The American West Was Not a Land of Rugged Individualism by Jeff Jacobsen

covered wagons

“The price for independence is often isolation and solitude.”
~ Steve Schmidt

The book Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey, by Lillian Schlissel is an eye-opening compilation of diaries and recollections from many women who made the rough trek west in the 1800s. These settlers generally went on the westward trail in convoys of wagons: “Whenever possible, families moved west within a kinship network... Single men attached themselves to family groups, engaging to serve as extra hands rather than outfitting a wagon alone.” [Schlissel, p. 31]

But at least one man chose to go it alone: “Soon after we stopped to night a man came along with a wheel barrow going to California he is a dutchman. He wheels his provisions and clothing all day and then stops where night overtakes him sleeps on the ground in the open air He eats raw meat and bread for his supper. I think that he will get tired wheeling his way through the world by the time he gets to California.” [Schlissel, p. 189] There is no word on whether this man made it to his destination or not.

The Dutchman would be an example of “rugged individualism.” Rugged individualism is the philosophy that the ideal in society is individuals deciding their own course in life and fulfilling it with their own initiative and resources. Herbert Hoover invented the phrase, arguing in his 1928 speech that individual initiative should not be stifled by government interference:

“When the war closed, the most vital of issues both in our own country and around the world was whether government should continue their wartime ownership and operation of many [instruments] of production and distribution. We were challenged with a... choice between the American system of rugged individualism and a European philosophy of diametrically opposed doctrines - doctrines of paternalism and state socialism.”  [Hoover, 1928]

Rugged individualism, this hailed American trait, required no support from the government, according to Hoover. His secretary of Interior, Raymond Lyman Wilbur, agreed; “It is common talk that every individual is entitled to economic security. The only animals and birds I know that have economic security are those that have been domesticated--and the economic security they have is controlled by the barbed-wire fence, the butcher's knife and the desire of others. They are milked, skinned, egged or eaten up by their protectors.” [Wikipedia, "Rugged Individualism"]

This American Ideal as a citizen working things out on his or her own, without need nor want of outside interference or assistance, is suffused in our culture. It is also rephrased as “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” - an impossibility. These notions come mainly from the mis-remembered history of the Wild West, as Easterners and migrants traveled west from the already established American cities and farms to barely-known lands, opened up for private ownership. Western movies with John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and others push this notion, showing the strong self-sufficient western hero riding in to difficult situations, saving the day for the ordinary citizens.  In the movie "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" John Wayne's character tells a greenhorn eastern lawyer "I know those law books mean a lot to you, but not out here. Out here a man settles his own problems."

Westward migration gradually moved the line between frontier and settled land throughout US history. As Frederick Jackson Turner wrote in 1893, this was “a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area. American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier.” [Turner, 1931]

Those who headed west to find their fortune, build a life for their family, or many other reasons, did so not just from their own sweat, resources, and drive. Many people who actually tried it alone died in the attempt. Those who dared head west to an unknown future were not rugged individualists. They were families, neighbors, kindred from the same European country, and organized expeditions. Also, “Even when it appears on first reading of a diary that a family was traveling alone, closer attention shows that a family member had either preceded the emigrants or had promised to follow them.” [Schlissel, p. 153]

In a typical case, Catherine Haun wrote of her journey: “After a sufficient number of wagons and people were collected at this rendezvous we proceeded to draw up and agree upon a code of general regulations for train government and mutual protection – a necessary precaution when so many were to travel together. Each family was to be independent yet a part of the grand unit and every man was expected to do his individual share of general work and picket duty.” [Schlissel, p. 72]  This seems to have been a typical organization for traveling on the trail, although the particular groupings were flexible, and it could be difficult enforcing the rules.

Yes, there were lone drifters in the west, running from their past, looking to make their fortune, or just perhaps introverts who preferred being alone. An example of this is from W. A. Ferris, a fur trapper who wrote of his experiences in the wild west. His fur trapping was with groups of fellow employees from various companies, but he did have some dealings with “Free Men” who did indeed mostly live and work alone:

From this point, several persons were despatched in different directions in quest of a party of hunters and trappers, called Free Men, from the circumstances of their not being connected with either of the rival Fur Companies, but holding themselves at liberty to trade with one or all. They rove through this savage and desolate region free as the mountain air, leading a venturous and dangerous life, governed by no laws save their own wild impulses, and bounding their desires and wishes to what their own good rifles and traps may serve them to procure. Strange, that people can find so strong and fascinating a charm in this rude nomadic, and hazardous mode of life, as to estrange themselves from home, country, friends, and all the comforts, elegances, and privileges of civilization; but so it is, the toil, the danger, the loneliness, the deprivation of this condition of being, fraught with all its disadvantages, and replete with peril, is, they think, more than compensated by the lawless freedom, and the stirring excitement, incident to their situation and pursuits.  [Ferris, chapter 8]

These “Free Men” contributed to society mainly by selling furs. Their lives were in the wild, in harmony with nature, not people. Their rugged individualism was a life as a rugged individual, affecting the society and culture that was building in the new Wild West not one whit. Rugged individualism did not build the character of the Wild West, it avoided it.


Tens of thousands of Americans moved west on the wagon trails around the 1840s - 1860s. This was an extremely difficult endeavor that would take up to 8 months of travel in unfamiliar territory just to arrive at your destination. There were countless difficulties along the way that must be dealt with or the travelers would most likely perish. They had to constantly scout for drinkable water and edible food. They needed to care for their oxen or horses. Diseases, such as cholera, were deadly, and many who survived disease did so only because of the aid of their fellow travelers. Equipment such as wagon wheels could break. They could lose their way. Storms could flood rivers so they were impossible to cross, or turn a section of trail into mud and gumbo. Arguments could cause rifts within groups. And Indians were always in their minds, whether they were an actual threat or not. The troubles seemed endless.

But along their travels, those in groups helped each other, having particular duties such as cooking, or tending to the animals. The more people there were (up to a point), the better all the work could be done and the safer everyone was. Helen Carpenter wrote that for a time her group was only “four men, four women, three young boys, and three children, one my mothers little six month old baby. In no way could we turn for assistance.” “It is now 18 days since have seen a train [i.e. other immigrants].” Finally when they came upon another party: “None... can ever know the inexpressible joy and relief... on seeing old dust begrimed wagons.” [Schlissel, p. 127]


When the settlers arrived at their alotted land, they were often miles from their nearest neighbor. The local town, if there was one, might be a days' ride away. Because of this, settlers indeed had to work out sources of food and water, and make their own shelter. Individualism as a situational requirement was certainly prevalent and one's abilities in this regard might be the difference between life and death. But reading through the stories and recollections of the time show that even when people were thinly spread and sparsely equipped, they were still reliant on each other and thought of help as both a given and a requirement.

Edith Eudora Kohl and her sister settled in the wide open plains of South Dakota. They were very unprepared for their new life, but managed to survive and eventually move on from their spartan existence in a tiny shack on the prairie. She recalled that “From the beginning cooperation had been one of the strongest elements in western life. When no foundation for a civilized life has been laid, when every man must start at the beginning in sheltering himself with such basic necessities as food and shelter, when water holes are few and far between and water to sustain life must be carried many miles, men have to depend on each other. Only together could the western settlers have stood at all; alone they would have perished.” [Kohl, p. 72-3]

Mont Hawthorne came out west in the 1870s, spending some time in Carbon, Wyoming as a coal miner in the 1880s. “Living in Carbon,” he recalled, “was like living on an island... Us folks, mining that coal, didn't have no way to turn, excepting towards each other... if we hadn't put down roots and worked together, we wouldn't of had no more chance than a bunch of tumbleweeds, blowed-along ahead of the wind.” [McKeown, p. 263]

I am not trying to claim that individual initiative and effort was lacking in the wild west. Far from it. I am instead insisting that “rugged individualism” detracts and distorts the actual wild west experience. Settlers found themselves in difficult terrain. Very few had all the training and resources required to survive on their own, where life and death regularly hung in the balance. The Free Men and the wheelbarrow man would most likely at some time come upon a situation, a disease, or an accident that would render them helpless. They may miraculously survive long enough to find help, such as Hugh Glass's odyssey after a bear attack. [] But western settlers realized the value of engaging with their fellow travelers, their neighbors, and their kin. They formed communities. They helped each other. They decided they were all in this together. They built rails and roads to further ties outside their own communities. They were social beings.

Even introverts were included in society. In Deadwood, South Dakota, surely symbolic of the Wild West, churches made room for those who were the meek. A Methodist minister “inaugurated the setting aside of the back pews for those outside his own or any other pastor's flock.” People would slip into those pews and just as silently slip away. The church had to set aside more back pews for this anonymous group. The minister explained “They don't want to talk to people and have people talking to them. They'll quit coming if we don't let them alone. They come for the service and the sermon.” [Bennett, p. 183] Calamity Jane, surely a known character of the wild west, was mostly known in her day for her drinking, swearing, and helping others. When smallpox came through Deadwood, a small cabin was set aside for those who became ill. Doctor Babcock went to visit the 6 or so isolated there. “He said they were all very sick and he was going back after supper. No one offered to go with him, but when he went back he found Calamity Jane there. 'What are you doing here?' he asked. 'Somebody's got to take care of 'em,' she replied. 'They can't even get 'emselves a drink of water when they want it. You tell me what to do, Doc, and I'll stay right here and do it.' 'You'll probably get the small pox,' he warned her... 'Won't they have a better chance if I stay and do what you tell me?'” The doctor gave her instructions and she stayed, no doubt saving several lives and somehow remaining safe herself. [Bennett, p. 223-4]

From their initial decision to go west, to making a home in their new property, settlers were working together, helping each other whenever possible. So when we look back on the Wild West and see how tough and determined each person was, let's also remember that people looked after each other, without even questioning. The Wild West had a heart, and that's why those people succeeded.


Estelline Bennett, OLD DEADWOOD DAYS, (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1982, original 1928)

W.A. Ferris, LIFE IN THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS: A Diary of Wanderings on the sources of the Rivers Missouri, Columbia, and Colorado from February, 1830, to November, 1835, found at

Herbert Hoover, "Rugged Individualism" campaign speech, 1928, found at

Edith Eudora Kohl, LAND OF THE BURNT THIGH, (St. Paul, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1986, first published in 1938)

Lillian, Schlissel, WOMEN'S DIARIES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY, (New York: Schocken Books, 1982)

Martha Ferguson McKeown, THEM WAS THE DAYS: AN AMERICAN SAGA OF THE 70s, (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1961)

Frederick Jackson Turner, “Significance of the Frontier in American History” speech, 1893, found at

Wikipedia article, "Rugged Individualism", obtained 10/20/23, found at


Charles Beard wrote a thorough thrashing of rugged individualism in 1931, during the Great Depression, when businessmen wanted government out of their way, and the average citizen needed the government's help. The fight between Hoover's views and Roosevelt's was quite intense.

“Al Capone, with his private enterprise of racketeering, is a supreme individualist: he wants no Government interference with his business, not even the collection of income taxes: if he is 'let alone' he will take care of himself and give some money to soup kitchens besides.”

To quote from the Hastings Center, a research center on ethics; “The reality for all of us is that none survive or flourish without the help of others. Whether it is within a family, peer group, school, religious institution, or wider community, all of us have been helped by others. Someone somewhere encouraged us, gave us a break or an opportunity, however small. Some have experienced random acts of kindness from strangers. The myth of rugged individualism, which often means 'pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps,' is outdated, was never completely accurate, and is harming us.”

Scott Galloway, a professor at NYU, wrote that “Myths have their place, and America’s worship of individual innovators inspires real achievement... the myth becomes a liability when society becomes so enamored with the idea of individual success that it forgets, and even attacks, the very institutions that enable it.”