Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Cowboy Code

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Western writer Zane Grey first described a standard of morality in his 1934 novel The Code of the West, and in 1947 Gene Autry first identified what he called the Cowboy Code.

Social mores prompted western cowboys to exhibit fairness, faithfulness, honesty, tolerance, cleanliness, and integrity. They championed the weak, and showed kindness to women, children, and the elderly.

Cowboys did not hold any governing laws  with as much esteem as they did their own code. Anyone who broke faith with it could expect ostracism, ridicule, and punishment. A summary of the Code of the West includes the following items:

  • Never ask a man about his past.
  • Theft of a horse is punishable by death.
  • Look after yourself and those you love.
  • Remove guns before sitting down to dine.
  • Only make a threat if you’re prepared to take the consequences.
  • On the trail, greet others before you come into shooting range, especially when approaching from behind. 
  • When greeting a person on horseback, nod rather than wave to avoid spooking the horse.
  • Looking back at someone you pass on the trail implies a lack of trust.
  • Riding a horse without permission is akin to violating his wife. 
  • A real cowman saves his breath for breathing rather than talking.
  • Tend your horse’s needs before your own.
  • Never cuss in front of a woman. 
  • Complaining about the cooking earns you a stint as the cook.
  • Use your gun hand to drink whiskey to show good will.
  • Help those in need, even enemies.
  • Never steal another man's hat.
  • Show hospitality to strangers
  • Fight fair.
  • To avoid being shot, never shake a sleeping man awake.
  • Help a friend in need.
  • Never brag.
  • Be loyal.
  • Be grateful.
  • Don't complain.
  • Never quit.
  • Show your grit.
  • Never shoot an unarmed man.
  • Never shoot a woman for any reason.
  • Let your word be your bond.
  • Uphold the Golden Rule.
In many ways, the Code of the West parallels the code of chivalry adopted by medieval knights. That’s not surprising since the culture of the Wild West resembled feudalism. Adherence to the code was voluntary but seldom overlooked. In her auto-biographical book, No Life For A Lady, Agnes Morley Cleaveland describes an incident when as a young girl traveling home after dark she met an outlaw on the run. The man, who sat on a winded horse, greeted her mildly and let her pass without incident. He paid the ultimate cost for his unwillingness to frighten a young girl. If he’d taken her horse he might have escaped to Mexico. By dawn a bullet had ended his life.


The Cowboy Code: Social mores guided western cattlemen. Click to Tweet.
Adherence to the Code of the West was voluntary but seldom overlooked. Click to Tweet.
The Code of the West parallels the code of chivalry adopted by medieval knights. Click to Tweet.

Related Posts:

Ghost Town Memories: Where the West was Wildest
The Medieval Code of Chivalry
The Writing Life of Janalyn Voigt (Or a Tale of Two Genres)
Janalyn Voigt
Explore Creative Worlds at the author website for Janalyn Voigt


  1. The book you mentioned, "No Life for a Lady", sounds like it would be very interesting to read.
    I've long heard of the Cowboy Code, but didn't know if it was really a real code, or something made up by writers like Zane Grey (who was my dad's favorite author for a long time!). So Zane Grey was describing an actual code that cowboys adhered to? Was this just something he observed that cowboys did, or was there something written previously?

    1. Hi, Bethany. There was no written Code of the West, but rather a verbal one that was no less binding.

  2. Janalyn, this post is just in time for me as I start writing westerns. I have No Life for a Lady but haven't read it yet. Now I have all the more reason to use it as a source. And I LOVE your cowboy code. Great research!

  3. Enjoyed your post about the Cowboy and his code...My daddy read western paperbacks and I remember Louis Lamour and Zane Grey in there. I like to read Mary Connealy books and she lives with her Cowboy husband on a ranch. There is just something about a tall handsome guy in a Cowboy hat who likes to ride horses...don't you think?
    thanks for sharing this today.
    Paula O

  4. The cowboy code is an awesome thing. Thanks for sharing!
    Susan P

  5. I know the contest is over...but I love the list of the cowboy code....we could benefit from some of these today couldnt we? I love books written in the Old West.

  6. I so agree with you, Jojo. They are based on timeless principles. Sorry I missed your comment earlier. I try to be everywhere online, but sometimes it gets the best of me. :o)