Civilization and Savagery in the Age of Empire

A Squad of Genuine Cuban Insurgents
A Squad of Genuine Cuban InsurgentsCourier Litho. Co., Buffalo, N.Y.
Cover to The Charge of the Rough Riders: Grand Galop Militaire
Cover to The Charge of the Rough Riders: Grand Galop Militaire
Types and Development of Man
Types and Development of ManBuel, James W., 1849-1920

The frontier experience that Cody, Turner and their audiences had grown up with was only a memory by the mid-1890s. But the power of the frontier story to explain what many believed was America’s unique role in the world remained strong. After the US acquired a new frontier in the form of overseas colonies in 1898, Americans frequently applied the language of the old frontier to their new possessions.

Theodore Roosevelt followed closely the model of public performance Buffalo Bill had perfected when he took the name Rough Riders for the cavalry unit he organized to fight in the U.S. war against Spain in 1898. Staging a dramatic charge up San Juan Hill in Puerto Rico, and then promoting his own heroism, Roosevelt understood that Americans like a good show as much as they liked winning.

After the Spanish American War, Cody’s Wild West show featured a “Squad of Genuine Cuban Insurgents.” A few years later, the show recreated the American military mission to China during the Boxer Rebellion. What did these episodes have to do with the Wild West? They were extensions of the spectacle’s core idea. Besieged and outnumbered by the forces of savagery, resourceful white Americans would always prevail after a last minute rescue by the cavalry.

Although Cody and Turner had presented two versions of the frontier—one empty and waiting, the other occupied and resisting—both men interpreted history in racial terms that resonated with scholarly and popular prejudices of their times. The dynamism of modern society had thrown people of different lands together and subjected them to the pressures of industrialization and urbanization. So-called “social Darwinists” believed races competed against each other in a process of natural selection. The apparent victory of white Europeans over Indians, Africans, Chinese reinforced this thinking. And in America, the dominance of so-called Anglo-Saxons (that is, people of English descent) over immigrants, African Americans, and American Indians was frequently justified as an outcome of their natural superiority.

The idea that human culture and social organization had developed from a state of savagery to a state of civilization was an old one. But the colonization of the Americas, Africa, and Asia by Europeans had introduced the notion that savage and civilized cultures co-existed in the same historical time. In this case it was assumed that the so-called savage would adopt the culture of the so-called civilized, or be crushed. A remarkable image from the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, “Types and Development of Man,” makes plain that white Americans imagined themselves at the top of a hierarchy that was both historical and contemporary.