“A man’s got to have a code, a creed to live by, no matter his job.” ~John Wayne
The Code of the West is alive and well today!
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Tend to your horse’s needs before your own, regardless of how weary and hungry you might be from a long day in the saddle.
- Be loyal to your “brand,” your friends, and those you ride with.
- Cuss all you want, but only around men, horses, and cows.
- 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?
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