How Violent was the West?

When people think about the 19th century American West they see a violent, lawless place filled with shoot outs, guns, and robberies. The myth I will be investigating is if the West really was a violent and uncontrolled place as depicted in pop culture. In my analysis, I would like to exclude large massacres and things related as influencing factors, and look more at day-to day-life in the West. To me these outliers would do little to prove or disprove the myth I am focusing on. To investigate this myth, I would like to look at areas of crime and violence, murder rates, types of crimes committed, types of law enforcement, and things related to rise in crime rates.

The west is popularly seen as vast open areas void of people, and in the beginning of western expansion this was true. But as the west moved into the 19th century a large population was starting to take hold. To begin to look at the lawlessness I believe the best place to begin would be the wagon trains that brought people out into the west. These trains brought people many of whom had never gone more than a few miles from where they grew up were now thrust into a great empty place void of the laws and rules they once knew. As would be expected this may lead to some people to taking advantage of this lack of laws, and running wild. Fearing this the leaders within the trains along with other members would create laws to govern their trip through the country. Just as traveling on the open ocean the plains are a vast ocean of grass, and the laws created reflects that “Like their fellow travelers on the ocean, the pioneers in their prairie schooners negotiated a “plains law” much like their counterparts’ “sea law.” The result of this negotiation in many cases was the adoption of a formal constitution” [1]. With these constitutions a tree of leaders was created who would enforce any laws or rules examples of these roles would be “Captain, Assistant Captain, Treasurer, Secretary, and an Officer of the Guard”[2]. Rules and different legislature would be voted on by the members of the train. If laws were broken there was a chance of being removed from the train and forced to carry on alone, which would most likely result in death, or being force to return home. Not all places in the west were so well run or organized certain places really took the term “Wild West” to heart. Some places in the west were quite rough and violent.  Mining towns and settlements were one example of this. This was in part to the type of person that chose to live in a place such as this. These people embodied the American spirt to search for wealth, but also usually handicapped in the terms of strong morality being driven by their search for gold. These miners’ were usually armed, and carried little moral guidance. This led to violence being a common occurrence, but these areas had little to know Influence from the United States government. These areas had to create their own courts system which often were biased and flawed.  In some cases a man no matter what the crime would never be convicted “No matter what may be the proof, if the criminal is well liked in the community “Not Guilty” is almost certain”[3]. It was also common for some cases to never go to court as the community generally relied on habits of thought instead of common laws. Under these habits things normally that would have drawn a large reaction and used of the police such as in the east were accepted in these areas. An example of this is “Calling a man a liar, a thief, or a son of a b—h is provocation sufficient to justify instant slaying.”[4]. Clearly people within these mining towns were held to a slightly different standard than other places in the west meaning that even with these limited rules these area were much more violent than other area such as a more established town or trading post out west. These other areas tried to be as peaceful as possible as violence would turn business away leaving nothing to support the town. These cattle towns were quick to establish small police forces to control travelers. People were mostly arrested for small misdemeanors such as disturbing the peace, fighting, or being drunk in public. There were little arrests or convictions for more serious crimes. For instance in the town of Wichita the recorded crime rates for the 12 month following March 1st 1874  were slightly high in misdemeanors but low in serious crimes “magistrates handed down a total of 439 convictions, all but 8 of them for misdemeanors.”[5]. For a year this town was relatively peaceful as almost all of these crimes were misdemeanors usually meaning small incidents such as carrying a weapon in town, or disturbing the peace. While this was a somewhat small town making this number of crimes seem high, but what must be taken into account is the number of people that passed through the town multiple times a year. This makes the number of crimes seem more reasonable. Based on all the evidence I have found with my research I would call the myth I have researched false. I came to this conclusion after finding that throughout the west different groups banded together to come up with ideas that resemble a form of government or at least provided some order. While some areas such as the mining town and camps had slight more relaxed rules the fact is that they still had rules of some kind to keep people in order. This order is what kept the west from being a place filled with mindless violence. And for this reason I can say that the myth that the west was a violent and uncontrolled place is false.

Christian Iberlin

[1] Hill, Terry, and P.J. Hill. “An American Experiment in Anarcho-Capitalism: The -Not So Wild, Wild West*.” Journal of Libertarian Studies 3, no. (1979) 21.

[2]   Ibid., 22

[3] Dimsdale, Thomas. “Vigilance Committees.” In The Vigilates of Montana, 12. Virginia City, Montana: D.W. Tuton & Book and Job Printers, 1866.

[4] Ibid., 12

[5] Milner, C., Butler, A., & Rich Lewis, D. (1997). Major Problems in the History of the American West (Second Edition ed., p. 209). Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Wichita Kansas 1874
Wichita Kansas 1874

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