The official Census Bureau definition of the west includes more than half the United States: the entire region west of the Mississippi River (including Hawaii and Alaska). When Americans refer to “the west,” however, they usually refer to the desert and mountain areas of the western United States that were in the past associated with the “wild west” or the “old west.” This usually does not include the western states of California, Oregon and the state of Washington, which together constitute the “West Coast.”
Though the west is no longer strictly associated with cowboys and Indians, mining camps, railroads, saloons, and wagon trains, it cannot totally escape these references. Western states include Arizona and New Mexico in the southwest, Colorado, Utah and Nevada just to the north, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho further north still. The western parts of the plains states of the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and northern Texas have continuing association with the culture of the American west.
It is of course impossible to separate the true history of the region from the Hollywood movies that have so often turned to it for dramatic material. The period of the “wild” west stretches at most from about 1840 to 1890; the heyday was the period following the end of the Civil War in 1865 to the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, hardly longer than a single generation. During this period white settlers from the east came in increasing numbers. The United States army waged an aggressive and successful war against the Native American populations, totally destroying many, moving many others to reservations. Throughout the region today, particularly in the southwest, Native American communities survive and keep their cultures active, though many struggle with poverty. While outlaws did operate in the west during a relatively brief period and lawmen did chase them down, there were fewer of them than Hollywood would have us believe, and their stories were somewhat less romantic than is often suggested. The mines, towns and railroads of the west were usually built by Irish labor that came from the east, and large numbers of Chinese laborers who crossed the Pacific looking for a better life.
The west features great physical beauty. Arizona’s Grand Canyon and Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park are perhaps the best known tourist destinations, but the region has striking landscapes throughout its vast expanse. The west is not heavily urbanized (if you exclude Texas), though it does have a few large cities like Denver Colorado, Phoenix Arizona, Salt Lake City Utah, Albuquerque New Mexico and of course the glittering entertainment center of Las Vegas Nevada. This region has vast areas of national forests, parks and government reserves that are very sparsely inhabited. Mining is still a large industry, as is agriculture and animal husbandry in some areas. Tourism is also economically important; the region has travel facilities of all kinds, from simple campgrounds to dude ranches to luxury ski resorts like Aspen Colorado. If you are interested in the “old west” or the “wild west” it is not difficult to find a tourist or entertainment facility that will oblige you, with a gift shop to match.
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