How Wild Was the Old West—Really?

I heard a TV commentator liken the violence of Baltimore back to the Old West. Is that a fair comparison? Some historians would probably disagree. Some have even gone as far as to describe the Old West as “a quiet, peaceful and law-abiding place.” Hard as that is to believe they may be on to something for the following reasons:

The Old West Practiced Gun Control

dodge-gunsYep, that’s right. In fact, the very first law passed in Dodge City was a gun control law. Many towns including Tombstone had similar strict laws barring guns. Visitors were required to turn guns over to the stable owner or sheriff. Checks or receipts were issued much like they are today when checking coats at a restaurant. Gun owners could reclaim their weapons upon leaving town.

Not everyone followed the law, of course. Drunkenness and disorderly conduct would get you a free pass to the hoosegow, but so would toting a gun. The gunfight of OK corral was actually sparked by an effort to enforce the “no gun” law.

Gun control made economical sense. Towns wishing to attract businesses and commerce or even the railroad couldn’t afford to let crime run amok.

The Law of Wagon Trainswagon
Some wagon trains reportedly contained more than a hundred wagons and as many as 800 people, so keeping law and order was of primary concern. Many of these trains had their own constitutions which spelled out a judicial system. Ostracism and threats of banishment kept most travelers in line and there are few reported instances of violence on these trains. That’s pretty amazing considering the conditions and long months on the trail.

What About All That Cattle Rustling?

cowsIf we believed all those old time Western movies there wasn’t a steer in the land that hadn’t been rustled at least once. No question; Cattle rustling was a problem. That is until ranch owners got together and formed cattlemen associations. These groups hired private protection agencies, which pretty much put cattle rustlers out of business.

Bank Robbers Ruled, Right?

Wrong again. According to the book Banking in the American West from the Gold Rush to Deregulation by bankLynne Pierson and Larry Schweikart, only eight actual bank heists occurred in the 15 states that made up the frontier west during the forty year period between 1859-1900. (Holy Toledo! My little hometown has had more bank robberies than that just in the last decade.)

Why so few bank robberies in the Old West? The answer is simple; Banks were hard to rob. Banks were located downtown often next the sheriff’s office. People slept above shops so the town was far from deserted. The bank’s walls were often doubly-reinforced. Blasting through the walls would wake everyone in town including the sheriff.

Some, like Butch Cassidy simply walked in the front door, but even that type of bank holdup was rare. Robbing stagecoaches was easier. But transporting money by stage fell out of favor when trains came along. Robbers who shifted attention to trains soon had to contend with Pinkerton detectives.

What About All Those Gunslingers?

gunDime novels, old newspapers and movies would have us believe that shooting from the hip and quick draw duels were the norm. In reality, gunfights were few and far between.

Some well-known shootists (the word gunslinger didn’t come into play until the 1920s) deserved their reputations but, by today’s standards, most would be considered lousy shots. Some, like Wyatt Earp, killed nowhere near as many men as they were given credit for. A gunslinger’s reputation, however exaggerated, was sometimes more valuable than his skills.

Peter Hill, co-author of  the Not so Wild, Wild, West wrote “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.”  Now there’s a thought…It kind of makes you wonder what those old cowpokes would have thought about the recent riots.

So what do you think? Was the Old West a quiet, peaceful and law-abiding place or wasn’t it?

Speaking of Wild:

Maggie Michaels is sent to Arizona Territory as an undercover mail order bride to track down the notorious Whistle-Stop Bandit. If she doesn’t prove the suspect guilty before the wedding—she could end up as his wife!

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18 thoughts on “How Wild Was the Old West—Really?”

  1. Well, Margaret, it sounds like the Wild West wasn’t as wild as we’ve all believed. Our movies and our books paint different pictures. I love the excitement of the Wild, Wild West that I have in my mind.

    Thank you for a great post!

  2. Interesting how media influences our interpretation of history, isn’t it? Makes you wonder what else we might have misinterpreted. Not that I’m against story taking some fictional license with history. My books would be awfully dull if I didn’t. 🙂

  3. There goes everything I ever learned from Grandpa’s Westerns collection . . . [sigh]. But what about card sharks and professional gamblers? The Maverick brothers must have hit every town, city, and ghost town west of the Mississippi (and a few on the east bank, even).

    • Hi Rachael, I haven’t done any research on card sharks and gamblers so I can’t answer you question. Come to think of it, I should check those out. My work in progress could use a good card shark. 🙂

  4. Hi Margaret,
    Wow, this is a really fascinating subject. I always tended to believe the west was lawless, but I think now, it might fall somewhere in between. Maybe just like today, there’s more good people than bad, and we only hear about the bad things that happened back then, but I bet there were pockets of places that were extremely peaceful and law abiding.

    • Hi Charlene, you’re right. A hundred years from now the Baltimore riots and Boston Marathon attack will get more attention than our quiet little towns. They’ll think we’re the Wild, Wild West.

  5. The Kansas cow towns were wild- until the townspeople brought in the law, then things settled down. We had some famous lawmen in our cow towns…before they became famous elsewhere.

  6. Thanks for an interesting post.
    I am not really too surprised that things were not as wild as we think they were. If things were as bad as portrayed on TV and the movies, few people would have survived. People relied too much on each other to allow things to get too out of hand. If things weren’t tightly controlled on wagon trains, they would have broken up and gotten nowhere.
    Conflict makes for good drama. Great for TV and movies, but in real life, not so much.

  7. Wow Margaret, you are a continual and fascinating wealth of knowledge! I’ve just been re-educated from all the schooling I’ve had from TV and books! 😉 Thanks!

      • Oh I can hardly wait to read your new series!!! It’s such a cool bonus to learn all these interesting facts at the same time too! 🙂

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