• The American West

    The American West

  • 1

ADA Text Version

The trans-Mississippi West held a special place in the American imagination for much of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As Professor Patricia Limerick muses in The Western Myth, at first it may seem strange that "a cultural myth involving single white guys on horses and open spaces" develops as the nation is experiencing industrialization and urbanization. But imagination sometimes helps us escape reality, including the realities of life in the American West in the late nineteenth century.

The Western Myth

Historians Patricia Limerick and Richard White present a thought-provoking analysis of the development and uses of the "western myth." How and why did Frederick Jackson Turner's "frontier thesis" and a western myth emerge out of the developments of the Gilded Age? How and why was that thesis and myth passed on to later generations?

Download the transcript of The Western Myth


Still image of C.M. Russell's painting, The Herd Quitter.

Hang the Myth

The reality of the American West during the Gilded Age contrasts sharply with the myth that has grown up around this period of time. This activity tests your knowledge of terms that were part of the real story of the American West.


Download the transcript of Hang the Myth


Lesson Study Questions

To evaluate your understanding of the lesson topics and prepare for tests, consider how you would answer these questions:

  1. Why did Ghost Dancing become popular among American Indians in 1889–1890? Why did it frighten non-Indians?
    • Consider the plight of American Indians in 1889–1890.
    • What do people tend to do in times of stress? What life did Indians desire?
    • What did non-Indians have at stake?
  2. What conditions did Mexican Americans face in the West in the late nineteenth century? How did they cope? What were the consequences of this era of Mexican American history?
    • What was happening with land ownership in that region?
    • What forms of discrimination existed? What were the opportunities?
    • What types of assistance and/or resistance were available?
    • How did conditions affect status and identity?
  3. Briefly describe the western myth. Why was this myth created? What purposes did it serve?
    • Who were the heroes in this myth? How was the story told?
    • How did the myth allow for escaping reality?
    • What did the myth justify?
  4. How and why was the West transformed in the late nineteenth century? How did these changes affect the people living in the West? How did the changes in the West transform America?
    • Consider the economic, social, and political forces at work.
    • Why were the railroads and the federal government critical?
    • How did mining, ranching, and farming change in the West?
    • How were American Indians, Mexican Americans, and settlers affected?
    • How was the West connected to the rest of the country?
    • What role did the western myth play in American history?


Additional Resources


The Frontier in American History
This hypertext edition of Turner's "The Frontier In American History" is taken from the 1921 edition published by Henry Holt and Company of New York.

The Frontier Thesis Debate
Frederick Jackson Turner laid the foundation for modern historical study of the American West and presented a "frontier thesis" that continues to influence historical thinking even today. This article discusses the ongoing debate among historians over Turner’s thesis.

Closing the Frontier
Three noted historians discuss the background and analyze the importance of Frederick Turner's frontier thesis.