How Wild was the Wild West?

The “Wild West” is an expression used to refer to life in the western United States during the late 1800s. For decades, films and books have depicted the Wild West as a place of gunfights, outlaws, and mass disorder. But recent scholarship shows otherwise. It turns out that the Wild West may not have been so wild after all.

A Family of Homesteaders in the Wild West

“The Covered Wagon of the Great Western Migration. 1886 in Loup Valley, Nebr.”: A Family of Homesteaders in the Wild West
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Was the Wild West a Powder Keg waiting to Explode?

The Wild West has long been a staple of American culture. Immortalized in dime novels and Hollywood movies, it has long been depicted as lawless, violent, and chaotic. And a cursory look at trends taking place in the American west during the 1800s would seem to confirm that image.

The Wild West was populated with strangers from various backgrounds, countries, and nationalities who wanted to get their hands on gold. For the most part, they didn’t intend to stay in the area – they wanted to get rich and get back home. Most individuals carried guns. And to top things off, there wasn’t much in the way of official government to keep the peace. At first glance, the Wild West appears to be a power keg filled with a toxic mixture of greed, racism, and unregulated firearms. To top it off, the area exhibited little in the way of long-term community or government law enforcement.

How Wild was the Wild West?

One might expect such a situation to lead to violence and daily gunfights. But a growing body of research suggests the opposite – that the Wild West may have actually been quite peaceful and prosperous. Let’s take a look at some of the strange truths we now know about the Wild West.

  • Bank robberies were rare: According to historian Larry Schweikart, bank robberies were almost non-existent in the Wild West. From 1859-1900, there were only about a dozen or so robberies. In fact, such crimes only became a problem during the 1920s when automobiles allowed for easy escapes and physical security became less important to a bank’s success due to the Federal Reserve assuming responsibility for the system.
  • Private agencies provided law and order: According to Terry Anderson and P.J. Hill’s book, An American Experiment in Anarcho-Capitalism: The Not So Wild, Wild West, “private agencies provided the necessary basis for an orderly society in which property was protected and conflicts were resolved.” Such agencies included land clubs, cattlemen’s associations, mining camps, and wagon trains.
  • Homicides were also relatively rare: In his book Cattle Towns, Robert Dykstra examined five major cattle towns between 1870 and 1885. He found that only forty-five murders took place over the fifteen years.

All this is not to say that hatred, violence, and murder didn’t exist during the Wild West but merely to say that the amounts of it that occurred were far less than has been portrayed in the popular media.

Why was the Wild West relatively Tame?

This can be partly credited to the establishment of private organizations. According to historian Tom Woods, private land clubs created their own laws to “define and protect property rights in land.” Wagon trains that transported people to the west had their own constitutions and judicial systems. Mining camps formed contracts to restrain their own behavior and developed their own legal systems. Those who didn’t approve were free to leave and mine elsewhere. Cattlemen’s associations also wrote constitutions and “hired private ‘protection agencies’ to deter cattle rustling.”

The result was peace…a peace that only began to deteriorate once formal government was introduced into the region…a peace that astounded observers of the time:

“Appeals were taken from one to the other, papers certified up or down and over, and recognized, criminals delivered and judgments accepted from one court by another, with a happy informality which it is pleasant to read of. And here we are confronted by an awkward fact: there was undoubtedly much less crime in the two years this arrangement lasted than in the two which followed the territorial organization and regular government.” ~ J.H. Beadle, Western Wilds (1860)

What about Violence toward the Plains Indians?

Now of course, this just covers the settlers themselves. Treatment of the Plains Indians was marked with violence right? Well, according to Woods, the first half of the 19th century was notable for relatively peaceful trading between the Indians and the settlers. It wasn’t until the second half of the century that violence became the norm. And much of that violence “sprang from…U.S. government policies” rather than civil society. More specifically, at the end of the Civil War, “white settlers and railroad corporations were able to socialize the costs of stealing Indian lands by using violence supplied by the U.S. Army.” In other words, rather than paying for land, politicians beginning with Abraham Lincoln were determined to seize it on behalf of the Union Pacific Railroad. In the process, they enriched themselves as well as numerous prominent American families.

Unfortunately, that seizure came at a high cost…the vicious and deliberate extermination of the Plains Indians by forces led by former Civil War generals. General William Sherman sometimes referred to the affair as “the final solution of the Indian problem.” As many as 45,000 Indians, including women and children, died between 1862-1890 as a result of this government-initiated campaign.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

So, it would appear that civil society in the Wild West was actually rather tame. The “wild” was supplied by the U.S. government’s so-called Indian Wars, which served to permanently alter the settlers’ once-friendly trading relationships with the Plains Indians.

But why does popular culture continue to portray the typical Wild West city as being full of death and violence? It turns out that the problem begins at the academic level.

“The ‘frontier-was-violent’ authors are not, for the most part, attempting to prove that the frontier was violent. Rather, they assume that it was violent and then proffer explanations for that alleged violence.” ~ Roger McGrath, Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes: Violence on the Frontier

Anarcho-capitalists often use the Wild West as an example of how individuals can foster a peaceful existence in the absence of government. Essentially, settlers created their own institutions in order to deal with the very specific problems they faced. Violence was relatively minimal in civil society. But the arrival of formal government brought with it a culture of violence as well as a wave of violent genocide that haunts us to this day.

 

Guerrilla Explorer’s Wild West Coverage

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6 Responses to How Wild was the Wild West?

  1. Interesting post!
    Yes, the wildness of the Wild West has been exaggerated. I’ve been reading about Doc Holliday. It turns out he wasn’t an expert gunfighter, only a pretty good one. He knew he was mortally ill, though, and that gave him a boldness most men lacked.
    By the way, would you like to do a guest post on Civil War Horror? If you have any Wild West, Civil War, or Missouri-related bits you’d like to share, I’d love to have them, especially if they’re related to your new novel!
    I couldn’t find your email, which is why I’m contacting you via the comments section. Email me at seansontheweb (at) yahoo (dot) com

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