Category: Code of the West

America Needs Westerns by Mike Torreano

My western mystery, The Reckoning, was recently released by The Wild Rose Press. It’s set in 1868 and follows Ike McAlister, a Union soldier who returns from the Civil War to his hometown of Lawrence, Kansas to find that his parents have been killed by Quantrill’s raiders. He sets out on a single-minded hunt to find the murderers; a search that takes him to the high plains of Colorado. My sequel, The Renewal, set in South Park, Colorado, 1872, was released in March 2108, also by The Wild Rose Press.

Let’s talk westerns for a minute. We’ve all heard that the traditional American western is dead—which prompts the question, ‘If that’s so, why write westerns?’ Well, it’s true the golden age of westerns was some time back. Since then, there’s been a bit of a dry spell until recently when several big box office westerns based on great new novels have been released.

Are they’re coming back? It sure seems like it. Why would they be mounting a return? Probably because westerns and the Old West embody timeless values—a place and time where right triumphs over wrong. Not always, certainly, but in our stories it does. The American West in the nineteenth century was a black and white society with clear-cut rules—there were things you were supposed to do as well as things you weren’t. And if you did wrong, there were consequences, oftentimes immediate.

Code of the West

There was a code of the West, even observed among the bad guys. Simple rules for simpler times. Unwritten, but adhered to nonetheless. The Code drew its strength from the underlying character of westerners, both men and women alike. Life back then was hard, but it was also simple. Things that needed to get done got done. Whining wasn’t tolerated. Complainers were ignored. You weren’t a victim. You played the hand you were dealt.

If you’re getting the idea I like that kind of culture, you’re right.

The world we live in today sometimes baffles me. Everything seems to be different shades of gray. Honor and fidelity seem to be out of fashion. People are entitled. The media are advocates, not observers.

While the Code of the West was unwritten and existed in various forms, there were certain common elements everyone—from the hard-working sodbuster, to the law-abiding citizen, to the hardened criminal—typically abided by. Granted, there were exceptions, but generally that held true.

In 2004, Jim Owens synthesized the Code into ten guiding principles in his book, Cowboy Ethics- What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West.

  1. Live each day with courage.
  2. Take pride in your work.
  3. Always finish what you start.
  4. Do what has to be done.
  5. Be tough, but fair.
  6. Keep your promises.
  7. Ride for the brand.
  8. Talk less and say more.
  9. Some things aren’t for sale.
  10. Know where to draw the line.

Let’s look at three of these.

How about number seven—Ride for the Brand. It means be loyal to the people in your life—from family and friends, to those you work for. Support the people you’re involved with.

Take a look at number four—Do what has to be done. Life is oftentimes messy. Our days are filled with ups and downs, and we make choices all the time. This is about choosing to get done what has to be done, then getting on with life.

Next, there’s number nine—Some things aren’t for sale. The Code gave westerners a guide to live by that they broke at their own peril. Are there still things today that aren’t for sale? What are they for you? They might be different for each of us, but at the end of the day I’d wager we all still have values that are non-negotiable. After all, values don’t really change—only times, circumstances, and people do.

The good news is the values the Code embodied haven’t vanished from today’s America, but more often than not it seems they have been marginalized. Popular culture tends to look down on old-time values, or should I say the timeless values of nineteenth century America. We’re an instant gratification society that focuses on the here and now, and disregards the lessons of the past. Imagine a world where you sat with your family for dinner at night, even going so far as to talk with each other. Imagine a world where a man’s word, and a woman’s, was their bond. Where handshakes took the place of fifty-page contracts and lawyers.

Arthur Chapman captured these principles in a poem he penned in 1917.

“Out Where The West Begins”

Where there’s more of singing and less of sighing,

Where there’s more of giving and less of buying,

And a man makes friends without half trying—

That’s where the West begins.

So, yes, occasionally I yearn for those simpler times amid the hustle and bustle of our world. We’re inundated today with various media from morning to night. Sometimes Ike’s and Lorraine’s world-my main characters-looks pretty appealing. Especially right now.

At the end of the day, westerns remind us of our solid roots and what we were and could become again. That’s why the American western will never die.

To buy a copy of Mike’s latest release The Renewal, click here

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Mike is giving away the winner’s choice of either a print or digital copy of his novel, The Renewal. To be entered in the drawing leave a comment about one of the ten Code of  West principles listed above.

Updated: August 27, 2018 — 4:17 pm

The Code of the West Still Lives!

 

Phyliss's caption

“A man’s got to have a code, a creed to live by, no matter his job.” 

~John Wayne

When I began writing western historical romances, I had to do some serious research on the old west. It became quickly apparent that every account of the men and women who came out to the new frontier during the westward expansion of the United States were bound by a special caveat that ruled their conduct … not by written laws. Being a native Texan, I grew up with these unspoken policies being pounded in my head, but never thought about them being anything but doing what is right whether you can legally get by with it or not.  I never thought about “The Lone Ranger” being a perfect example of a hero living by homespun laws and a gentleman’s agreement.

Lone Ranger

Almost every article about the Code of the West attributes the famous western writer, Zane Grey, as the first chronicler of the unwritten laws in his 1934 novel aptly titled The Code of the West. The resilient, heroic trailblazers who forged west and learned to live in the rough and tough country were bound by these understood rules that centered on integrity, fair play, loyalty, hospitality, and respect for the land. For these pioneers, their survival depended largely upon their ability to coexist with their neighbors, their rivals, and their peers.

The Code of the West

A cowman might break every written law on the books if deemed necessary, but took pride in upholding his own code of ethics. Failure to abide by the unwritten law of the land didn’t necessarily bring formal punishment, but the man who broke it basically became a social outcast. Losing a man’s honor was considered a fate worse than being hanged.

waynecode

I read a very technical, yet interesting, article where historians and social theorists explained the evolution of the Code of the West. How it was a result of centuries-old English common law. The paper explained the code’s elements which includes “no duty to retreat”, “the imperative of personal self-redress”, “homestead ethics”, and “ethic of individual enterprise.”

Although informative and logical, it sounded a little stiff, so here’s my explanation of the code as it applies today as it did in the Old West.

1. Mind your own business;
2. Keep your hands to yourself; if it isn’t yours, don’t touch it;
3. Be loyal, modest, courageous, friendly, and respectful; and
4. Live by the Golden Rule.

There are many practical, and some quite humorous, interpretations, I’ve come across.

  • Remove your guns before sitting at the dining table.
  • Always drink your whiskey with your gun hand, to show your friendly intentions.Never try on another man’s hat.

Texas Boot

  • Cuss all you want, but only around men, horses, and cow. 
  • Defend yourself whenever necessary and look out for your own; but never shoot an unarmed or unwarned enemy. Known as “the rattlesnake code”, always warn before you strike.
  • And, never shoot a woman, no matter what.
  • Don’t inquire into a person’s past.
  • Take the measure of a man for what he is today.
  • Be pleasant even when out of sorts. Complaining is for quitters, and a cowboy hates quitters.
  • When approaching someone from behind, give a loud greeting (call to camp) before you get within shooting range.
  • After you pass someone on the trail, don’t look back…it implies you don’t trust him.
  • Be modest. A braggart who is “all gurgle and no guts” is intolerable.
  • Honest is absolute–your word is your bond, a handshake is more binding than a contract.

There are hundreds of “do’s and don’t” that the pioneers and cowboys honored because of the informal code they lived by. What are some of your favorites?

I’m giving away an autographed copy of any of the western historical romance anthologies that I wrote with fellow Filly Linda Broday, Jodi Thomas and the late DeWanna Pace.  I added a picture of our anthology “Give Me a Texas Ranger” that was included in the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame Writing the Ranger exhibit.

Updated: February 26, 2018 — 6:23 pm
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