The Real History Behind 2010's Big Western

Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption sells itself as a Western. But did you know it's not really a Western at all?

Yes, I know, the trailers have featured cowboys. Wrangling. Gunfights. Dirty Mexicans. Even old coots. All of them trademark images of the wild, wild west.

But the game is actually set in the year 1908. The twentieth century.

Traditionally, Western fiction is normally set in the latter half of the nineteenth century, specifically in the immediate post-Civil War era. This was a time of great Western expansion, of conflict with Indians, of a nation consolidated once more under Washington's rule. It was also a time of rifles, of war with Mexico and great gold rushes.

The Real History Behind 2010's Big Western

These are the backdrop for any number of timeless, iconic representations of the American West, from Sergio Leone's classic film The Good, the Bad & the Ugly to HBO's recent television series Deadwood. They're also the elements that made the West such a romantic period for story-tellers, and such a unique time in American history.

They're also things that Red Dead Redemption, the sequel to another Western, Red Dead Revolver, revels in. In addition to the things listed above, Red Dead Redemption boasts other Western icons like homesteads (pioneering farms), its trademark landscapes of mountain passes, rugged deserts and mountain vistas, and even that most clichéd of cowboy traits, the lassoing of cattle.

The thing is, by 1908 – the year Red Dead Redemption is set – most of this stuff is over. Or, at least it was in real life.

The Civil War was long gone, so long gone in fact that the First World War – with its tanks, battleships and fighter planes - was less than a decade away. Indian conflicts had all but ceased, the native inhabitants of North America either wiped out or driven into reservations. The great westward expansion was a thing of the past because, well, by 1908 there was nowhere left to expand to.

The Real History Behind 2010's Big Western

Along with the absence of historical forces, gone too were most of the mythical icons listed above, like heroic cowboys, lone gunmen and lawless towns. While their importance had been overblown by later story-tellers, what truth had lay in their existence had ceased to be as railroads and industry hadn't just brought money to the American West, they'd brought legal and law enforcement institutions along with them.

Just as telling as what had gone by 1908 is a look at what was in the process of showing up. 1908, the same year Red Dead Redemption begins, is the same year the first Model T Ford automobile rolled off a production line in Detroit. And five years before that, the Wright Brothers had made history by undertaking the first powered flight in the world's first aeroplane.

So a game that promises to be a Western is set in a time when the West was a thing of the past. Seems like a pretty big mistake for a studio to make! But don't be so quick to pass this off as a piece of irresponsible story-telling.

The Real History Behind 2010's Big Western

While for the most part the "West" was a thing of the past by the 20th century, it wasn't entirely dead.

"Mostly what you'd find out of the classic frontier tropes would be homesteaders", says Professor Philip Deloria, from the University of Michigan. "The original Homestead Act dates from 1862, but statistically, there were more homesteaders heading west and trying to set up farms in the later 19th and early 20th century. One of my great grandparents, for example, tried to homestead a farm in northwest Colorado in, coincidentally, 1907-08. Although many of these folks would have migrated using the railroads, this guy (and he was not alone) took his wagon overland, in a way that would have seemed reminiscent of the migrations of the 1840s and 50s."

Alongside these pioneering settlers, one of the West's other most iconic inhabitants – the gunman – could still be found as well. You just had to look a little closer.

"The classic hired gun was always pretty improbable. What you've really got is probably what you always had: corporate interests (mining, for example, or big cattle) hiring goon squads to exert power over rival groups", Deloria says. "It's not so much corporations vs. individual settlers...more likely a story about corporations vs. class interests. The Western Federation of Miners, for example, was a really well organized union, and of course that kind of class violence extends well into the 1920s and 30s. In that sense, you could imagine gunmen in the west. They just don't wear black hats and vests and practice pulling guns out of holsters and spend their time facing off in the street."

The Real History Behind 2010's Big Western

Beyond individual men and women, in some pockets of the United States, entire communities were, by the 20th century, still living life as though the telegraph was some wonderful new invention, and Ulysses S Grant was still President.

"By 1908, you would still have some very frontier experiences, which might include some old fashioned bank robberies (and probably from horse-backed bandits as there weren't many other conveyances), and certainly a lot of drinking in saloons throughout the west" Dr. Brad Raley, from the University of Oklahoma, tells us.

"A community I studied in western Colorado would have settled down considerably from its early rowdiness (formed in 1882), but I suspect it would have looked pretty rustic even by 1908."

As you can see, despite the imminent arrival of the modern world – air travel, automobiles, mechanised warfare – in some parts of the United States, some people were still living 1908 as though it were 1878, and in doing so were keeping the last vestiges of what we mythically label the "Wild West" alive.

The Real History Behind 2010's Big Western

Of course, I use the word "mythically" for a reason: much of what we associate with the West was just that. Myth.

"Much of what we think of the ‘Old West' either is largely myth bound or is limited to a few locales for a short period of time", Raley says. The idea that frontier towns were lawless, for example, is mostly incorrect. Those established to serve corporate interests (so, mining or cattle barons) had their own private, internal security forces, while other towns – particularly those founded by homogeneous ethnic groups, like Scandinavians – experienced little to no crime whatsoever.

With so little remaining, then, of either the myth or the real history of America's great western expansion by 1908, has Rockstar San Diego made a mistake in deciding to set a "Western" in the 20th century?

Nope. In fact, I think the studio's decision is a fascinating one, something that anyone interested in the real history behind video games should applaud.

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Rockstar knows the history of the time. If you pick through the screenshots and gameplay trailers released so far for the game, you can even find acknowledgement of this (like the clip above). Knowing this means the game's setting in 1908 isn't a mistake, then, what does that make it?

It makes it a post-apocalyptic Western. Less like Deadwood, then, and more like The Wild Bunch.

You play the role of John Marston, a former gunman and outlaw, who must now track down and eliminate his former gang mates. You're doing this at the behest of the government, traipsing through the dying remnants of what we once labelled the frontier. So you are, literally, responsible in part for the final demise of what was left of the Old West, rounding up its last surviving populace and clearing them away so that a new world, one of law and order and industry, can take its place.

It's a great twist on the genre for fans of the fiction of the West, and one that should give the game a load of fresh material a title bogged down in the cliché of the Western wouldn't had had available. For fans of good history, it's equally appealing, as these "book ends" of the field – the nooks, crannies and dead ends of the human story - can often be the most fascinating.

When Red Dead Redemption is released next month, try and bear all this in mind. Much like the game's marketing, which sells the game as a classic Western, the idea of the "Wild West" was a myth. The world you'll actually find yourself in while playing, out on the frontier at the dawn of the 20th century, is much more interesting.

The Real History Behind 2010's Big Western