The Western Legacy And Spirit



A Western Legacy: The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum

A Variety Of Exhibits Which Include The Various Cultures And Groups In The West, Their Lifestyle, Clothing, And History

End Of The Trail Sculpture [Courtesy/National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum]

When people think of the the west they think of cowboys bursting into saloon doors, shoot-outs and corrupt sherifs. But the west does more than stir up our imagination: It's a worldwide symbol of freedom and independence that inspires people all over the globe... The many aspects and stories of the west are highlighted at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

“It's the western spirit and the western legacy that has one of the greatest impacts not only on America, but the world,” said Curator of Ethnology Eric Singleton. “The American west defines what it means to be an American: individualism, ruggedness, a melting pot of cultures... That's why it's important to talk about western heritage. It was a frontier, a place of freedom. It has a real impact on people across the world.”

The 220,000 square-foot building hosts more than 100,000 visitors a year, with people from all over the world coming to see the large variety of exhibits which include many on the various cultures and groups in the west, their lifestyle and their clothing, but also the west depicted in Hollywood, the railroad and military history.

As an historian and anthropologist who focuses on the Native American story, Singleton is often in awe of the clothing on display at the museum. One artifact that stands out to him is a Missouri Native American shirt from the 1850s.

“It's one of my favorite things,” he gushed. “It's in remarkable shape and it's an iconic image of Native culture and the American west and what it was when folks started to really mix in the west. That's the beautiful part of objects and art – they tell their own story, but they also have a personal attachment to each person who views it.”

The Western Gallery [Courtesy/National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum]
John Wayne Display [Courtesy/National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum]
Buffalo Bill Cody [Courtesy/National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum]

Then there's an 1830s Cherokee jacket that Singleton also finds remarkable because it combines both Native American technique with European materials. The “great mix” of cross-culture is what makes it stand out to Singleton, since the west was a place where so many cultures came together.

The clothing not only symbolizes what the west is all about, but often unveils things about each culture that people may not have previously known. There is an exhibit at the museum right now dedicated to the Native American headdress. According to Singleton many people believe headdresses are only used for war ceremony or for dances. Maybe they believe they were only worn by chiefs. But they were actually worn by everyone – man and woman – and the exhibit aims to tell this deeper story.

“The great part of having such a large exhibition area,” said Singleton, “is that we tell a much broader story.”

And telling the entire story of the west is important. While Singleton grew up on a ranch, he knows that the average person may not have as much knowledge of the west. It's that blend of imagination and myth, and reality of the western culture that has kept the west relevant and important in cultures all over the world.

People picture lone cowboys coming into cattle towns, bursting into the saloon, guns ablaze. They think of vigilante justice, the war between Native Americans and incoming cultures. And while some of these popular images have some truth behind them (“There were cowboys who went into cattle towns and of course they shot up the place... They were reckless”), the museum also highlights the facts, the history, of these tales.

The Museum Theater [Courtesy/National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum]
The Museum At Night [Courtesy/National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum]
Prosperity Junction [Courtesy/National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum]

He continued: “These shoot-outs are why we had an introduction of gun laws. It was to prevent that and it worked. I think that by looking at the past we are able to learn a little about about how to perceive the present and the future. It tells a good story, but it also has an impression on years to come.”

The story of the west isn't static. It's so much bigger than cowboys. It's about different races from all over the world. It's about women and families. There are endless stories to tell.

“In one of our research centers we have journals of women who talk about their daily life, what it was like to live on the plains and manage a family,” said Singleton. “It's really interested to think about how the west has changed, how the world has changed... If someone lived to be 100 and they were born in 1870, imagine the changes they have experienced throughout those years... It's hard to pinpoint one story, because there are so many...”

It's the blend of history and present that keeps Singleton excited to come into work every day. It's the Native American's story, the Spanish's story, the Chinese's story... It's Hollywood and popular paperbacks... It's the story of freedom, of a lone cowboy... It's the story of cultures coming together and learning from each other, who shaped an entire culture and changed the world. “That's what I love.”

Olivia Richman

A graduate of East Connecticut State University in Journalism, Olivia has written for Stonebridge Press & Antiques Marketplace among others. She enjoys writing, running and video games.

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