Athena Learning has come up with another winner, “The Wild West,” subtitled “A Wild Ride into America’s Historic Frontier.” Actually, both titles are a bit misleading. With British wild-west enthusiast Ray Mears as author and guide, the eight episodes in this 2-DVD set show how the geography of this country intermeshed with the lives of those who lived in the different sections of the continent and with the pioneers who traversed it to find better lives, to get rich quick, or to prey on the others.
Through a series of interviews and panoramic shots of the terrain, we see in some detail how people coped with the environment and weather to survive. The names of the chapters speak for themselves: “The First Settlers” [in the Appalachians], “Furs and the Mountain Men” [the Rockies], “The Wagon Trains,” “Homesteaders and Cowboys,” “Plains Indians and the Buffalo,” “Gold and the Boomtowns,” “Bandits and Lawlessness,” and “The Desert Indians.”
The word “cowboys,” by the way, referred to the troublemakers and the outlaws, while the decent cattlemen were called “ranchers.”
The funniest anecdote is that of the man who found the first gold nuggets at Sutter’s Mill and told a companion not to mention it to anyone! The saddest story is in the last chapter in which our treatment of the Navajo tribe is told in bitter detail.The story of the Apaches fighting to keep their way of life is told briefly and in a way to make us root for Geronimo, who fought until his tribe was down to 34 souls and finally had to surrender. We were not very good at keeping treaties.
Equally shameful is the railroads’ advertising that passengers could amuse themselves on the great plains by shooting buffalo from the cars. No wonder the Native Americans thought the white man was crazy. The former killed for need, the latter for profit or just plain fun.
In between all this are the demonstrations by descendants of those who went or were there before of how they used the environment to eke out an existence, even to the extent of using the surrounding mud to build their homes. All in all, a fascinating look at man’s relationship to nature and how it built a nation.
Each chapter is 25 minutes long and there are subtitles. As always, a most informative booklet is provided.