In France, everyone loves a cowboy
My downstairs neighbor, Thierry, who also happens to be my friend, is on the lookout for a Colt, a very specific Colt: he's searching for "the Gun that won the West," a Colt .45-caliber revolver, the 4¾-single action model, with an ejector rod as long as the barrel. He has briefed me well on the subject, showing me photo after photo in a book he treasures - "Colt, An American Legend," by R. L. Wilson, a coffee table book that has been translated into French.
As I write, I have in mind a model Thierry particularly admires, a gun that belonged to Gen. George S. Patton. It's a handsome piece of work, with a finely engraved barrel and an ivory handle displaying a small medallion of a bucking colt, the sign that it's the genuine article. Thierry would settle for a wooden handle and he doesn't need the engraving, but the day he holds an 1873 Colt in his hands, he'll know he can die happy, having realized the dream of a lifetime. In fact, if he gets his hands on that Colt, he plans to carry it with him to the grave.
Thierry is a trained marksman and member of a gun club. He also served three years in the French Marines as a member of an artillery regiment. In the early 1980s, he saw action in Chad during a civil war in that landlocked African country and, for his service, received a medal for bravery. While in the Marines, he trained on 105-mm howitzers abandoned by the Americans during the 1944 allied invasion of Normandy. In other words, he has experience with firearms and takes them seriously.
Sometimes Thierry invites me down for tea. During one of those visits, he showed me his .22-caliber rifle and the medal he won using it in a 50 meter prone marksmanship competition. That was also the first time he showed me his book about Colts. I'll admit that until that time, I'd never given much thought to firearms, and when I did, I thought about them as lethal weapons, associated with atrocities such as Columbine or Virginia Tech.
Listening to Thierry, looking at the photos, I recognized the Colt for what it is, a work of very fine craftsmanship and an artifact that played an important role in American history. For Thierry and many Frenchmen, it is also the ultimate symbol of the American West. Raised on westerns he watched on French TV, Thierry confided to me how much he regrets not having lived in the days of "How the West was won." He would have loved to cross those wide-open spaces on horseback, his Colt pistol in its tooled leather holster, his Colt rifle attached to the saddle of his mustang. He and millions of other Frenchmen feel that way.
That's why they flock to Disneyland Paris, where, months in advance, they reserve their seats for "Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show," with Mickey and his friends. There, after drinks at Doc Cody's Saloon, visitors to the park settle down for a real Texan meal of spareribs and baked potatoes served up in a cast-iron frying pan.
And once they've put on their souvenir cowboy hats, the show can begin: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, the Rough Riders, Sitting Bull with Mickey, Minnie and Goofy (called "Dingo" in French) thrown in for the Disney touch. For nearly two hours, they shoot, ride, hunt and dance around the campfire, recreating the Far West for an audience of Europeans hungry for the wilderness the way Americans might feel hungry for medieval castles or ancient Roman ruins.
Just a week ago, I had the opportunity to observe that hunger myself, standing in a long line at Quai Branly Museum, the museum of indigenous cultures and civilizations, to see an exhibit devoted to the Indians of the Great Plains. The show was packed and entire families crowded around displays of feathered war bonnets, beaded baby carriers, hide shirts and jackets, tomahawks and peace pipes.
There was even an extravagantly beaded hide jacket worn by Buffalo Bill himself, an iconic name to the French, the man who brought the American frontier home to them. In 1889, he was in Paris with his Wild West Show for the inauguration of the Eiffel Tower and the 100th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. He returned again in 1905 for a two-month run in Paris, followed by a six-month tour of the rest of France. Back again in 1906, France was the first stop on his final European tour that took him all the way to Ukraine.
Yet, Buffalo Bill was not the first American to tantalize Europeans with the call of the Far West. The very first American to bring his "Indian Gallery" to Europe was a man who hailed, not from the Black Hills of South Dakota, but from the black hills of anthracite. Born in 1796 in Wilkes-Barre and raised on a farm in the Wyoming Valley, George Catlin grew up to become one of America's greatest observers and recorders of Native American life. A true child of the anthracite region of northeastern Pennsylvania, he is also responsible for one of the most fascinating Paris-Pennsylvania connections ever made.
At a time when his accomplishments as a painter, ethnographer and naturalist went unrecognized in the United States, Catlin was being celebrated throughout Europe and especially in France. In 1845, during a triumphant tour of his Indian Gallery, he was received by King Louis Philippe, who commissioned 14 paintings of Indian life for the historical museum of Versailles. The painter Delacroix visited the gallery to make sketches and the French poets Baudelaire and Rimbaud were inspired by his work.
Back home, the U.S. Congress refused to invest in Catlin's paintings or expeditions because the government considered him hostile to its Indian policy and too sympathetic to his Indian subjects and their lives. Not all Americans, however, felt that way. In 1852, when Catlin set off to South America to paint, his expedition received the support of none other than Sam Colt himself.
Which brings me full circle to the point where this article began: Thierry and his Colt. If any readers have any ideas, suggestions or 1873 Colts to sell, I'll put you in touch with my downstairs neighbor. As for George Catlin, I'll get back to him next month. This Pennsylvanian who joined East and West deserves an article all his own.
(Honicker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)