Skip to main content

Jim Der Trapper and Other Heroes of the Old West

ISSUE:  Spring 1982
Land of Savagery, Land of Promise: The European Image of the American Frontier. By Ray Alien Billington. Norton. $18.95.

To the European immigrant in the 19th century, the American frontier was indeed a mixed blessing. Malaria or “shaking fever” was so prevalent that a Norwegian phrase book contained the words, “Ai aemm naet uell aet aell. Mei hedd is giddi, aand ai kenn haerdli staend onn mei leggs” (“I am not well at all. My head is giddy, and I can hardly stand on my legs”). Mental disease was a threat as well. Billington notes that “to men accustomed to the companionship of their fellows in thickly settled Europe the feeling of aloneness that oppressed them in the grasslands could be a horrifying experience.” As we read of solitary travelers teetering on the brink of madness as they made their way across vast prairies, we form an image of neurotic isolation as profound as Eliot’s “pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas,”

Yet the benefits of frontier life were as manifest as the terrors, or so the incipient Westmann was told. In the thin, invigorating air of the Great Plains, for example, horse thieves had to be hanged five minutes longer than they did elsewhere before they died. The general health was so good in one town that the only people who died were doctors who starved to death. And in another the inhabitants were ashamed to have no cemetery, so they shot a man in order to start one.

Land of savagery, land of promise: this split image was often reflected in the immigrants’ reasons for relocating. One traveler, warned that “hardship, hunger, want in every way is before you,” answered, “Yes—and a fortune.” A second, a German, asked if he were glad he settled in the West, answered:

“Oh yes, very glad, a thousand times better here.”
“You can have more comfort here?”
“Oh no, not so much . . .”
“Why then, do you like it better here?”
“Because here I am free.”

This contrariety of attitudes toward the frontier is best seen over a period of time in the varying images of the American Indian. Here, as with other aspects of Western life, the character of the viewer is at least as important as the character of the viewed: the Poles, for example, were remarkably consistent over the years in their praise of Indian society because they were anxious to prove that despotism was not a natural state. But in general the image of the Indian, bright in the beginning, tarnished as those to whom the land had been promoted took possession of it. In one 18th-century English novel quoted by Billington an Indian addressing an injured white man sounds for all the world like one of King Arthur’s knights as he says, “I see you are in distress. That is reason enough for an Indian to pour the balm of consolation into the wounds of adversity.” A century later, however, this flowing speech is replaced by grunts as the Indians became barely articulate animals. In its most enduring form, the Caucasian view of the Indian combines both attitudes inseparably; as Billington reports, “every schoolboy on the Continent knew of the last red man on earth who wept as he chanted the death song that would waft him to the happy-hunting ground, and the boy wept with him, partly out of sympathy, partly because that Indian might not live long enough for the boy to go west and shoot him as had the hero of The Trapper’s Guide; or, Ten-Fingered Jake, the Silent Terror of the Tuscaroras.”

As the greedy replaced the merely curious in the parade west, self-interest became the key to the changing image of the Indian. Travelers usually bring with them what they ultimately find; and if by the end of the 19th century Indians had been transformed into “blood-thirsty brown animals who are best destroyed” (according to a Dutch magazine), it is because their destroyers were themselves bloodthirsty animals of a lighter hue; as the poet Tess Gallagher says, “the ultimate sign of our disbelief in our own souls is our inability to believe in the souls of anything else.”

This same self-interest, given the entire frontier to practice on, became the mold of the national character, the stamp that made disparate foreign types into uniform Americans. In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner advanced the thesis that the distinctive aspects of the American character derive from the frontiering process, and Billington, with his greater access to European reports on American life, offers further and even more convincing evidence that this is so. American materialism and indifference to aesthetics, for example, is seen in this conversation between a traveler from abroad and a pioneer farmer:

“This is really a beautiful country of yours.”

“Oh yes, sir; the crops are wonderfully beautiful; but you should have seen them last year. I reckon there’s not a more beautiful valley in America, at least for wheat; and it’s considerable of a corn country.”

“Yes, it seems to possess a rich soil, but I was not alluding to its fertility—I meant that it was a fine country to look at; that it has some very fine prospects.”

“Oh yes, sir; I would not wish for better prospects, if this weather does but hold till harvest; last year our prospects were not half so good, but we got an abundance.”

Waste made good sense, as did restlessness. Why rotate crops when one could exhaust the soil and buy cheaper land to the west? Work, originally a matter of individual enterprise, became a community ethic as individuals banded together against idleness. Ingenuity became highly prized as a new environment challenged stale European ideas and stimulated the development of innovative technologies. Egalitarianism was the order of the day: stories were told of one guest who was beaten by a waiter when he complained of the food in a frontier inn, of another who was confronted by a pistolwielding landlord who ordered him to “eat them fishballs.” The frontier child was the Compleat Democrat; one boy, told by his father to fetch a piece of wood, shouted, “Go get it yourself, you old son of a . . . .” And a British visitor who heard a father order his son to come a dozen times, only to have the boy answer, “I won’t” and take to his heels, was astonished when the proud parent turned to him and said, “A sturdy republican, sir.” Finally, a patriotism based on a sense of their perfected society set off the earlier arrivals from the later ones. America was gold, Europe lead; of all those who flocked to these shores, apparently only a few Germans rivaled the Americans in the fatuous belief that their culture was the best.

No matter how bad the image became, Europeans continued to migrate in waves, to trade in their distinctive cultural characteristics for a new set as they sought the freedom and the cash that the Old World denied them. The more promise, it seemed, the more savagery. Apparently the national sport was hand-to-hand combat, with its attendant biting, kicking, scratching, and gouging of eyes—”one meets in this nation few men who do not have one eye put out in this manner,” one traveler reported soberly. Everyone had to have a gun. An immigrant who was weighing the purchase of a sidearm was told, “Well, you mout not want one for a month, and you mout not want one for three months; but if you ever did want one, you kin bet you’ll want it almi’ty sudden.”

Still they came to this country of one-eyed pistoleros: 70,000 Europeans per year in the 1830’s, 400,000 annually in the 1850’s, 14 million altogether in the 1870’s and 1880’s. So many Germans settled in Kansas during those years, noted Billington, that the Indians who traded with them learned German rather than English as their second language.

The response of European governments to this drain varied according to the social and economic situation in each country. England, for example, was happy to avoid reform that had seemed inevitable until so many of its malcontents and surplus workers were lured to America by the Homestead Act of 1862 with its promise of a free farm. But Sweden adopted a variety of measures designed to keep its people home, including government-financed, low-interest loans, guaranteed religious freedom, and universal suffrage. The Swedish government (and the Norwegian as well) even created artificial frontiers along northern borders so that those who wanted to indulge the pioneering instinct could start settlements of their own. Ernst Beckman, a member of the Riksdag and founder of the Liberal Party, said, “Let us . . .create more and more opportunity for the humble to acquire their own property, . . .show the laborer respect and consideration, and remove unnecessary restrictions on religious freedom—in short, let us ‘move America to Sweden. “”

The good news about America would not have been nearly so widespread in the late 19th century had it not been for two mid-century developments in the industrialized European nations: the spread of free and compulsory schooling for children and the development of effective and low-cost techniques for the production and marketing of books. Thanks to these developments, millions of schoolchildren (and adults) could find out about the savagery and promise of America from such thrillers as Jim der Trapper and Die Apachen am Rio Grande.

And once begun, the interest in the West never abated. Norway’s Kjell Hallbing, one of modern Scandinavia’s best-read authors, based some 70 novels on the heroics of one Morgan Kane, who served as a scout for Custer, helped clean up-Butch Cassidy’s gang, and prospected for gold in the Black Hills despite prostate trouble and the pesky attentions of a gang of homosexuals who wanted to “utilize” him. Some of these narratives incorporate traits of their countries of origin in amusing ways. A French comic book called Lucky Luke, for example, has a band of soldiers defending a desert outpost against wily Apaches but becoming so entranced by the smell of the leek soup that their chef is preparing that they “oh” and “ah” and smack their lips in gastronomic abandon as the cunning redskins sneak over the walls.

This is not quite a perfect book; in one instance we are told that “a bard extol [led] the virtues of Texas” with lines that begin, “Know’st thou the land where the lemon-trees bloom” which is of course the song that Mignon sings about Italy in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister. (If Goethe was in fact thinking of the Lone Star State rather than Italy, then either he saw clairvoyantly the mansions of the Texas oilmen in stanza two of Mignon’s song, which describes “the house with all its rooms aglow, / And shining hall and columned portico,” or else these lines refer to the Italian villas that Goethe saw in his travels.) Yet if there are other such errors, I did not find them. Land of Savagery, Land of Promise is a brilliant book, entertaining and provocative. It is instructive to look at one’s national character through foreign eyes, to see it as it was and as it is now. As one witnesses the bullying, the power grabs, the entrenchment of might that passes for public service on the part of elected officials, one feels the full impact of this passage from the final page of Billington’s book:

That the image of America as a land of equality and a champion of democracy has eroded alarmingly since World War II cannot be questioned. . . . Peoples of the Third World and some Europeans insist that their faith in the United States crumbled when its intervention in Vietnam and its meddling in Southeast Asia revealed its imperialistic ambitions. They maintain, too, that the nation’s willingness to support any dictatorial government that promised to maintain the status quo revealed that it was out of step with the spirit of progress on which its greatness was built.

We forget easily what we once were and what we represented to the world. One effect of Billington’s study is that it makes us think about the thin line between democrat and dictator in each of us, not only the hometown hubba bubbas who thrive on Klan literature but also the pipe-smoking sophisticates who read (yes, and even write for) The Virginia Quarterly Review. As Randall Jarrell once said, “Most of us know, now, that Rousseau was wrong; that man, when you knock his chains off, sets up the death camps.”

A suggestion: when the editors of The Norton Anthology of American Literature compile the next edition, they might consider including the testimony of immigrants and travelers who often discerned the egalitarian principles of this country more clearly than their descendants do, such as the Czech who returned to his village and insisted that everyone there call President Roosevelt “Tedi,” or the English visitor who overheard a man in a crowd that had gathered to meet President Grant in Laramie ask, “Which is Grant?” and be answered loudly, “I guess he’s that red-faced coon in the plug hat.”


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading