Recognizable early sources of the popular western can be located in persistent manifestations of the Pocahontas legend, in Indian captivity narratives such as A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (1824), and in travel memoirs such as Francis Parkman's (1823–1893) The Oregon Trail (1849). Fiction, especially James Fenimore Cooper's (1789–1851) five Leather stocking novels (1823–1841) and Bret Harte's (1836–1902) frontier tales from the late 1860s also established influential patterns for later representations of the western hero, modeled after Cooper's semisavage Natty Bumppo, and the emerging frontier community. By the last decades of the nineteenth century the conquest of the West was central to the formation of an American national identity articulated in Theodore Roosevelt's (1858–1919) six-volume The Winning of the West (1889–1896), the imperialist notion of Manifest Destiny (1885) popularized by John Fiske (1842–1901), and the influential essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" (1893) by Frederick Jackson Turner (1861–1932), which argued for the ongoing role of the vanishing physical frontier as a symbolic space crucial to democratic American individualism.

However, the first regular commercial packaging of the West and its adventures for mass audiences began as the actual "Wild West" was being tamed. Dime novels (beginning around 1860), frontier melodramas (at their height in the 1870s and 1880s), and Wild West shows (from 1883 onwards) all represented the West for a growing public eager to experience the exciting remnants of the living history that was fading away. No single figure embodies this transformation of the West into the western as vividly as William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody (1846–1917), an authentic western figure who translated his life and legend into popular media through his appearances in dime novels, on stage, in his own Wild West show (beginning in 1883), and eventually in a number of early films. Cinema arrived just as the frontier closed, and quickly played a major role in the developing representation of that recent past as a romantic adventure. In Chicago in 1893, Turner delivered his lecture on the frontier only a few miles away from Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, and just a few months before Edison's moving-picture camera recorded members of Cody's company, including Native Americans and the female sharpshooter Annie Oakley (b. 1935). Turner's view that the frontier was now more symbolic than geographical has been forever after linked to the emergence of the western as one of cinema's most popular genres.

By the early twentieth century, western novels such as Owen Wister's (1860–1938) The Virginian (1902) and the pulp magazines replacing the dime novel satisfied a growing appetite for western stories and images that early cinema was also quick to exploit. Publishing as B. M. Bower, the writer Bertha Muzzy Sinclair (1871–1940) gained popularity beginning with Chip of the Flying U (1904), the first in a series of humorous ranch tales frequently adapted to film. By the time that the prolific Zane Grey (1872–1939) published his bestselling Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) and his friend Frederic Remington (1861–1909) began to sketch and paint western scenes, the iconography, action-driven plots, and basic cast of characters for the film western were well in place, offering a formula that consumers were willing to enjoy with only minor variations.

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