Archive for Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The bravest went to the frontier

February 6, 2008

If you are in my age group, you grew up in the "cowboy era" of entertainment. In the 1930s and 1940s, audiences thrilled to the adventures of cowboy stars every Saturday afternoon at the movies. By the 1950s, the "oaters" as they were called, had moved to the small TV screen where they were equally popular.

If you remember, the "old west" as depicted in those movies, was a fairly happy place where heroes such as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger maintained law and order. Criminals were normally older, wealthy guys who wanted to take over the ranch. To carry out their dishonest schemes, they hired a gang of outlaws. After many challenges, the hero always escaped injury and usually punched out his foes. If anyone was shot, they didn't bleed. Anytime the story line bogged down, our hero and his friends grabbed their guitars and broke into song. All little girls of that era loved Dale Evans who was always on hand to help Roy. Goodness, honesty and right always prevailed and the white-hatted cowboy rode off into the sunset at the end of the movie.

I'll admit I was a big fan as a youngster. Yet, as I got older and became interested in history I discovered that the old west was far from an idyllic place. This fact was again brought to mind as I watched the recent TV mini-series, "Comanche Moon," which was based on the novel written by Larry McMurtry. The show gave a far more realistic look at what life was probably like in the real world of the 19th century. To have made it on the frontier you had to be hard-working, tough and probably a little lucky. It certainly wasn't an easy life.

There can be no doubt that the McMurtry novels give a far truer picture of the frontier than the movies that many of us enjoyed as children.

When I was in Mulvane, I had the opportunity to do a series of stories based on material prepared by a woman who had come to the untamed southern Kansas frontier in the 1870s and it told exactly what life was like in those days. They lived in a sod house with a dirt floor which was probably very, very cold in winter. I was writing this on a frigid morning recently when the temperature was hovering at 10 above zero. I found myself wondering how anyone could have survived in a one room structure with a dirt floor. I'm amazed that any of the pioneers lived. Of course, there was summer and 100 degree readings which would have made life equally miserable.

Now, we can flip the thermostat and have instant warmth, but in the "good old days" much time had to be spent in chopping wood. Water had to be hauled into the house. It was, at best, a harsh existence.

Of course, that was just a minor problem. If I recall she was a teenager when she married and came to the frontier and she wrote of being constantly afraid. She had good reason to be fearful, there were still bands of marauding bands of Indians and outlaws who preyed on lonely farms. Certainly, there was no telephone to summon aid.

There were other dangers, too. One that apparently haunted those living in the flat prairie lands was fire. A prairie fire could race for miles destroying anything in its path, including homes and farm land. Like farmers of today, they faced the vagaries of the weather. A dry year meant no crops and in those days a crop failure could mean death. On the other hand, too much rain could lead to flash flooding.

Disease was always a specter that haunted the frontier, too. Medicine was primitive in those days and they had to rely on home remedies since finding a doctor was a major challenge. In the case of the woman in the series, she hated the loneliness of frontier life. Entertainment was very, very rare.

Reading firsthand accounts of frontier life, I have to wonder why people moved westward. I'm sure that the harsh conditions of the industrial east made the idea of owning land and individual freedom played a large part. I am continually impressed with the individual heroism and resoluteness of the men and women who risked their lives to hack and hew out new communities and settle the frontier. They have to have been the hardiest and bravest of Americans. They came into a violent and untamed wilderness and built a modern and free America. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.


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