Frederick Jackson Turner and Buffalo Bill Cody

An American Log-House
An American Log-HouseCollot, Georges-Henri-Victor, 1750-1805
Title page and frontispiece to William F. Cody's Story of the Wild West and Camp-Fire Chats
Title page and frontispiece to William F. Cody's Story of the Wild West and Camp-Fire ChatsCody, William Frederick, 1846-1917

People everywhere tell themselves stories to explain who they are, why they are that way, and what they can become. Images from these stories, endlessly repeated, become icons: symbols that evoke deeply held beliefs and inspire new stories.

Few stories are as widely told as that of the “frontier” in western North America. Made popular around the world by American writers, performers, and in countless film “Westerns,” these stories are a popular mythology of the origins of American culture. Iconic images from these stories—the rugged cowboy, heroic sheriff, and the stoic Indian—have been recycled in advertisements for automobiles, blue jeans, and cigarettes. Politicians and sports teams draw on frontier icons to mobilize voters and fans. They are part of a shorthand language that informs our understanding of politics, nature, and culture.

There is a history behind these icons. It is a history of longing for a way of life that is lost, and may never have existed quite the way it is remembered. It is a history firmly rooted in the region once known as the “Great West;” the region we now call the American “Midwest.”

To understand the power of these images and stories we turn to two of the frontier’s most creative and influential interpreters: the historian Frederick Jackson Turner and the showman Buffalo Bill Cody. In very different ways, both men presented their versions of the frontier story to audiences at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The Fair, and Chicago itself, symbolized the rise of the United States from an undeveloped rural colony to an industrial nation on the verge of becoming a colonial power itself. The ideas Turner and Cody offered to audiences in Chicago reflected a fascination with the past, and a desire to use the past to explain how Americans could navigate the uncertain territory of the future.

Turner, delivering an academic paper to the historical congress convened in conjunction with the Exposition, told a story of free land, the peaceful occupation of an empty continent, and the creation of a unique American identity. His pioneer was the farmer; the axe and the plow were the tools of civilization.

Cody’s Wild West performance, which played twice a day just outside the official grounds of the Fair, told of violent conquest, of wresting the continent from the American Indian peoples who occupied the land. His pioneer was the scout, a man who could translate between white and Indian cultures. The rifle and the pony were his symbols of civilization.