Western Americana is a category of regional history that has been so heavily grazed that barely one blade of grass remains. Unfortunately, that one blade may compel another article or book.
David Dary might seem to commit this offense against the historical environment in his most recent books, "Cowboy Culture" and the present book on Western entrepreneurs; but, fortunately, he has presented the closely nibbled material in a completely fresh and revealing manner.
He has dealt with the same region and era in both books but faced different problems with the two trades that he chose to document. In the cowboy book, for which Dary received a number of writing awards, a mythological figure was reduced to size and made appealingly real. Businessmen are elevated to their rightful place in Western history in the present book; and in the process, we learn where all those cowboys, Indians and outlaws shopped.
That Dary, a professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, is able to tell a worthwhile and engaging story about merchants is a tribute not only to his skills as a researcher and writer but also to the fact that the ordinary act of commerce was a bit dicey in those days. Trudging Westward was "the silent army," as he calls the migrating merchants. Profit was their mundane motive, and they ranged from the early traders who traveled the Sante Fe Trail to the Goldwaters of department store and later senatorial fame in Arizona.
Through a crisp retelling of the stories of the mountain men, fur traders, railroaders and cattlemen and a new telling of the doings of land speculators, town builders and traveling salesmen, Dary shows how those who came West were obsessed with making money. After all, he points out, it was in Washington Irving's classic about the Western fur trade, "The Adventures of Captain Bonneville," where the term "the Almighty Dollar" first appeared.
The success stories are attributable to "a way of thinking that stressed the importance of individual success through individual initiative and enterprise." It was this restless search for profits that linked East and West, says Dary, who thereby makes his entrepreneurial contribution to the various connection theories.
But certain realities are glossed over in these stories because what went boom almost inevitably went bust in the old West, and still does. The Western landscape is littered with many more failures than successes, although the mirage of wealth dates from Spanish times.
Granted there was individual initiative, but it was more often within a context of virtual socialism; a context, namely, of subsidized transportation, free use of public-domain lands, gigantic federally financed water projects. Army troops to guard the traders, and military bases and captive Indians off which they made their livings.
Like others who perceive the frontier as being the West's only period of legitimate history, Dary halts his books at the turn of the century. But cowboys and businessmen have gone on living, working and evolving since then. This bias that is built into the genre does not allow us newcomers--and most Westerners are just that--to perceive the past as a continuum, and thus we believe that we are doing something for the first time when there actually are precedents.
For instance, what about the explosion in recreation and the production of energy throughout the region that is so visible today? They had their beginnings in the dude ranches and the few oil wells of the last century but did not blossom into major industries until the present century. Under this traditional formula, they are slighted.
Never mind. To have a clear, rational mind searching the range for even half of its commercial history is well worth the price of missing the other half of the story, which may yet be forthcoming.