Book Reviews: The Real Wild West: The 101 Ranch and the Creation of the American West

The Real Wild West: The 101 Ranch and the Creation of the American West
The Real Wild West: The 101 Ranch and the Creation of the American West Wikimedia Commons

The Real Wild West: The 101 Ranch and the Creation of the American West
Michael Wallis
St. Martin's Press

Just before Christmas 1911, a hundred Indians pitched their tepees on the pier in Venice, California. Though far from their Oklahoma prairie lands, the Ponca tribe seemed right at home at the Pacific's edge, for in a nearby encampment was a host of cowboys, cowgirls, horses and buffalo. "The Real Wild West" — the legendary touring show that captivated audiences across the country — had circled its covered wagons within striking distance of Hollywood.

The actual Wild West was just a memory by then, but three brothers who had grown up riding the range were determined to turn the memory into legend. That winter, Joe, Zack and George Miller signed a contract with the New York Motion Picture Company. Under the agreement, the Millers' 101 Ranch Show loaned the filmmakers 75 cowboys, 25 cowgirls, 35 Indians, assorted livestock and covered wagons. Soon, while cameras captured the action, cowboys and Indians blazed new trails through the sagebrush canyons of Southern California. The West was being won all over again, on-screen. Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

From chronicles of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show to biographies of such figures as John Wayne and John Ford, historians have documented the transformation of the West into a form of entertainment. But now a forgotten force in Western mythmaking has its day in the sun. Michael Wallis' The Real Wild West succeeds in building a bridge between the factual West and the fabled one. With ample detail and a wild cast of characters, Wallis spins the saga of a single ranch where the West was turned first into a road show and later into some of the first filmed Westerns.

Before the Millers took their show on the road, there was a real 101 Ranch. It was, Wallis writes, "the wildest, woolliest, and most unusual operation of its kind in the history of the American West."

Established in 1893, the 101 Ranch encompassed 110,000 acres lying three hours due north of Oklahoma City. Until the cattle business waned, the ranch hosted regular roundups. Later it was the site of wild-cat oil drilling and of the extravagant Wild West shows, drawing more than 65,000 spectators at a time. Geronimo paraded there, wearing a top hat and riding in a convertible. Theodore Roosevelt, John D. Rockefeller and other bigwigs numbered among the guests, while the ranch also served as home to a ragtag assortment of Westerners, including Ponca Indians, cowboys, female sharpshooters and a good number of future celebrities, including movie star Tom Mix and humorist Will Rogers.

The 101 Ranch was started by the Millers' father. George Washington Miller lived the life his sons could only dream of. Inspired by stories of Daniel Boone, Miller took his pregnant wife and two young children out of Kentucky and across the prairie in 1870. Bound for California, Miller instead got sidetracked into business. Ruthless, bigoted and salty as salt pork, he first raised hogs in Missouri, then began taking hog meat and cattle down the Chisholm Trail into Texas.

Many writers have romanced the West, but Wallis, author of nine other Western histories, is too wise a chronicler for that. The Real Wild West, to be sure, contains generous helpings of Western lore. Every other chapter is a short portrait of a Western character. These sketches include both the famous (trailblazer Jesse Chisholm and gunslinger Wild Bill Hickock) and the little known (Ponca chief Standing Bear and rodeo star Bill Pickett). But Wallis most certainly comes to bury myth, not to praise it. Drawing on memoirs and diaries, he debunks the surreal West that came to be depicted in those films the Millers would influence.

Wallis' tale gathers force once the three Miller sons take center stage. Then the author's encyclopedic knowledge of the 101 Ranch and Western lore converge. As the Millers transmute history into showbiz, Wallis weaves firsthand accounts with the riveting saga of their rootin' tootin' shows, holding all those Western films lying at the heart of American popular culture up to the glaring spotlight of truth.

No amount of truth will ever deflate the Old West. Its fables are too integral to the American self-image to be gunned down by the introduction of mere facts. But The Real Wild West will help Western fans see the stage sets behind the legends and the seams in the cowboys' costumes: the book fills the empty canyon that lies as a chasm between film and Western history.

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