As an author of historical westerns it’s easy to get into debates about “what history was really like.” After all, it depends on what history books you read. What may be documented fact according to one source might be countered by the documented facts of another source.
Over the last 20 years or so, I’ve found that the trend is toward “revisionist history.” It seems that historians are setting out to debunk previously held historical truths, and they’re backing up their claims with, for example, census data from the era.
When I got my first hardcover western published by a major New York publisher (The Peacekeeper, 1997 – soon to be republished in ebook as “Legacy Of An Outlaw”), I had well known western authors tell me that my premise of a black outlaw-gunfighter was unrealistic in the American West. Now, however, revisionist historians report that as many as one in four cowboys was black. Some estimates go as high as one in three! These estimates are based on documented census data on file at the time.
This should not be surprising since after 1865 there were thousands upon thousands of newly freed and unemployed blacks moving westward. These folks scratched out a living doing the same things that everyone else did – Anglo, Hispanic, Native, Asian, etc. They wrangled cattle, sought gold, worked on farms or ranches or railroads, and they built towns. Some became outlaws and gunfighters.
Traditional historical assumptions derived from a narrow perspective and pre-1990 media reinforced what was commonly believed to be true. Readers nowadays, however, understand that revisionist history presents a new and more diverse set of possibilities, and I’m convinced that modern readers are looking for something just a little bit different from mainstream.
In my next posts I’m going to talk about women Pinkerton detectives, the politics of the frontier wars, the famous Ninth Cavalry, and a Native leader whose name the army thought no one would ever remember. So follow me below on your favorite media for more revisionist history.
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