In its third episode of the current Season 3, AMC’s Hell on Wheels dramatically and graphically portrayed the inherently racist and genocidal framework that could be used by agents seeking to expand non-Indigenous nation-states in the 19th century. Thru the person of a US Calvary leader, both the show’s lead character Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) and the viewer are made witness to a viewpoint that justified all actions within the cause of expanding the United States westward into traditional Indigenous territory.
At the start of the August 17th episode, entitled “Range War”, Bohannon, who is now a chief engineer for the Union Pacific, learns that 300 cattle needed to feed his railway were rustled and the party tending them was killed save one man. Bohannon sees the incident as that of a Native American attack and he telegraphs for the local force of US Calvary to pursue and kill what Bohannon assumes to be a raiding party.
Bohannon and Elam Ferguson (Common) discover a dead pony as they track the cattle and see that the markings left on the horse are not any natural dye but paint that indicates the work of white men. A group of rustlers had masqueraded as Native Americans to divert blame away from themselves. Bohannon now realizes the critical mistake that has been made.
After dispatching with the rustlers, Bohannon and Ferguson head east to the town where deposed Union Pacific financier Durant (Colm Meaney) has set up shop; Bohannon suspects Durant is behind the attack as a way to cripple Bohannon’s leadership of the railroad. Bohannon also needs to send a telegraph to rescind his first request to the US Calvary unit led by Major Augustus Bendix (Leon Ingulsrud). Ferguson remarks that to do so is “like putting a mad dog back on the chain”.
Indeed it is and the second telegraph is unsuccessful in putting the Bendix “back on the chain”. Bendix rides into the town of Hell on Wheels in grisly fashion, reporting success to Bohannon. Bohannon, clearly shaken, tells Bendix that the cattle rustling was not done by Native Americans and that he had sent Bendix a second telegraph to halt any attack. Bendix replies that the second telegraph was simply ignored as the first – calling for a no quarter reprisal – conformed to the overarching US policy laid out by US Generals Grant and Sherman. The names of these Union generals have echoes for former Confederate soldier Bohannon. Bendix informs Bohannon that Grant and Sherman will come west to “exterminate the heathens”.
In that statement, augmented by a later monologue by Bendix on the physiological differences between Indigenous peoples and Euro-Americans of the northern United States that de-humanizes those not of the latter group, an official policy of genocide to secure land for the expanding US is mapped out. Bohannon’s creation of a westward railroad is not simply a construction project to some; it is a plank in the larger goal of global ascendancy for America. Bohannon’s realization of that comes home with the smiling statement from Bendix that “…and you thought that you were just building a railroad”. Bohannon’s response to a subsequent retaliatory attack on a railway survey party by Native Americans (potentially Arapahoe), his call for more troop support for his workers, indicates he may now know he is caught within a larger framework beyond his control.
US General Sherman had a most ironic full name – William Tecumseh Sherman. The previous Tecumseh was a Shawnee leader in the late 18th and early 19th century that opposed American expansion into what is now the US Midwest. Sherman used “scorched earth” tactics against the South in the Civil War and viewed any Indigenous people in the West who did not remain on the created reservations to be “hostile” and deserving of being “killed off”. Sherman also recognized the importance of the bison to Plains cultures and endorsed the wholesale slaughter of that food and spiritual source for the Plains people, suggesting that “all the sportsmen of England and America” be invited to the West to kill the bison off.
Actor Leon Ingulsrud truly creates a frightening and pathological US calvary officer. Such is no easy task and reminds this writer of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as the racist plantation owner in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012). Mount, in this episode, also very effectively transmits the regret and horror of the consequences that resulted from his initial request. Bohannon will seek to bring balance to those consequences at the end of the episode with an act of atonement and respect for the Indigenous victims that reveals a deep spirituality within his character.
The “Range War” episode is not an easy watch, there are very graphic images presented, but it is an important one. De-constructing any settler society mythology that simplistically glorifies westward expansion of the US or Canadian nation-states – glorification that sanitizes the consequences of that expansion upon Indigenous peoples and the environment – is necessary both for understanding North American history and moving toward proper relationships in the present. This episode of Hell on Wheels, written by Mark Richard and Reed Steiner and directed by Dennie Gordon, was one with the potential to move a viewer; true art does such.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)