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Myths of the West: WWYD?

Yesterday was the first of ten days of very cool social studies conversations between now and next June. It’s part of our Teaching American History project titled The Century of Progress: Thinking Historically Through the 1800s.

We’re in the third and final year focusing on the American West. And not just the “traditional” view of the West but one that includes all of the different groups and ideas that make up a very complicated period of time and place.

When we think of the American West, we often think of cowboys and indians, of riding off into the sunset, of a simpler time when the good guys always won, of brave and noble savages. These things never really existed but what often remains in our minds after high school is a romanticized version of the American West rather than a realistic view.

My question:

WWYD. What Would You Do? How would you approach the problem of teaching the West? How would you start?

Bruce MacTavish from Washburn University started us off with a great hook activity. He asked teachers to think about the simple question:

Where was the West in 1800, 1850, and 1900?

He then asked teachers create a different map for each of the three periods using big sheets of sticky paper. This sort of activity does a great job of activating prior knowledge and forces participants to really think about what the West means and what it might be.

After a gallery walk around the room, teachers discussed common themes that they saw in the maps and to discuss possible answers to original question. Conversation centered on where the population center was in specific years, using geography to define the West (Mississippi River, the Rockies), legal agreements such as the Louisiana Purchase, places of conflict between different groups, and my favorite:

The West begins on the line when BBQ goes from pulled pork to beef brisket.

Once teachers had a chance to think about their definition of the West, groups were asked to complete one more task:

If the West were a company, what would its company logo be?

All of this to help people start to think of how we “see” the West, to begin to understand that the West is “created” and that much of what we think we know about that place may not be true.

Dr. MacTavish then shared a few of the myths that have developed over time and suggested that our art encourages these myths. He shared three myths and associated artwork.

(My WWYD idea? Show kids the various images and asked them to figure out what the myth might be.)

Three Myths of the West:

1. The West is a place for progress and progress is a good thing

Fanny Palmer. Across the Continent Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way

Irving Bacon. Conquest of the Prairie

William Tylee Ranney. Kit Carson

Charles Deas. A Solitary Indian Seated on the Edge of a Bold Precipice

2. The West is the biblical Garden of Eden

Albert Bierstadt. Wind River Country

John Mix Stanley. Chain of Spires Along the Gila River

3. West is a masculine domain with lawlessness, violence, savagery, and no social restraint

Fredrick Remington. Bronco Buster


Other handy resources about Western myths:

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