I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.

In Search of the Golden West: The Tourist in Western America

Earl Pomeroy

  • Earl Pomeroy, In Search of the Golden West: The Tourist in Western America (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990). 

In Search of the Golden West: The Tourist in Western America, as the title suggests, is an analysis of the tourists role in forming both Western actuality and mythology. Earl Pomeroy contends that the tourist was as important as or more important than the short-term explorer or the long-term settler because, from almost the beginning of the opening of the West, the tourist was always present, despite not always being welcome. Relying heavily upon personal accounts of these tourists, Pomeroy sets out to illuminate what the West meant to tourists and their accommodators. Pomeroy begins in the 1880s, during the high tide of railroad travel, and ends in the mid 1900s, at which point the automobile had fully initiated its transformation of the country.

Pomeroy argues that the tourist was essential to the West, both culturally and economically. The tourist “himself is a crop, and he is more than that, he is a link to the rest of the world that their [Westerner’s] souls need as well as their pocketbooks,” Pomeroy writes. The tourist also represented the East and nourished the West’s need for connection to and approval from the older region of the country. Because he is an outsider, the tourist often fell victim to the same presumptions and stereotypical beliefs that still preoccupy facets of historiography. Because of this tendency, Pomeroy argues, the tourist provides a way for modern day observers to navigate between the West as it actually was and the west as it wished it was. Standardization of the tourist experience represented the ultimate path by which the “real” West, the West made of presumed wilderness and kitschy characters, could be enjoyed, while still being conquered by the spirit of orderliness.

Pomeroy’s account of Western visitors closely correlates with Anne Farrar Hyde’s account in An American Vision. Both authors demonstrate that tourism in the late nineteenth-century was strictly relegated to the upper classes, and that tourism accommodations and activities were heavily regulated by the railroads. Pomeroy effectively shows the sterile and carefully orchestrated nature of upper-class travel during this time period. Like Hyde, he reveals that these individuals, when traveling to the West to view its natural splendors, were hoping to rediscover European manicured, natural magnificence, and were often disappointed by the untamed and unfriendly temperament of Western wilderness. Their expectations and actions were often fraught with contradiction and fickleness, hoping simultaneously for both a genuine and predictable experience. Unlike Hyde, who ends her account at the point that automobiles enter the picture and ruin the pristine, elite scene, Pomeroy discusses the ways in which the personal family car revolutionized travel and democratized the West, making the destination less desirable to the privileged Eastern classes. The study of tourism also traces the patterns in wilderness thought, from something to be conquered to something to be admired and preserved, traced by Roderick Nash in Wildness and the American Mind. Pomeroy effectively shows that the Western myth was not just a legend placed upon the West by outsiders, but one perpetuated by the Westerners themselves in order to meet the demands of the outside world, in relation to which they were not independent, but rather codependent.

Feature Image:

  • Title: Yellowstone Canyon and Great Fall, Wyoming
  • Date Created/Published: [c1931 or c1932]
  • Call Number: U.S. GEOG FILE – Wyoming–National Parks & monuments–Yellowstone–Canyons [item] [P&P]
  • Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., 20540 USA


Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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