ATLAS OBSCURA

The True Grit Behind Old West Symbolism

The 21st century American West — stretching across the Great Plains of the Dakotas to the deserts of Arizona and California — is a place where wooden longhorn steers sit atop steakhouses, neon cowboys encourage gamblers on the Vegas strip, and lone stars emblazon everything from flags to beer cans. All of this iconography is so familiar, so much a part of the cultural fabric, that it seems to have always existed, just like the sunsets and starscapes of the desert sky.

Many of these symbols have murky origins, informed by dime novels and movies as much as from historical facts. In the most self-aware scene in of one of the most famous movies about the American West, a reporter declares: “This is the West, sir, When the fact becomes legend. Print the legend.” The director of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Ford, was one of the many Hollywood figures who helped create the mythology of the American West, and now it’s tough even for the best historians to untangle the truth from the legend. Even tougher, perhaps, is making an argument that the difference matters.

Yet every image has a tale to tell, from horseshoes to killer cacti. 

Take a full dive into the Symbols of the Old West on Atlas Obscura…