Fans of the Old West crowded into room 235 at the University Memorial Center as the Conference on World Affairs presented “Wanted Dead or Alive: The Myth of the American West.” The symposium featured NPR’s Hal Cannon, award-winning author Teresa Jordan and HBO’s Band of Brothers screenwriter Bruce McKenna.
The room was packed with the crowd overflowing into the hallway.
McKenna led the symposium as he talked about summers spent in the American West camping with his family as a kid. He briefly spoke about a story involving him and his family hiding in a tent while what he thought were cowboys rode through camp on horseback. He later revealed that they had just robbed a bank in the closest town and were on the run.
McKenna described the enticing stories of the Old West as legendary stories that we craft and construct.
“The myths [we] create to identify with are stories you can embed yourself in to create a sense of identity,” McKenna said.
Teresa Jordan spoke next about her own family’s journey to Wyoming in the 1800’s.
The story she told detailed her great-grandfather leaving the family at the age of 14 to fight with his brothers in the Civil War only to find out when he got to the front lines that Lee had surrendered.
He had left the family, disobeying his parents and he knew that he could not return home so he headed out west, taking jobs and working his way to Wyoming and swore to only write back after he was a successful rancher.
Jordan then went on to say that she had done some research into the story and a majority of its facts had turned up false.
Jordan said her great-grandfather had in fact left with the “family’s blessing.” He also frequently wrote back to the family as he traveled out west.
She then dove into the reasons why we connect to the mythology of the American West stating father-son conflict is something that is ever present in the mythology of the west as well as adolescent life. This is why young people can attach so easily to a story that is far from true.
As Jordan finished, her husband, Hal Cannon, took over speaking and talked about how we are drawn to stories of the Old West because it was a simpler place filled with fewer problems than we face in the modern day.
He then went on to say that this belief is largely false, that much of Old West conflict centered on religious conflict between American immigrants that had made the journey out west.
A recurring theme that ran through most of the myths covered was, “The west was settled by armies of 14-year-olds,” Jordan said. “That’s just not true.”
Cannon then went on to play recordings of people he interviewed in Mexico about the loss of storytellers in society as they have been replaced by radios and televisions.
The symposium concluded with a question and answer session as the three panelists fielded questions from the overflowing room. The subjects covered included the portrayal of the Old West in Hollywood Westerns and descendants of settlers defending their ancestors and their actions despite what mythology has made of them.
“We are shaped by the stories we tell and believe whether they are true or not,” Jordan said.
Contact CUIndependent Staff Writer Zack Shapiro at firstname.lastname@example.org