If you imagine the Old West, you are very likely to bring up images of gunslingers shooting each other, gold miners fighting over claims or cattlemen battling each other over herds or water rights. In short, you probably imagine the Old West as hopelessly and unusually violent.
The truth is that the Old West was not any more violent, on a whole, than the rest of the United States in the late 19th century, and in most locales it was significantly safer. The truth is that people mostly got along with each other and formed cooperative local governments to deal with conflict resolution in a peaceful way. And, interestingly, even though most men openly carried guns, crime was significantly lower in general than in most American cities today.
And Utah, settled by Mormons, was, on a whole, one of the safest and crime-free areas of the West.
Consider the following:
*In the cattle towns of Abilene, Ellsworth, Wichita, Dodge City, and Caldwell for the years from 1870 to 1885, only 45 homicides were reported, an average of 1.5 per cattle-trading season. In Abilene, supposedly one of the wildest of the cow towns, “nobody was killed in 1869 or 1870. In fact, nobody was killed until the advent of officers of the law, employed to prevent killings.” Only two towns, Ellsworth in 1873 and Dodge City in 1876, ever had five killings in any one year. (Source).
*A detailed study of violence in two of the most violent mining towns in Aurora, Nevada, and Bodie, California shows that property crime rates were very low and that rape was nonexistent. Almost all men carried guns, but the guns mostly served as deterrents. “Robbery of individuals, burglary, and theft occurred only infrequently and rape seems not to have occurred at all. Racial violence and serious juvenile crime were absent also. The homicides that occurred almost invariably resulted from gunfights between willing combatants. The old, the weak, the innocent, the young, and the female were not the targets of violent men. In fact, all people in those categories would have been far safer in Aurora or Bodie than they are today in any major U.S. city. Even most smaller cities and towns are far more crime ridden and dangerous than were Aurora and Bodie.” (Source).
*People traveling in wagon trains set up rules for getting along with each other that worked remarkably well. “Travel, both to the mining camps in California and to the new settlements in Oregon, was also remarkably peaceful. From 1845 to 1860, almost 300,000 people traveled overland via wagon trains to different places in the West. John Phillip Reed, the pre-eminent historian of wagon train governments, says it was “a tale of sharing more than dividing, a time of accommodation rather than discord.” One reason: “Far removed from lawyers and courts, the concept of concurrent ownership proved to be one of legal strength not of legal failure, for promoting social peace not internal disharmony,” he says. “The overland trail was not a place of conflict.” (Source).
*Larry Schweikart, a historian at the University of Dayton, estimates that there were probably fewer than a dozen bank robberies in the entire period from 1859 through 1900 in all the frontier West. Schweikart summarizes: “The record is shockingly clear: There are more bank robberies in modern-day Dayton, Ohio, in a year than there were in the entire Old West in a decade, perhaps in the entire frontier period!” (Source).
*Settlers set up land clubs, cattlemens’ associations and voluntary courts of law based on English common law to handle disputes over property. In the vast majority of cases, disputes were handled without violence. Many people imagine that without a central government of any kind, society in the West must have naturally devolved into a Mad Max type of anarchy. In reality, without any central government, people learned how to get along quite well. Local problems were handled locally and — for the the most part — peacefully. (Source).
*Even in the gold mining camps of California, where there was a lot of money at stake, miners resolved almost all disputes peacefully.
“Dozens of movies have portrayed the nineteenth-century mining camps in the West as hot beds of anarchy and violence, but John Umbeck discovered that, beginning in 1848, the miners began forming contracts with one another to restrain their own behavior (1981, 51). There was no government authority in California at the time, apart from a few military posts. The miners’ contracts established property rights in land (and in any gold found on the land) that the miners themselves enforced. Miners who did not accept the rules the majority adopted were free to mine elsewhere or to set up their own contractual arrangements with other miners. The rules that were adopted were often consequently established with unanimous consent (Anderson and Hill 1979, 19). As long as a miner abided by the rules, the other miners defended his rights under the community contract. If he did not abide by the agreed-on rules, his claim would be regarded as “open to any [claim] jumpers” (Umbeck 1981, 53). The mining camps hired “enforcement specialists”—justices of the peace and arbitrators—and developed an extensive body of property and criminal law. As a result, there was very little violence and theft. The fact that the miners were usually armed also helps to explain why crime was relatively infrequent. Benson concludes, “The contractual system of law effectively generated cooperation rather than conflict, and on those occasions when conflict arose it was, by and large, effectively quelled through nonviolent means” (1998, 105).”
*Most of the evidence shows that Utah was an especially calm and crime-free place during the late 19th century. “The available evidence shows, however, that beyond a few well-publicized murders, we have every right to believe that compared with surrounding territories, Utah was a relatively murder- and violence-free community.” (Source).
*There is not space here to deal with the extremely complex and melancholy situation of the relationship between native Americans and American settlers. However, it is worth pointing out that the relationship was not always one of conflict and violence. In Utah and elsewhere, there are many examples of the Indians and settlers cooperating with each other (for the record, there were also several violent confrontations between Mormon settlers and the Ute Indians, including a significant battle at the fort that was established in what is now Provo). Nevertheless, as any informed reader can imagine, the level of violence and conflict was nothing like what is portrayed in popular culture.
So the next time somebody makes some comment about “the wild west,” feel free to set them straight. The wild west was a lot less wild than many people imagine. Without any kind of central government authority, people learned how to govern themselves and how to create local rules and laws appropriate to their circumstances. For the vast majority of people, the old west was safer then than it is today. Sometimes the truth is very different than what you see in the movies.