The not so wild West

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.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

31 thoughts on “The not so wild West

  1. You stated twice that most men in the 19th century in the west carried (or openly carried) guns. I’d be interested in knowing the data–if there is any–on the percentage of men (or households) that owned firearms, and what percentage of those were rifles or shotguns as compared to handguns.

  2. Interesting. How does this square with LDS accounts of violence on the Missouri frontier, or the Mountain Meadow Massacre? Was that taken into account? That wasn’t just a “few highly publicized murders.”

  3. Nate, this post is primarily about the Old West post-Civil War, which is what most people think of when they think of the Old West. The MMM has been discussed in thousands of other posts elsewhere and was obviously a horrible incident. One such incident does not a trend make, however.

    One way to look at it that may help you is to consider that overall crime is way, way down in the last 20 years in the U.S. but mass shootings keep on happening. The same thing certainly happened in the 19th century. The vast majority of people got along with their neighbors and lived in peace, but there were occasional violent acts.

  4. I open carry every day. I have stated my wish to some that I wish a lot more people would openly carry their firearms, and have been told that that would just bring back the wild west days. Hahaha!. That’s the idea! If everywhere you went, you saw at least 4 or 5 people openly carrying their firearms, imagine what a deterrent that would be to crime. Concealed carry doesn’t have the same deterrent effect, and interestingly, in the old west days, was considered to be underhanded and sneaky, which is what brought about the concealed carry laws in the first place.

  5. I am not sure why we think it is OK for policemen and many other government officials to openly carry weapons and somehow assume that a normal citizen is necessarily a threat if he is openly carrying in the same way. One thing that recent experience has shown us is that government officials also commit crime and should often be feared.

  6. Georgia is an open carry state. I took my wife out to eat at Red Lobster, and I saw at least two guys (non-police) with open carry guns on holsters. I take comfort knowing that there are armed, law abiding dudes eating seafood with me out in public.

  7. Geoff, I come away from this post thinking you’re making a case against federal power. The low crime rates (including homicide) seem to benefit from that, as well as common life goals and religious beliefs – more so than guns. But, one could still observe that the wild West was a great environment for pistol wielding self governance(which I do) and still conclude that it doesn’t work today – in a good portion of the US. You also make a legit case for states rights on this issue. Many rural, Western communities may still be good environments for loose gun laws, but you also seem to be compounding the idea that urban areas certainly aren’t. (they weren’t back then either after all).

    The biggest question I have is why you don’t account for the massive changes in our society since the industrial revolution. For example, how does an argument in favor of 19th C. area gun laws answer the question of 21st C. guns? I could agree with your whole post and still think that many assault weapons need to be banned or restricted for civilians.

  8. “One thing that recent experience has shown us is that government officials also commit crime and should often be feared.”

    I think this reality would receive broad support in America, if someone in power had the balls to take it on.

  9. Christian J, take what you will from the post. I just find the facts of the Old West very interesting, and people can apply the lessons — and not apply them — as they will.

  10. Christian J, totally agree on the Balko book. I think this is one of Rand Paul’s messages if you listen to him speak. He is also worried about the militarization of the police and often talks about the fact that many government agencies feel they should be armed but that populace should not.

  11. “there were probably fewer than a dozen bank robberies in the entire period from 1859 through 1900 in all the frontier West”

    Between 1899 and 1900, Butch Cassidy robbed three banks in Telluride, Colorado; Montpelier, Idaho; and Winnumucca, Nevada. Sundance robbed another without Cassidy in Belle Fourche, South Dakota in 1897. I doubt those two men in their dozen active years were part of a third of all western frontier bank robberies in the region over a forty-year span.

  12. John M, there are several sources out there saying that there were almost no bank robberies in the West in the late 19th century. Perhaps Butch and Sundance were so remarkable because they were the exceptions? In any case, I am open to more information, but this is one of those cases where I actually double-checked a bit before posting.

  13. I think there is a bit of a disservice in excluding the violence against the perceived non-Americans at the time. Not just tthe treatment of native americans, but of the many mexican americans and chinese americans. For much of this time, killing ant theft, even of well established property, was not considered a crime. It’s harrd to use statistics when there are such large gaps as these.

    I think it was much easier to keep down crime amoungst the white community at the time, as there was an enemy everyone could concentrate on – anyone non-white.

    Lastly, the difficulty in comparing the number of bank robberies (or other crimes) from then to today is the distinct difference in the number of banks that could be robbed from then to today. To make an extreme example, it’s like saying there were far fewer murders the year Cain slew abel, and that’s because everyone had the same weapons available. Taken as a percentage of the population, however, that one is much higher than the many now.

  14. Frank P, I have to say this is a very low-quality comment. You protest way too much without many facts.

    1)The violence against non-Americans is NOT excluded. I linked one study of two minings towns where this is expressly addressed. To summarize, there isn’t much evidence to the discrimination you claim.

    2)”For much of this time, killing and theft, even of well-established property, was not considered a crime.” Source? Of course there was discrimination against non-whites, but this claim simply has no source and no information backing it.

    3)Saying that non-whites saw Mexican and Chinese as the “enemy” is, I have to say, an extremely ignorant comment. Most people in the 19th century frontier were simply trying to make their way in extremely harsh circumstances. They were not concentrating on “enemies,” they were concentrating on getting the crops in, branding the cattle, building homes, mining mines, etc. Chinese workers were hired for railroad and other work and were certainly not considered the “enemy.” Most of them did not speak English at first, but as they integrated into society they were mostly accepted. Were they discriminated against in various ways? Of course, but they were not, by any stretch, an “enemy.” The Mexican-American war was long over by the 1860s, and the Mexicans still in the West were seen as different, speaking a different language with different cultures, but definitely not an “enemy.” Sheesh.

    4)Yes, there were fewer banks. I have no idea on a per capita basis if there were more bank robberies per bank than now or not, but the figure of fewer than 12 robberies in the entire West for the second half of the 19th century is still a striking figure. If you watch Hollywood, you would think banks were robbed every day. That is my only point.

  15. Ok, references. From the “Encyclopedia of Street Crime in America”, page 19 (available on google books) – “Bank robbery was a common crime during the last part of the 19th century, being a Wild West mainstay . . .”

    For the poor treatment of non-whites, we’ll start with the Chinese – “Because anarchic conditions prevailed in the gold fields, the robbery by European miners of Chinese mining area permits were barely pursued or prosecuted and the Chinese gold seekers themselves were often victim to violent assaults.”, then the Mexican Americans

    “In other areas, particularly California, the Hispanic residents were simply overwhelmed by the number of Anglo settlers who rushed in, first in Northern California as a result of the California Gold Rush, then decades later by the boom in Southern California. Anglo miners drove Hispanic miners out of their camps, barred non-Anglos from testifying in court and imposed exclusionary standards similar to what was called Jim Crow in the case of African-Americans.”

    – and the American Indians – “In the aftermath of the Civil War, the might of the U.S. Army was directed toward Indian eradication. ”

    Having an “enemy” is one of the easy ways to keep down violence in your own, predefined community. Because they are “other”, they are not really people, so taking their land and killing them doesn’t really count. This is the problem with using statistics in 19th century crime – crimes against non-whites were not considered crimes.

    For the low number of 12 bank robberies, it could be that the definition of “the west” being used is anything west of the Missouri river. Would cut things down a bit to not include Missouri and Arkansas, where there were a good deal more.

    I’ve read the paper you cite, and I just don’t think using two places that were “notorious” for violence that don’t really seem to have been violent can serve as a template for the entire west.

  16. Wait,
    Are you trying to tell me that Hollywood has been lying to me to promote their own agenda for the last 70 years?
    No, they couldn’t do that, they’re such marvelous, tolerant, open-minded, educated people.
    I refuse to accept facts that contradict my liberal world view.
    /{end channeling of _CC liberals}

  17. Frank P, given the sources you cited, your comment was not as low quality as I thought. At least I understand where you are coming from now. 🙂

    Regarding bank robbery, I read several sources saying bank robbery was very uncommon in the 19th century West. However, there is a popular myth that it was common, so your first link doesn’t do much for me because it just repeats the myth without providing any evidence.

    Regarding the violence against Mexicans and Chinese, you have a decent point, although I would caution you that many of the claims made of widespread lynching and discrimination are exaggerated. But the laws passed against Chinese and Mexicans in the Southwest were real, so your point is, as I say, somewhat valid. I still don’t buy the whole “enemy” thing, but at least I understand your point now.

    Frank P, any historian will tell you that real history is often a difficult thing because history is so often twisted and changed for political/ideological or other reasons. A case in point is the history of Joseph Smith. Any cursory history of the man will turn up hundreds of “facts” that simply are myths repeated again and again. I maintain that this is also true for the Old West: people tend to believe in TV shows like “Deadwood” rather than the reality of the experiences of the people involved. The point of this post is that the “Deadwood” myth is not the real experience of the people who lived in the West, and I think I have shown that pretty convincingly.

  18. That is always the thing about history; how much of it can be open to interpretatiion. 🙂

    This caught me near the end of watching the long documentary “The West“, and one thing that has struck me is that prejudices against anyone who wasn’t like you was very strong. Within groups things aren’t so bad, but between groups, things are pretty abominable, and no group was only a victim.

  19. “In Abilene, supposedly one of the wildest of the cow towns, ‘nobody was killed in 1869 or 1870.'”

    Hmm. According to Wikipedia, “Thomas James Smith, know as Tom ‘Bear River’ Smith (12 June 1830 – 2 November 1870), was a town marshal of Old West cattle town Abilene, Kansas, who was killed and decapitated in the line of duty.”

  20. “I take comfort knowing that there are armed, law abiding dudes eating seafood with me out in public.”

    I suppose you knew they were law-abiding dudes because they were eating seafood?

  21. Wait,
    Are you trying to tell me that Hollywood has been lying to me to promote their own agenda for the last 70 years?
    No, they couldn’t do that, they’re such marvelous, tolerant, open-minded, educated people.
    I refuse to accept facts that contradict my liberal world view.
    /{end channeling of _CC liberals}

    h_nu, which Hollywood liberals are you referring to? Clint Eastwood? John Wayne? Charlton Heston?

    As with most everything else produced out of Hollywood, *selling movies* is at the forefront of why Westerns have historically been so sensational and dumbed down. That is today and always has been the “agenda”. Giving gun ownership a bad name is a laughable claim. If anything, it did the opposite.

  22. Christian J, when it comes to Westerns, I agree with you. Producing silly, non-historical Westerns with gun fights at the climax is simply about selling movies and taking advantage of the U.S. frontier myth. And it is difficult to see any left-wing conspiracy when it comes to Westerns. I would even go farther: when Hollywood make a serious Western like “The Searchers” or “Unforgiven” it even explores Big Issues in ways that are very admirable and thought-provoking.

    There are, however, many examples where Hollywood has promoted a left-wing agenda — or sex and drugs — at the *expense* of the box office. I think that was mostly h_nu’s point.

  23. “I suppose you knew they were law-abiding dudes because they were eating seafood?”

    Oh yeah, that would, like, totally be the reason. For reals.

  24. When I was a bank teller, many years ago, we had a customer who would come in quite often, who open carried 2, pearl handled 6-shooters. They were beautiful guns, and he took great pride in them. He also had the 10 gallon hat and handle bar moustache. I always felt very safe when he was in the bank.

  25. Pearl-handled revolvers? Reminds me of the line from Patton:

    ‘They’re ivory. Only a pimp from a cheap New Orleans whorehouse would carry a pearl-handled pistol.”

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