Illustration by Andrew Barton
Though now thought of as a Midwestern state, Missouri was once the Wild West.
Wild West Week
Many of us grew up playing Cowboys and Indians or watching Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. The Wild West is a collective story about the American experience, our looking-glass self. That Image remains vital to Missouri.
What does the Wild West have to do with Missouri? During the nineteenth century, in fact and imagination, Missouri was the beating heart of the nation. Centrally located and at the confluence of two great river systems, a natural gateway, Missouri became the storm front of westward expansion and a major casino in America's unregulated economic development. Missouri offered important natural resources like lead, commercial ventures like the Pony Express and cattle drives, and settlements connected to rivers and railroads. Fortunes and lives were won and lost here; not everyone played by house rules. From Kit Carson to Jesse James to Calamity Jane, mythic Missouri heroes lit out for the territories, to mountains, caves, or Wild West shows, to escape civilization.
Why is our Wild West heritage still important? Simply put, such powerful myths shape our future. Where do heroic individuals go now to escape? We continue moving to less-developed areas, wondering why problems of "civilization" like traffic congestion come along for the ride.
In the new frontier, abundance will grow out of creative recycling, even of our myths. We Missourians can honor in-laws, who stayed to build healthy communities, as well as outlaws, who became the stuff of legends. We can emphasize authenticity in Missouri communities that celebrate the uniqueness of their people, periods, and places and create progress in the wake of globalization. We can develop economically by conserving and restoring our natural and cultural heritage, including our role in westward rush.
Now that would be wild!