Skip to comments.The Culture of Violence in the American West: Myth versus Reality
Posted on 07/06/2013 3:54:21 PM PDT by Bigtigermike
Contrary to popular perception, the Old West was much more peaceful than American cities are today. The real culture of violence on the frontier during the latter half of the nineteenth century sprang from the U.S. governments policies toward the Plains Indians.
The Not-So-Wild, Wild West.
In a thorough review of the West was violent literature, Bruce Benson (1998) discovered that many historians simply assume that violence was pervasiveeven more so than in modern-day Americaand then theorize about its likely causes. In addition, some authors assume that the West was very violent and then assert, as Joe Franz does, that American violence today reflects our frontier heritage (Franz 1969, qtd. in Benson 1998, 98). Thus, an allegedly violent and stateless society of the nineteenth century is blamed for at least some of the violence in the United States today.
In contrast, an alternative literature based on actual history concludes that the civil society of the American West in the nineteenth century was not very violent. Eugene Hollon writes that the western frontier was a far more civilized, more peaceful and safer place than American society today (1974, x). Terry Anderson and P. J. Hill affirm that although [t]he West . . . is perceived as a place of great chaos, with little respect for property or life, their research indicates that this was not the case; property rights were protected and civil order prevailed. Private agencies provided the necessary basis for an orderly society in which property was protected and conflicts were resolved (1979, 10).
What were these private protective agencies? They were not governments because they did not have a legal monopoly on keeping order. Instead, they included such organizations as land clubs, cattlemens associations, mining camps, and wagon trains.
So-called land clubs were organizations established by settlers before the U.S. government even surveyed the land, let alone started to sell it or give it away. Because disputes over land titles are inevitable, the land clubs adopted their own constitutions, laying out the laws that would define and protect property rights in land (Anderson and Hill 1979, 15). They administered land claims, protected them from outsiders, and arbitrated disputes. Social ostracism was used effectively against those who violated the rules. Establishing property rights in this way minimized disputesand violence.
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 specialistsjustices of the peace and arbitratorsand 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).
When government bureaucrats failed to police cattle rustling effectively, ranchers established cattlemens associations that drew up their own constitutions and hired private protection agencies that were often staffed by expert gunmen. This action deterred cattle rustling. Some of these gunmen did drift in and out of a life of crime, write Anderson and Hill (1979, 18), but they were usually dealt with by the cattlemens associations and never created any kind of large-scale criminal organization, as some have predicted would occur under a regime of private law enforcement.
In sum, this work by Benson, Anderson and Hill, Umbeck, and others challenges with solid historical research the claims made by the West was violent authors. The civil society of the American West in the nineteenth century was much more peaceful than American cities are today, and the evidence suggests that in fact the Old West was not a very violent place at all. History also reveals that the expanded presence of the U.S. government was the real cause of a culture of violence in the American West. If there is anything to the idea that a nineteenth-century culture of violence on the American frontier is the genesis of much of the violence in the United States today, the main source of that culture is therefore government, not civil society.
The Real Cause of Violence in the American West
The real culture of violence in the American West of the latter half of the nineteenth century sprang from the U.S. governments policies toward the Plains Indians. It is untrue that white European settlers were always at war with Indians, as popular folklore contends. After all, Indians assisted the Pilgrims and celebrated the first Thanksgiving with them; John Smith married Pocahontas; a white man (mostly Scots, with some Cherokee), John Ross, was the chief of the Cherokees of Tennessee and North Carolina; and there was always a great deal of trade with Indians, as opposed to violence. As Jennifer Roback has written, Europeans generally acknowledged that the Indians retained possessory rights to their lands. More important, the English recognized the advantage of being on friendly terms with the Indians. Trade with the Indians, especially the fur trade, was profitable. War was costly (1992, 9). Trade and cooperation with the Indians were much more common than conflict and violence during the first half of the nineteenth century.
The change from militia to a standing army took place in the American West immediately upon the conclusion of the War Between the States. The result, say Anderson and McChesney, was that white settlers and railroad corporations were able to socialize the costs of stealing Indian lands by using violence supplied by the U.S. Army. On their own, they were much more likely to negotiate peacefully. Thus, raid replaced trade in whiteIndian relations. Congress even voted in 1871 not to ratify any more Indian treaties, effectively announcing that it no longer sought peaceful relations with the Plains Indians.
Anderson and McChesney do not consider why a standing army replaced militias in 1865, but the reason is not difficult to discern. One has only to read the official pronouncements of the soldiers and political figures who launched a campaign of extermination against the Plains Indians.
On June 27, 1865, General William Tecumseh Sherman was given command of the Military District of the Missouri, which was one of the five military divisions into which the U.S. government had divided the country. Sherman received this command for the purpose of commencing the twenty-five-year war against the Plains Indians, primarily as a form of veiled subsidy to the government-subsidized railroad corporations and other politically connected corporations involved in building the transcontinental railroads. These corporations were the financial backbone of the Republican Party. Indeed, in June 1861, Abraham Lincoln, former legal counsel of the Illinois Central Railroad, called a special emergency session of Congress not to deal with the two-month-old Civil War, but to commence work on the Pacific Railway Act. Subsidizing the transcontinental railroads was a primary (if not the primary) objective of the new Republican Party. As Dee Brown writes in Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow, a history of the building of the transcontinental railroads, Lincolns 1862 Pacific Railway Act assured the fortunes of a dynasty of American families . . . the Brewsters, Bushnells, Olcotts, Harkers, Harrisons, Trowbridges, Lanworthys, Reids, Ogdens, Bradfords, Noyeses, Brooks, Cornells, and dozens of others (2001, 49), all of whom were tied to the Republican Party.
This article appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of The Independent Review - I suggest you read this long article at the link which will be an eye opener a debunk all of the lies that we heard from our history teachers and media.
1. The West wasnt violent and in utter chaos.
2. The Federal Government wasn't around for the most part but people got along fine and made their own rules and guidelines to protect property and bring order and fairness to all
3. Most people out West were not antagonistic towards Native Americans unless provoked and wanted to live in peace but it was the Federal government breaking treaties and committing acts of violence first to stir up the populace
4. Most of the actions towards violence was an result of simple cronyism between the government and corporations
Ask the citizens of Detroit or Chicago when the Wild West was and they will correct you to tell you it is NOW. And the left wing Dhimmicrats foster this violence for their own nefarious purpose.
So the next time a lib gives us the “blood running in the streets like the old west” mantra, we can respond with the fact that murder rates were far lower then, and miniscule in comparison to today’s democrat controlled inner cities with draconian gun laws. Will they listen? Not a chance.
As someone educated in Western American history: arrgghh.
This author is all over the map, cherry picking weird theories while omitting immense amounts of data. He could probably argue that the 20th Century wasn’t violent at all, except for Wilson, “Ol’ Frank” Roosevelt, and Nixon.
After finding the biography of Thomas J. DiLorenzo, much is clarified. He is an economist, not a historian, and he is a kook. He has no idea of what he is talking about.
John Rolfe married Pocahontas.
Lot'a paper validating him, though
.....the so called “Old West” did not have millions of illegal Mexicans or millions of fatherless blacks to contend with..................
Subtract out crime from the foregoing and we would be that “Shining City on the Hill” And, we owe it all to corrupt Marxists democrats buying votes with socialists policies.
So, basically, politicians and bureaucrats have been messing things up for 200 years.
Most of Chicago is fine.
“2. The Federal Government wasn’t around for the most part but people got along fine and made their own rules and guidelines to protect property and bring order and fairness to all “
What people did was set up their own local governments. They weren’t the Federal, or State or necessarily the Territorial governments (the last of which did exist under Federal authority in organized territories) but they were governments. All those organizations the author writes about were governments by another name.
“3. Most people out West were not antagonistic towards Native Americans unless provoked and wanted to live in peace...”
I’m sure they were not antagonistic as long as the Native Americans acquiesced to them doing whatever they wanted to do regardless of what the Native Americans thought of it. And I’m sure the Native Americans didn’t feel the way the Americans of today feel about immigrants who move in but show disregard and or contempt for said Americans.
Just like most of NYC. And LA and all big liberal cities. But in those quarters where it is not...you do not want to even visit
Two more things to throw into the mix:
1. We had a nearly universal Judeo-Christian culture since most immigrants were European or from ‘Christianized’ countries. Wherever they came from, they inherently understood the nature of the Ten Commandments and most sought to live lives in harmony with their religion and their neighbors.
2. Vigilantes were, for the most part, law abiding citizens doing what the gub’mint couldn’t (or wouldn’t in some cases). On the whole, they seem to have been emergency functions of citizens in or under duress from criminals elements. Yeah, some bad things happened, but, hey, at least the gub’mint wasn’t handing out weapons to criminals and drug lords then. The lynch mobs and the racist stuff were mostly the work of Democrats in the South after the war of Northern aggression.
Uh oh: John Smith most certainly DID NOT marry Pocohantas - surely even every schoolchild knows that - She married John Rolfe.
And it’s also really ignorant and stupid to compare the relationship between the Indians of Virginia and Massachusettsa with a handful of coastal settlers in the early 17th century to reaction of completely different tribes of the west to the invading hordes of Americans, backed by a powerful military and the federal government of the late 19th century. It is just ridiculous.
The article makes a case for where the rule of law was established by Christian immigrants.
The rule of law generally did not apply to the Indian tribes of the wild areas of the real frontier.
Excellent article. Thanks for posting it. Interesting take on Lincoln too.
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