Someone once stated that the problems the U.S. face are not so much what we don’t know, but it’s what we know that just ain’t so (the adage has been attributed to Josh Billings, Mark Twain, and Will Rogers). This saying can easily be applied to the oft-stated notion that the American West throughout the 19th-century was a bloodbath. But was the wild west really so wild?
If you watch any motion picture from the golden age of westerns, you would surmise that a person with a gun would shoot you for “a good smoke and a cup of coffee.” Hollywood taught us that characters portrayed by legendary thespians like Glenn Ford, James Cagney, Broderick Crawford, and others would kill you for your land, your loot, your lady. Anarchy reigned, chaos was prevalent.
Of course, like anything else that emanates from Hollywood, this is just a plain fabrication.
It is true that gunslingers were ubiquitous. Nearly everyone had a gun. But you were safer to live and work in Abilene, Kansas in 1878 than in southside Chicago in 2018.
So, if the wild west wasn’t wild, then what was it like? Let’s sift through the data to find out.
Strolling Through the Mild, Mild West
For the most part, the American West did not have any gun laws or gun control – some towns prohibited guns, but these were exceptions. Yet, it was rather peaceful and placid in the Land of the Free.
Between 1870 and 1885, the murder rate was roughly one murder per 100,000 residents each year in numerous towns. Oregon maintained a murder rate of 30 per 100,000 adults. Some cow towns did not even experience a single killing in 1869 or 1870, like Abilene or Wichita. Many places only reported 45 murders in a 15-year period.
If crime did spike, then the local population would take matters into their own hands. In San Francisco, which endured more than 100 murders in six months, a vigilante committee was formed. This attracted more than 8,000 members during a three-month period. The city only had two murders thereafter.
When violence did erupt in the west, it was primarily because of young people settling matters of honor.
Despite the thrilling bank heists in a wide array of westerns, they were uncommon between 1859 and 1900. In fact, there were only eight recorded bank robberies across 15 states. Because banks were typically situated next to the sheriff’s office and general store and they had reinforced walls, it would be incredibly difficult to steal gold, silver, and certificates. You would think bank heists were rampant considering all of the firearms and weak vaults that would make Brinks chuckle today. But that wasn’t the case.
Burglary and robbery rates back then were much lower than most modern-day urban centers. And, contrary to popular opinion, rape was exceptionally rare.
It is regularly argued by the left that if everyone carried around a gun the nation would be soaked in blood. In the absence of gun control, every American would whip out a pistol and shoot you in the leg for a Starbucks latte. Homicides would spike, hospitals would be flooded with wounded patients, and pandemonium would ensue. The only solution is to strip away your Second Amendment rights and depend on the state for protection.
As historian Watson Parker notes, “When everybody has a gun on his hip, they tend to avoid confrontation.”
The True Story of the West
Despite what the media and government textbooks tell us, the west provided us with great insight into what a private and voluntary society would look like. You may even describe it as a libertarian world.
Stagecoaches hired security guards to protect passengers and their goods. Legal institutions were established by mining camps during the gold rush of California. Pioneers settling on land held in the public domain formed land clubs, installed regulations, and maintained property rights. Cattlemen’s associations were widespread to prevent another tragedy of the commons.
People weren’t just randomly shooting each other and taking property because they felt like it.
So, what happened to the true story of the American west? Preeminent libertarian commentator Tom Woods had the answer in his remarkable book, 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask:
“Unusual episodes have often been cited as if they were the norm, thus skewing our conception of the old West. In other cases, principal actors themselves exaggerated the truth in order to cultivate the mystique of the old West. Buffalo Bill Cody, for example, admitted that he had been wounded in battle with Indians not 137 times, as he had claimed, but only once. The 137 figure, though, was more effective in selling dime novels.”
Our imaginations run wild when we’re playing a good game of Cowboys and Indians. But besides the tales of the more common names like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Billy the Kid, and Jesse James, crime was quite limited. Bank robberies were rare, murder rates were low, and shootouts were unique. Think of that the next time you watch High Noon or Johnny Guitar.
What do you think about the wild west? Let us know in the comments section!