Friday, March 24, 2017

How Wild Was the Old West—Really?

Recently I heard a TV commentator liken the violence of some US cities today back to the Old West.  Is that a fair comparison?  Not according to some historians. Some even go as far as to describe the Old West as a quiet, peaceful and law-abiding place.  Hard as that is to believe they may be on to something. Take a look at these facts:

The Old West Practiced Gun Control

Yep, that's right. In fact, the very first law passed in Dodge City was a gun control law.  Many towns including Tombstone had similar strict laws barring guns. Visitors were required to turn guns over to the stable owner or sheriff.  Checks or receipts were issued much like they are today when checking coats at a restaurant.  Gun owners could reclaim their weapons upon leaving town.

Not everyone followed the law, of course. Drunkenness and disorderly conduct would get you a free pass to the hoosegow, but so would toting a gun.  The gunfight of OK corral was actually sparked by an effort to enforce the "no gun" law.

Controlling crime made economical sense.  Towns wishing to attract businesses and commerce or even the railroad couldn't afford to let crime run amok. 

The Law of Wagon Trains

Some wagon trains reportedly contained more than a hundred wagons and as many as 800 people, so keeping law and order was of primary concern.  Many of these trains had their own constitutions which spelled out a judicial system. Ostracism and threats of banishment kept most travelers in line and there are few reported instances of violence on these trains.  That's pretty amazing considering the conditions and long months on the trail.

What About All That Cattle Rustling?

If we believed all those old time Western movies there wasn't a steer in the land that hadn't been rustled at least once. No question; Cattle rustling was a problem. That is until ranch owners got together and formed cattlemen associations.  These groups hired private protection agencies, which pretty much put cattle rustlers out of business.

Bank Robbers Ruled, Right?

Wrong again. According to the book Banking in the American West from the Gold Rush to Deregulation by Lynne Pierson and Larry Schweikart, only eight actual bank heists occurred in the 15 states that made up the frontier west during the forty year period between 1859-1900. (Holy Toledo! My little hometown has had more bank robberies than that just in the last decade.)  

Why so few bank robberies in the Old West?  The answer is simple; Banks were
hard to rob.  That's because they were located downtown, usually next to the sheriff's office.  It wasn't any easier to rob a bank at night. People slept above shops so the town was far from deserted. Then, too, the walls of a bank were often doubly-reinforced. Blasting through them would have brought everyone in town on the run, including the sheriff.

Some, like Butch Cassidy simply walked in the front door, but even that type of bank holdup was rare.  Robbing stagecoaches was easier. But transporting money by stage fell out of favor when trains came along.  Robbers shifting attention to trains soon had to contend with Pinkerton detectives, and that was enough to spoil anyone's fun.
What About All Those Gunslingers?

Dime novels, old newspapers and movies would have us believe that shooting from the hip and quick draw duels were the norm.  In reality, gunfights were few and far between.

Some well-known shootists (the word gunslinger didn't come into play until the 1920s) deserved their reputations but, by today's standards, most would be considered lousy shots.  Some, like Wyatt Earp, killed nowhere near as many men as they were given credit for.  A gunslinger's reputation, however exaggerated, was often as valuable as his skills. 

What fact surprised you the most about the Old West? 

Coming in June

A Match Made in Texas


There's a new sheriff in town,
 and she almost always gets her man!

Click to order


  1. It's interesting that you're equating gun control laws with less crime. Perhaps back then it worked that way. Today, gun control laws are largely ineffective because it's the criminal element that perpetrates the violence, and they don't obey gun laws. Only law abiding people do. Look at Chicago--it has some of the toughest gun control laws on the books, and consequently one of the highest murder rates in the country. Very interesting article, though. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi Linore, actually I wasn't making a personal statement pro or con. Sorry if you thought I was. I was simply stating the way it was. Crime is a complicated issue with many factors.
      Towns that needed the train for survival had a good reason to curb crime and were probably a lot tougher on criminals than we are today. That alone might have made a difference.

  2. Well, all of your post destroyed my images of the "Wild West". But fiction is greater than fact in many cases!!! It's a good thing that there are people interested in digging out the truth beyond the legends. Thanks for an interesting post!!! And thank you for your research. I shudder to think what writers in the future are going to read and write about these times we live in now, when we can't even discern the truth easily!

    1. Oops, Connie, didn't mean to destroy your image. Yes, I've often wondered how today's times will be depicted in the future. I hope writers make us sound as fun and interesting as the Old West!

  3. Everyone loves a good story, and the legends of the Old West are a good example, aren't they? Another example: the more real history I learn, the less "unique" I think "unique women" were. I think there were plenty of women who didn't fit the "Madonna of the Prairie" image ... it's just that we didn't know about them. With the advent of women's history as a discipline, we're starting to "meet" those women. And is it ever fun and fascinating!

    1. Stephanie, what you said about women is so true. I'm amazed at what I keep discovering about those early pioneers. Those women were smart, tough and knew how to get things done. Those are the women I like to write about.

  4. Interesting the Wild West was not as violent as most individuals believe it was. I appreciate you sharing the comparison to today. Thank you.