Most people, when they think of the American West, think of gun fights in dusty streets in front of saloons, Indians kidnapping helpless white women and children, and gangs robbing banks. Hollywood has done a great job of perpetuating these myths, when in fact, shoot outs were relatively rare. Our modern society is much more violent than the wild west ever was, as long as you set aside the gratuitous genocide of a million Native Americans in order to take their land.
According to The Culture of Violence in the American West: Myth versus Reality, although government oversight and protections were not prevalent in areas that were not yet granted statehood, people would often join groups for mutual protection due to their extreme isolation, and create constitutions of their own. In many cases, people who violated these rules simply had to be threatened with ostracism to bring them back in line, because in the remote vastness of the west, isolation could mean certain death.
This article goes on to say that interactions with the Native Americans were relatively peaceful until 1865, which coincides with the end of the Civil War. Before then, settlers were more interested in trading with them, as a profitable pursuit, and tradesmen realize that it’s bad form to kill off the customers. Therefore it was generally agreed that native people had a right to their own land.
Efforts to obtain land were negotiated by treaty until right after the war, so violence wasn’t considered the ultimate solution. (Whether those treaties were fair and enforced is another story entirely.) But in 1871, Congress voted not to ratify anymore treaties, and the violence greatly increased after that.
After the Civil War, railroads really took off. This meant the acquisition of land, not only for tracks, but also for acquiring the iron needed to make these railroads, and the towns needed to support them. The generals who practiced a successful scorched earth policy in the American south now turned these same policies on native villages, with the same result.
This fascinating article goes on to conclude:
“These men utilized the state’s latest technologies of mass killing developed during the Civil War and its mercenary soldiers (including the former slaves known as “buffalo soldiers”) to wage their war because they were in a hurry to shovel subsidies to the railroad corporations and other related business enterprises. Many of them profited handsomely, as the Credit Mobilier scandal revealed. The railroad corporations were the Microsofts and IBMs of their day, and the doctrines of neomercantilism defined the Republican Party’s reason for existing (DiLorenzo 2006). The Republican Party was, after all, the “Party of Lincoln,” the great railroad lawyer and a lobbyist for the Illinois Central and other midwestern railroads during his day.”
So, rather than the shoot-em-up culture that you see in the movies, we really need to think of the west as a relatively peaceful place, until greed and politics, coupled with the violent experience of a bloody war, swept in and changed it entirely.
Some more fun facts, according to this article:
There is only documentation of 8 bank robberies in the 15 Western states during 40 of the “wild West” years.
The vast majority of Westerners did not wear anything similar to the Stetson cowboy hat we think of today. The bowler was much more common.
Cowboys were much more likely to carry a shotgun or a rifle than a six shooter. They thought of guns mostly as tools to protect cattle.
Also, according to Noam Chomsky, the shoot-em-up Western folklore took off after the Civil War because gun manufacturers were seeing a severe downturn in business now that they weren’t producing for the war machine. They wanted people to think it was necessary to have a gun for protection, they wanted them to think men were basically lawless and violent, and they wanted them to feel manly while using guns to protect their women and children. So they created a wild West culture that didn’t really ever exist, to boost sales.
I know. I know. This is all very disappointing. It’s fun to romanticize history. Especially when the truth is so much more gruesome. But the vast majority of the violence in the west had more to do with greedy land grabs, racial prejudice, and political manipulation than lawless, independent-minded early Americans sowing their wild oats.