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The Mild, Mild West

The New York Times
June 25, 2005




By John Tierney

Deadwood, S.D. — The actors from HBO’s "Deadwood" are coming to the scene of their crimes today, and they can expect a hero’s welcome when they pose for pictures on Main Street. Some people in the real Deadwood are offended by the series’ lurid language and scenes, but the ones who work in the tourist industry recognize a central truth about the Old West: violence sells.

The casino operators here stage shootings on the hour. At 1, 3 and 5p.m., you can sit inside Saloon No. 10 and watch Wild Bill Hickok gunned down at a card table. At 2, 4 and 6 p.m., there are gunfights in the street. The bodies aren’t being fed to hogs yet, as in the television series, perhaps because that would hurt the restaurant business.

Between the murders on "Deadwood" and the massacres on "Into the West," the Steven Spielberg epic that seems to be playing round the clock on TNT, the popular version of the frontier looks scarier than ever. There’s nothing like blood on high-def TV to illustrate Hobbes’s theory that life before government was nasty, brutish and short.

But if you talk to some historians and economists about Deadwood and the rest of the West, you get a much different picture from what’s on television – or what’s been taught in history classes. These revisionists’ history, unlike the one now fashionable in academia, is not a grim saga of settlers exploiting one another, annihilating natives and despoiling nature. Nor is it like the previously fashionable history depicting the settlers as heroic individualists who tamed the frontier by developing the great American virtue of self-reliance.


The Westerners in this history survived by learning to get along as Terry Anderson and Peter Hill document in their new book, "The Not So Wild, Wild West." These economists, both at the PERC think tank in Montana, argue that their Western ancestors were usually neither heroic enough to make it on their own nor strong enough to take it away from others.

Yes, some robbed and killed other settlers and Indians, but when they contemplated the basic economic question on the frontier – to raid or to trade? – they usually preferred trading to risking their own lives. They were entrepreneurs in what’s now called institutional economics, inventing social systems to deal with chaotic situations like the California gold rush that started in 1848, when there were no established laws to govern mining.

It was Hobbes’s prescription for "war of every man against every man," and he was echoed by newspaper predictions of a "theater of tragic events" in which "brute force will reign triumphant." But the miners peacefully worked out rules for delineating claims and resolving disputes so well that the system was adopted at later camps like Deadwood.

Roger McGrath, a historian who studied dozens of Western mining camps and towns, found a high rate of homicide in them mainly because it was socially acceptable for young, drunk single men to resolve points of honor by fighting to the death. But other violence wasn’t tolerated, he said.

"It was a rather polite and civil society enforced by armed men," Dr. McGrath said. "The rate of burglary and robbery was lower than in American cities today. Claim-jumping was rare. Rape was extraordinarily rare – you can argue it wasn’t being reported, but I’ve never seen evidence hinting at that."

Deadwood’s bad reputation was established by the famous killing of Wild Bill and enhanced with claims that the miners averaged a murder a day. But Deadwood historians like Watson Parker dismiss that statistic.

"Pure bilge," Dr. Parker told me. "There wasn’t an awful lot of violence in Deadwood except for the crooks and drunks killing each other. When everybody has a gun on his hip, they tend to avoid confrontation."

Another Deadwood historian, Bob Lee, said that the best account of the two peak years of the gold rush, 1876 and 1877. lists only 77 violent deaths in all the Black Hills, most outside Deadwood, and most attributed to Indians, who were understandably angry at the invasion of their lands by both miners and troops under George Armstrong Custer.

The Indians saw that Washington’s new interest in the Black Hills would be disastrous for them (a topic for a later column). Raiding was no longer costlier than trading for the settlers because they could now let troops do the raiding for them. Hobbes had expected war in the absence of government, but the West didn’t really get wild until the feds arrived.

Further Reading:

The Not So Wild, Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier by Terry L. Anderson and Peter J. Hill. Stanford University Press, 256 pp., May 2004.

Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes: Violence on the Frontier by Roger D. McGrath. University of California Press, 291 pp., April 1987.

Deadwood: The Golden Years by Watson Parker. University of Nebraska Press, 334 pp., 1981.

Gold, Gals, Guns Guts: A History of Deadwood, Lead and Spearfish 1874—-1976 edited by Bob Lee. South Dakota

State Historical Society Press, 259 pp., 2004.


Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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