska. Though Cody had been a scout in the West, his persona was largely created by writers of dime novels, who published larger-than-life, sensational accounts of his exploits. Cody's Wild West Show, which featured a demonstration of the Pony Express, an Indian attack on a stagecoach, bucking broncos, cowboys roping steers, and a menagerie of western animals, proved an immediate success and began touring the nation.

In 1885, while performing in New Orleans, Buffalo Bill signed Annie Oakley (who was from Ohio), and the show's popularity skyrocketed. The Wild West Show even performed at Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, where, at one performance, the stagecoach under attack carried the Prince of Wales and no less than four European kings. By 1895, the show played 131 cities in 190 days, usually to sell-out crowds. Though Buffalo Bill died in 1917, the Wild West Show continued until 1938, with scores of imitators. Larry McMurtry observed, "What Buffalo Bill did to the Western experience was not unlike what television did to the Vietnam protests: he synopsized it. An Indian here, a stagecoach there, a little trick riding, a few buffalo, Annie Oakley. It sold and it still sells."

Buffalo Bill's "synopsis" of the Western experience, which grew fame the world over, omitted the life of settlers. In the myth of the west, those who actually settled it are pushed to the sidelines.

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