Philipp Meyer's great new novel The Son confronts myths of the American West.
Here, he shoots down five of the biggest lies you were told about 'cowboys and Indians' .
MYTH #1 Cowboys fought Indians
While this happened, it was rare. By 1865, when the big cattle drives began, the Plains Indians had already been decimated. Also, the big cattle trails intentionally cut a wide swath around hostile Native AmericansÕ territories. So, who fought the Native Americans? Whoever lived on the frontier. The settlers were poor, a little desperate, and knowingly making their home on land occupied by Native Americans for about 15,000 years.
MYTH #2 The cowboy was the great rugged individualist of his time
The rugged individualists of the day were the explorers, trappers and mountain men who walked and rode into areas no European had ever seen, living on and navigating land for which there were no maps. Picture a very smart but very smelly man dressed in animal skins, carrying a Bowie knife and a flintlock rifle. The cowboy, by comparison, was a civilised creature Ñ closer to a truck driver Ñ escorting a high value cargo across a known, well-mapped route.
MYTH #3 The cowboy played a major role in American history
The long cattle drives, which employed the vast number of cowboys, were from about 1866Ð86. The main job of a cowboy was to drive cattle to the closest railroad hub. By the mid-1880s, extensive railroad networks put an end to the long cattle drives, which were a temporary business opportunity. The cowboy played only the briefest of roles in American history, before the farmers and settlers came in.
MYTH #4 Cowboys died in gunfights
More cowboys were killed by falls and lightning than by bullets. No matter what the weather, the cowboy had to be out riding circles around cattle to hold the herd in place. Men often rode off cliffs in the dark or, if thrown off a horse, could be trampled by cattle. A cowboy carried a gun or two, but if he ever drew it on a person, it was probably on a farmer whoÕd erected a fence across a cattle trail.
MYTH #5 A cowboy's life was exciting
In fact, it was generally slow, boring, dusty work. The cowboy slept in rain, sleet and snow under a single wool blanket. He was always either too hot or too cold, riding in a cloud of dust kicked up thousands of cattle (unlike in the movies, cattle herds were driven at the slowest of walks to stop them losing weight and reducing their sale price). With only a few hours sleep a night, the cowboy generally arrived at his destination exhausted, filthy and saddlesore.
The Son by Philipp Meyer, is out 18 July, Simon & Schuster