Five Questions About the “Old West”


The phrase Old West refers to both a time and a place. Is there a term for such a signifier, one which refers to both an era and a geographical region (e.g., Antebellum South, Roman Britain)?


When we think about the Old West, we include the California Gold Rush (1848-1855), but we don’t include the Civil War (1860-1865) even if a battle occurs West of the Mississippi. After the war ends, though, it’s as if the Old West suddenly reappears. Why does the Old West of popular imagination not track with sequential historical time and are there any other examples of this discontinuity in history?


In 1920, references to the Old West in books referred to the original American frontier from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi. By 1930, however, authors were using the phrase to refer to the time and place we now associate with it. What happened in those ten years to make the Old West, well, old? (It’s especially surprising in light of the fact that the death of Buffalo Bill and the last stage coach robbery had occurred only about ten years before the shift.)


Historians tell us that the lawlessness, violence, and chaos of the Old West has been exaggerated. The time in which white settlers contested with Native Americans for land between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi, on the other hand, fits that rough narrative more closely. Why, then, does it not have a name in popular imagination at all?