How the Wild West Was Won with Ray Mears was a three part series that looked at how the geography of North America affected the westward movement of the USA. Mears was concentrating on the 19th Century, which is when most of the westward expansion took place. Each episode looked at a different aspect of the landscape. We started with mountains, both the eastern Appalachians and the two great western ranges (the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada). All of these provided resources for the USA during the 19th Century – including wood from the Appalachians, fur from the Rockies and gold from the Sierra Nevada. But in the west this terrain was also a death trap – to get to the west as a settler you could only cross the mountains when the weather was good enough for the passes to be open. One of the places he visited was where the Donner Party were forced to spend the winter when they were caught by bad weather in the mountains on the way to California.
The second episode was about the Great Plains – which used to be the home of the buffalo before the settlers came and killed them all. That episode looked both at how difficult it was for the people who settled in the plains, and at how difficult it was to cross as you made your way west in your wagon. This is also the landscape of the cowboy – driving vast herds of cattle for days across the plains to be sold. And the third episode was about the deserts in the south west of the USA. Even today 2000 people a year die trying to cross the Sonoran desert in Arizona (mostly trying to cross from Mexico into the USA), these are not forgiving regions. Some of the things Mears talked about in this programme were the difficulties the army faced trying to set up outposts in the south west USA, and also the lawless towns that grew up during the gold rush.
As well as talking about the difficulties and opportunities that the new settlers faced on the westward journey Mears also spent quite a lot of each episode talking to the Native American people whose ancestors had lived in those landscapes for generations before the Europeans turned up. He talked to them about the various traditions and skills they had which were suited to whichever environment they lived in. And he also made sure to cover the various atrocities committed during the westward push of the USA including the displacement by force of the native peoples.
It was an interesting series which focused on the two things that always strike me when watching programmes about the history of the USA – how much bigger the landscape is than what we have in Britain and how recent all the history is!
Other TV watched over the last two weeks:
Voyager: To the Final Frontier – one off programme about the Voyager missions, the space probes that were launched in the 1970s and flew past the outer planets of the solar system before heading out into deep space. Interesting both for the data they sent back of the planets, and also just for the fact that 1970s tech was capable of building and launching them.