By Anthony F. Hughes
Back around 1830 tales of the American frontier started appearing in paperback novels. Those early narratives chronicled the exploits of certain individuals and were fact-based to some degree.
As time went by those ‘Western’ publications, which were the forerunners to the famous Dime Novels, started trading almost exclusively in fiction at the expense of fact.
The publishers of the day regularly put the names of real-life living individuals on the covers of their novels. People such as Kit Carson and Bill Cody, who had already made names for themselves, had their reputations enhanced considerably as a result of such exposure.
By titling their novels with the names of living legends such as Crockett, Carson, Jesse James and others, the publishers managed to bring a fair degree of credibility to their far-fetched tales.
While Carson and others indirectly made a fortune for some publishers, they never received a dime in the way of royalties. In fact, the publishers of the pulp-fiction novels regularly used the names of high-profile heroes such as Carson without ever having got the permission of their subjects to do so.
The ‘Western genre’, while still fashionable, peaked in popularity during the period 1930-1960.
The craze as such, understandably started in America itself. The Dime Novels and their spin-offs were certainly factors as was Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show which toured the cities of eastern America. Cody’s extravaganza was hugely popular in the States. He brought the show to Europe also and it proved to be a major hit there too.
Stuart Lake’s biography on Wyatt Earp (published 1931) which was effectively self-penned by Earp and self-serving also caught the people’s imagination and focused their thoughts on the lawless but equally romantic Wild West.
Apart from the aforementioned, there was one other element at play which was hugely instrumental in spreading ‘the gospel of the Wild West’ far and wide and that factor was the cinema.
Like the Dime Novels of old, the early motion picture studios by and large traded in fiction and…romance of course. One couldn’t but be impressed by what one saw on the ‘big screen’. Apart from the action (and there was generally plenty of that), there was the magnificent, ruggedly beautiful scenery to be enjoyed; especially so if it was a John Ford colour production.
Ford, and others, shot a lot of movies in Monument Valley, Arizona, while leading us to believe that the action unfolding in front of us was taking place in New Mexico for instance or Nevada or Colorado!
While Ford was recognised (and still is to a large degree) as the master of the “Western” movie, he was an entertainer first and foremost and not, as some would have us believe, a disciple of authenticity.
His 1946 movie ‘My Darling Clementine’, which focused on Wyatt Earp’s spell in Tombstone, was riddled with inaccuracies. However, Ford’s movies were certainly more realistic than most.
Kit Carson (pictured below) was the hero of a novel in 1849. More than one hundred years later, he was still alive and well; trapping, fighting and occasionally scouting for the army.
On this side of the Atlantic the London-based publishers Amalgamated Press published an account of the great scout’s exploits every month. The paperback ‘comic’ with Carson on the cover was hugely popular as were the other ‘cowboy comic’ issues which portrayed Davy Crockett among others. In real life Carson was a scrawny individual, not much more than 5 feet tall.
The writers of the Dime Novels back in the 1800s broadened his shoulders and increased his height substantially. In the 1940s and ‘50s Amalgamated Press did likewise; heroes had to look the part as well as act the part.
While Carson’s actual physique didn’t quite ‘fit the bill’ so to speak, his preferred mode of transport in real life wasn’t acceptable to the London publishers either so they took away the mule and gave him a great white stallion called Thunder instead.
In the forthcoming series entitled ‘Legends of the American Frontier’, we will take a look at some of the individuals who long ago figured prominently in the shaping of the United States of America; men such as Boone, Mangus Colorados, Cochise and Carson to name but a few.
There are no real-life photographs of Daniel Boone in existence simply because the camera hadn’t come into being during his lifetime.
For all the world, the image could be construed as being that of an 18th century quintessential landed English gentleman.
There would appear to be some justification for such a train of thought, however, for Boone was, technically speaking, as British as if he had been born in Norfolk.
Again, technically speaking, the landscape he knew as a child came under the control of the English Crown and the administration of the day deemed that far-off land to be as British as the land in Cornwall or Devon, or the island of Ireland for that matter! A little more than four centuries ago three great military powers – Spain, France and England – had each gained a foothold in the country we know today as the U.S.A.
Daniel Boone, who carried Scots/Irish blood in his veins, was born to Quaker immigrant parents in the British colony of Pennsylvania in 1734. Like George Washington, Kit Carson and some others who came before and after him, Boone was destined to become famous in the eyes of his fellow white man.