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.


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.

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A native Texan, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Phyliss Miranda still believes in the Code of the Old West and loves to share her love for antiques, the lost art of quilting, and the Wild West.

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33 thoughts on “The Code of the West Still Lives!”

  1. Good morning Phyliss- great article. The code of the West was as honored back then as the constitution, but from the Cowboys point of view. Thank goodness it was incorporated, it truly helped to tell the good from the bad. I loved the one which is still upheld in Texas law. Stealing another man’s horse is a hanging offense. I don’t think it’s practiced, but if someone would have ever stole one of my horses when I was growing up, I’d of enforced it. That one right there is about as low as a man can get in my opinion. You have an awesome day. Love & hugs from Kansas.

    • If we went back to applying more “codes” of conduct like “stealing a horse is a hanging offense” there would probably be far less criminals in this world.

    • Hi Miss Tonya, I goofed and wrote a note to you but put it on Stephanie’s comment in error. I promise to catch up and reply to each comment. I began having trouble with Suddenlink right after I got my post done and just got it up and going, so I’m behind. I’ll catch up with all in a bit. Hugs to our Kansas friend, P

    • Hi Tonya, now I’m back on track, so you’ll get two messages from me. Thanks for the sweet comments, but then you’re a very sweet lady. You are so right about the Code of the West being honored as much as the constitution. I guess it’s kinda the constitution of the West. As you know, in this neck of the woods much of the Code is still honored. You are very right about horses. Stealing horse or cattle are very serious offenses even today. We still do some business by a handshake, but unfortunately there’s still bad men around who take advantage. Hope to see you soon, our Kansas friend. Hugs, P

  2. Great blog. I believe a lot of the issues we have in this day and time is because people have stopped living life by a “code”. I guess my favorite “code” would be to always be your best. It would cover so many of the other codes. We’d be dealing with everyone and everything in a positive manner if we just followed that “code”. Have a great day!!

    • Hi Stephanie. Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. I totally agree with you about “always be your best.” If we’d all follow that part of the code in our lives things would be better. I believe many folks stop short of their goals because they need a push to keep going. Being positive should be the way of today, but it’s hard to stay positive some times. Thanks for a great thought provoking comment. A big Texas hugs to you, Phyliss

    • Hi DebraG, good to hear from you. I totally agree with you. Honesty is the best policy. I’m a huge believer for standing up and taking responsibilities for your actions. I guess my years in the legal field and management created that in me, but honestly, it was the way I was raised. Own up to what I’ve done!!! We always told our girls that they’d get less punishment if we heard something from them than if we got it second-hand from someone else. Great thought provoking comment. Big Texas hugs, Phyliss

  3. Words of wisdom, if we lived by those words now the world would be a better place . Who would of thought the old West was actually a safer place than now. I live how the one said .. if you pass someone don’t look back it means you don’t trust them.. I must not trust anyone as I always look back !

    • Hi Rose Ann, so good to hear from you. I totally agree with your comments, especially the words of wisdom. More folks should be living by that code. Now, I think maybe we’ve outgrown “looking back” as being a sign of not trusting. Maybe I watch too many Hallmark movies, but if the “he” and the “she” didn’t look back over their shoulder there’d be no romance! LOL I’m gonna leave the “lookin’ back” as a sign of mistrust to some of the ladies who are ranchers. Maybe they’ll have some input. Rose Ann, thanks for leaving a comment and a big Texas hug to you, Phyliss

  4. I believe in not inquiring into a persons past. John Wayne was my favorite actor and i like his code of ethics.

    • Hi Estella, so good to hear from you. I totally agree about not inquiring into one’s past. I have a circle of friends and we only share personal pasts when we want to. We all have pasts and generally by our ages we don’t really need to dwell on them. Frankly, good or bad, our pasts are part of what made us the good, upstanding, positive people we are today. I love John Wayne, too! Take care and a big Texas hug, Phyliss

  5. How peaceful it would be today if the rules of conduct were applied. I like , keep your hands to yourself , be modest and be honest. Great post.

    • Hi Carol. Good to hear from you. I totally agree about the rules of conduct. I love be modest and honest. And everyone should keep their hands to themselves. I enjoyed writing the blog. It’s easy to write about something you believe in. A big Texas hug to you, Phyliss

    • Hi Melanie, good to hear from you. I totally agree that we’d be better off, if everyone would take time to read and digest the code of the west. It’d help us all. I always enjoy sharing a post, I believe in. Have a great week. Hugs, Phyliss

    • Hi Trish, I totally agree with you about being surrounded by lies and then lies to cover up lies. More honesty would certainly help everyone. The code of the West could sure help out today, wouldn’t it! Thanks for stopping by, Sister Filly. Have a great week, Hugs and Love, Phyliss

  6. My favorite codes ask you to be a better person and expect others to shine their best as well. A positive outlook can brighten a cloudy day.

    • Hi Naomi, thanks for stopping by and leaving a message. I really agree with you about being a better person and expect others to shine their best as well. We need a whole lot more positivity surrounding us. I guess that’s why I’ve gotten hooked on the Hallmark movies because they are always positive in the end, and of course, a little “love forever” doesn’t hurt. So good to hear from you. A big Texas hug, Phyliss

  7. Loved this article if the whole world went by The Code of the Old West what a wonderful world we would be living in. Love your stories Phyliss you are a very talented God gifted writer!! Love you bunches

    • Hi Glenda, so good to hear from you. I agree that if everyone went by the Code today, we’d have a much better world out there. Lady, you made my day with your kind comments. I never, never dreamed that I’d become a writer. I can’t thank my mentors enough because they are the ones who have kept me on course and that hasn’t been easy. As you know sister Filly Linda Broday and I live in the same town and she gives me fantastic advice. One doesn’t write a book alone, it’s like raising a family … it take an army of mentors who are honest, just like in the Code of the West. Again thank you, sweet lady. Big hugs, Phyliss

  8. I have always loved the cowboy code. My question is – if you should never look back after passing someone on a trail, because it causes mistrust, well…..who would know?? Unless the OTHER person looked back, THEN you can’t trust him! Oh the conundrum!!! LOL

    • Hi Susan, so good to hear from you. We agree on lovin’ the Code of the West and the cowboy life. I’ve got to think your comment through. If a cowboy passed another rider on the trail and didn’t look back, then the person he passed would be lookin’ at cowboy #1’s back. But then how would cowboy #1 know cowboy #2 wouldn’t pull a gun and shoot him in the back? I guess that’s where the trust comes in! I’ll think on it, but good thoughts. A great big Texas hug from me to you, Phyliss

  9. Loved this blog. Thank you so much! The words that mean a lot to me are honesty, loyalty, respect, and honor. I have to add though that I really like one you posted that I never heard before: “Take the measure of a man for what he is today.” That says a whole lot, doesn’t it?
    Big hugs!

    • Hi Eliza, so good to hear from you. I like your choice, too. Totally agree with “Take the measure of a man for what he is today”. Certainly does say a lot about then and now. Take care of yourself and a big hug back atcha. Love, Phyliss

  10. Hi Phyliss, I laughed about the first two items: 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.

  11. Hi Annette, good to hear from you. I love those, too. I guess that’s why a right handed person drinks with the same hand they’d shoot from … right! Today the code about a man’s hat is still a part of the code, plus they always take off their hats when in the house or in the presence of a woman. We have tons of cowboy hats and boots here still. Just about everybody owns one…not everybody, but lots of folks. Big hugs, Phyliss

  12. My husband always says,”No one messes with a man’s hat”, and one of his favorite reminiscences is about a gal who messed with his hat when he and his buddies were out on the town one night. She didn’t stay at their table very long.

    Enjoyed your blog.

  13. Hi Alice. Glad to see you here. Your hubby is certainly right and I sure got a good laugh at your story. I think in Texas you could just about get hung for going by a table in a honky tonk and flipping off a cowboy’s hat! That girl should have known better and is lucky your DH and his buddies were so understanding. Have a wonderful evening. Hugs, Phyliss

    • Hi lady, I love, love that comment. I totally agree if your dog and kids like a man, you can trust him. They seem to have an innocent second sense. Have a wonderful evening and thanks for dropping my. Hugs, Phyliss

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