Skip to content

About PERC

All Areas of Focus

All Research

Old West violence mostly myth

By Peter J. Hill

Once again as summer progresses, tourists are trying to recapture the romance of the West. Recalling the violent images fostered by Hollywood, they seek out ghost towns, ride horseback at dude ranches and take part in exciting re-enactments of conflicts among vigilantes, sheriffs, cowboys and Indians.

What they don’t realize is that the violence of the West is largely a myth.

Yes, there were isolated examples of violence, but the true story of the American West is one of cooperation, not conflict.

My colleague Terry Anderson and I have been studying the history of the West for nearly 30 years. We found that wherever “people on the ground” got together, they generally found ways to cooperate rather than fight.

Let’s begin with the mining camps in the Sierra Nevada of California. Several thousand camps sprang up after the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848.

In three years, more than 200,000 people had migrated to California, most of them trying to get rich quick. If there were ever a recipe for chaos, this would seem to be one: people of varied backgrounds and ethnicities, all armed and all seeking a valuable resource. But the mining camps quickly evolved rules for establishing mining claims and for judging disputes. The fact that each person carried a six-shooter meant that each had a relatively equal amount of power. That minimized violence.

Travel, both to the mining camps in California and to the new settlements in Oregon, was also remarkably peaceful. From 1845 to 1860, almost 300,000 people traveled overland via wagon trains to different places in the West.

John Phillip Reed, the pre-eminent historian of wagon train governments, says it was “a tale of sharing more than dividing, a time of accommodation rather than discord.” One reason: “Far removed from lawyers and courts, the concept of concurrent ownership proved to be one of legal strength not of legal failure, for promoting social peace not internal disharmony,” he says. “The overland trail was not a place of conflict.”

Many other groups of settlers and explorers peacefully interacted with one another, overcoming problems such as unknown weather conditions and unmapped territories. Several hundred fur trappers gathered every year at pre-designated rendezvous sites in the Rockies. Even though they brought thousands of dollars’ worth of furs, little stealing took place. The many contests involving drinking, fighting and shooting were primarily a form of entertainment, not signs of theft and deprivation.

Cattle ranchers in the northern Great Plains faced some unique problems. They were unable to establish large-scale ranches because the Homestead Acts severely limited the amount of acreage that could be claimed. So they grazed their livestock on the open range.

The “tragedy of the commons” can occur when there is no limit on entry. The cattlemen avoided this by holding a biannual roundup. Although they couldn’t exclude newcomers from the range, they could exclude them from the roundup. Without being able to participate, the newcomers would move elsewhere and the land would not be overgrazed.

Once barbed wire was available, it became possible to fence the range. Until then, fencing had been impractical except on small parcels because trees were too scarce to make traditional rail fences. The new fences used wire and just a limited number of fence posts, and ranchers were quick to adopt the new technology. Now, they could define and enforce their rights to land.

Cattlemen and farmers also adopted the new system of water rights that had evolved in the mining camps. It was called the doctrine of prior appropriation or “first in time, first in right.”

Basically, if a person diverted water for irrigation, he or she held a right to that amount of water in perpetuity. This meant that rights to a valuable resource, water, were clearly defined and defendable in a court of law. And it meant that as other users came along, such as municipalities, they could purchase the water rights if they valued them more than the farmers did.

There were, of course, a few exceptions to the story of harmonious relations. After the Civil War, the nation had a standing army that did not have much to do. Settlers were much more likely to call upon the cavalry to take land from the Indians than to engage in trade with the native tribes, as they had previously done.

There were fisticuffs in barroom brawls. When a large group of unattached males had time on their hands, violence could erupt.

However, even in a cattle town like Abilene, Kan., the murder rate was much lower than in most modern American cities. Larry Schweikart, a historian at the University of Dayton, estimates that there were probably fewer than a dozen bank robberies in the entire period from 1859 through 1900 in all the frontier West. Schweikart summarizes: “The record is shockingly clear: There are more bank robberies in modern-day Dayton, Ohio, in a year than there were in the entire Old West in a decade, perhaps in the entire frontier period!”

An interesting conclusion of our study of the West is that today’s New West is more conflict-ridden than the Old West. Agencies such as the Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Land Management now control nearly one-third of the land in the United States, most of it in the West.

The benefits from these lands are allocated through political and bureaucratic processes that stifle cooperation. The conflict over resource use far exceeds anything that one saw in the Old West of the 19th century.

If one wants to see the “Wild, Wild West” in action one should turn to congressional hearings, political demonstrations and arguments over recreational and consumptive vs. non-consumptive uses of forest lands.

The processes of decision-making can no longer evolve in response to local needs and changing demands as they did throughout the 19th century. Current policies reward acrimony and political hard-lining.

So don’t look for the Wild West in the tales of frontier justice or the stories of gun fights at the O.K. Corral. The Wild West is with us now.

Arizona Republic

Peter J. Hill is co-author with Terry L. Anderson of “The Not So Wild, Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier” (Stanford University Press, 2004).

Related Content