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The Old West Memory

According to Dickinson et al. (2005) the story of the American frontier—like the Alamo story—is a ‘foundational myth’; it provides a framework within which to understand contemporary American policy. Similarly, Slotkin (1992, p. 10) contends that as a narrative, the Old West both reveals how Americans view themselves as ‘Americans’ and informs the actions they take on a local and global stage. The Stockyards, the Bullock, the State Capitol Museum and the San Jacinto Museum all tell stories about the Old West; however, the sites do not offer a single chronological story. As such, it is not possible to analyse the Old West memory as one single narrative with a stable internal structure. Within Texan historical sites it is instead (re)presented through a collection of stories which use commonly recognised characters, symbols, metaphors and motifs.

Moreover, within Texan stories the term ‘Wild West’, ‘Old West’ and ‘Frontier’ are used interchangeably. Similar to Reddin’s (1999) study of Wild West shows, the three terms tend to be used to speak about a geographical region (the West), a historical process (manifest destiny and the move westward) and a temporally-defined era (beginning with early settlements in the 1600s through to the final territories becoming states in the early 1900s). Unsurprisingly, we find that the key characters within the Old West memory are the cattle-herding cowboy and the westward pioneer, and at times these two characters merge to become a single identity; the frontiersman. From a punishment perspective, it is worthy of note that the Texan Old West memory is actually somewhat devoid of violence. The protagonists of the stories are rarely shown to have engaged in any form of person-to-person combat. This is somewhat surprising considering the imagery and symbolism of the Old West found elsewhere. The classic western movie is—more often than not—a story about conflict and combat on the frontier. Cowboys and cattle rustlers, sheriffs and outlaws, pioneers and Native Americans, these Old West narratives conjure images of combat and retribution. However, while the cowboy and the pioneer (as characters) were rarely shown to engage in violence, they were depicted as both bold and tough because they had to manage and tame a hostile frontier.

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