Mises Daily

The American West: A Heritage of Peace

A century ago, the American West, and the process of homesteading and Americanization that took place in the lands West of the Mississippi River was seen as a triumph of American drive, ingenuity, and courage; a sheer act of will that required hard work, perseverance, and above all, a spirit of independence and individualism.

In the decades following the closing of the Frontier (as pronounced by Frederick Turner in 1890), this perception of the West changed dramatically. The old view of a divinely inspired spread of Americanism changed to a more ambivalent view by mid-century, and finally, to an openly hostile view today that Western society was (and is) violent, murderous, and chaotic. We are now told that the West, after the coming of the white man, was a land of sadistic Indian murderers, psychopathic outlaws, and misfits who had abandoned the more peaceful life back in the good ol’ civilized U.S. of A.

Whether promoting or condemning the West, though, novelists, filmmakers, and even historians never shied away from giving us many images of murdering Indians, or roaming outlaws, or crazy misfits, but what in an earlier era would have been abnormal behavior in films and images of the West, became standard behavior for denizens of the West in later times.

Much of this revolves around the treatment of Native Americans (and other currently popular minority groups) in film, and with the coming of films like Little Big Man (1970) and Dances with Wolves (1990). Americans have been treated to images of a bucolic, ideal world disrupted by barbaric Americans who stripped the land and all of its people of everything that was good and decent, destroying not only the Native peoples, but also themselves in the process.

There is certainly no doubt that Native American tribes suffered greatly at the hands of government and quasi-government operations aimed at “civilizing” the West, but the unrelenting focus in recent years of these murderous exploits illustrates for us a larger agenda surrounding how we acquire modern perceptions of the American West. This agenda is one of convincing Americans that the American West was inherently violent, unusually unjust, and generally unfit for civilized human habitation. And this indictment now extends not merely to bands of conquering soldiers, but to the common settlers, fathers, husbands, and pretty much everybody else.

Consider the 1992 film Unforgiven. Sometimes called the “unwestern,” this film portrays the West as a place of capricious violence and chaos where law and order is regularly undone by crooked sheriffs, vengeful bounty hunters, and abusive cowpokes.

In recent years, this image of the West as the home of unusually sadistic and frequent violence has been an ever more popular topic of research on the West, with typical additions being Glenda Riley’s A Place to Grow: Women in the American West and Clare V. McKanna‘s Homicide, Race, And Justice in the American West, 1880–1920. Both of these works build on the violent image of the West already provided in Hollywood movies while providing a realistic revisionist picture of nonheroic violence perpetuated by drunks and the “gun culture.” 

The Myth of the Brutal Frontier

The assumption that violence has more often than not been a central reality about Frontier life has long been popular. How we see the violence, though, and whether or not the violence is heroic or just meaningless and tragic has depended on just who is writing the screenplays or doing the research.

This latter point was made recently by William Handley in his book Marriage, Violence, and the Nation in the American Literary West. Handley notes that violence has always been an inherent part of literature and film about the West. The difference between the modern variety of violence, and the older variety, however, is that while newer descriptions of violence in the West are intended to highlight the victimization of a wide variety of groups, the violence of earlier authors like Willa Cather and Zane Grey was intended to illustrate the necessity of violence in establishing civilization in a wild and untamed land.

Of course, with the rise of Post-modernism in the 1960’s, traditional rationales for the settlement of the West lost almost all of their defenders. The last thirty years or so have been bad decades for the reputation of the West.

Thus, while the explanations for the violence changes over the decades, the assumption that violence was the general modus operandi of settlers on the Frontier remained in full force. Yet, since at least the 1970’s, research has indicated that both camps may have been wrong about violence in the West. Excluding the Indian wars of the mid to late 19th century which were lopsided affairs conducted by the United States government, we find that the allegedly inherent violence of the West was not noticeably any greater than that of points east.

Historian Richard Shenkman largely attributes this to the legacy of those reliably-violent Western films. “Many more people have died in Hollywood Westerns than ever died on the real Frontier…[i]n the real Dodge City, for example, there were just five killings in 1878, the most homicidal year in the little town’s Frontier history: scarcely enough to sustain a typical two-hour movie.” 

Shenkman was basing this comment on Historian W. Eugene Hollon’s research in which he notes that in many places like Dodge City, tales of violence were actually accentuated to appeal to the tourist trade in the latter years of the Frontier. This is not difficult to understand considering the movement made popular by promoters of the “West cure,” a fad (much promoted by proto-yuppie Theodore Roosevelt) that claimed that a period of hunting and tough travel out West would make men more masculine.

Hollon reached these conclusions in 1976 with the publication of Frontier Violence: Another Look in which he examined a number of statistical indicators in order to determine the true level of violence in the American West. Historians have been working to refute his conclusions ever since, although the results have been less than conclusive. Adding to Hollon’s thesis in 1983, Robert Dykstra published Cattle Towns which included an examination of the violence in Kansas cattle towns like Abilene, Wichita, and Caldwell. In novels and on the silver screen, these towns became known for their shootouts. But, as Dykstra tells us, the reality was quite different. These cattle towns had an economic interest in ensuring as little violence as possible—and they delivered.

More recently, we find Lethal Imagination: Violence and Brutality in American History, edited by Michael Bellesiles (the now infamous author of Arming America) which contains a number of essays by authors further examining the disappointing reality that the West was actually quite a bit more boring than the movies led us to believe. Indeed, taken together, this body of research leaves us with a West that hardly lives up to the reputation of the Wild West.

As with Dodge City, the excitement in the Old West in general has been much overstated. All the big cattle towns of Kansas combined saw a total of 45 murders during the period of 1870-1885. Dodge City alone saw 15 people die violently from 1876–1885—an average of 1.5 per year. Deadwood, South Dakota and Tombstone, Arizona (home of the O.K. Corral), during their worst years of violence saw four and five murders respectively. Vigilante violence appears to not have been much worse.

According to Dykstra and Richard M. Brown, while the Kansas code gave mayors the power to call a vigilante group from all the men in the town who ranged in ages from 18–50, it seems, at least in Kansas, that it was rarely done. In a span of 38 years, Kansas had only 19 vigilante movements that accounted for 18 deaths. In addition, between 1876 and 1886, no one was lynched or hanged illegally in Dodge City.

Given the money to be made by exploiting the exciting reputation of the Frontier, it should not surprise us that Dodge City was hardly alone in manufacturing tales of blazing guns to attract men seeking adventure. Towns like Tombstone, Abilene and Deadwood all played up their supposed histories of Frontier violence. On closer inspection, though, the records are not nearly as exciting. (For more, see “The Not So Wild Wild West“ by Terry Anderson.)

If the movies and novels about the West are so unreliable then, what can we learn from documented cases about real life violence in the West? Certainly, a case that would have to jump out at us as the quintessential blood feud in the West would be the Lincoln County war of 1878–81. As the name implies, this unpleasantness was quite disruptive to southern New Mexico, and produced quite its share of corpses. But even then, we find a body count intolerably low by Hollywood standards.  

Like many similar feuds on the Frontier, the Lincoln County War began as a land dispute that turned violent following a variety of unsavory actions taken by government authorities. The war was touched off by a legal dispute between established cattlemen L.G. Murphy and J.J. Dolan who used their connections with US officials in the area as well as with the Army at Fort Stanton, to secure economic control over the cattle and merchant economies of Lincoln county. In 1877, Alexander McSween and John Tunstall, along with competing cattleman John Chisum, began to challenge the control of Murphy and Dolan as well as the favoritism they had long been receiving from territorial officials.

In turn, after being harassed and arrested at the request of a US attorney, McSween was eventually legally out-maneuvered by Murphy and Dolan as they continued to call in government favors in order to ruin their new competition. Sheriff William Brady received a court order to seize property belonging to both McSween and his partner Tunstall, but on the way to the Tunstall ranch, the Sheriff’s posse gunned down Tunstall in cold blood after he had surrendered his gun, setting off the most violent part of the war.

Present at Tunstall’s murder was a young man Tunstall had recently taken under his wing, William H. Bonney, alias Billy the Kid. The Kid swore to avenge Tunstall’s death, and by 1881, after a gunfight at McSween’s home (where the Army was brought in against McSween and his men, and Mcsween’s house was burned to the ground by the Sheriff’s men), Sheriff Brady, several deputies, McSween, and at least 6 of his men we killed including Billy the Kid.

Yet, when the smoke cleared from this unusually violent conflagration, the legend remains far more violent than the reality. After all, authorities have only been able to prove that Billy the Kid, generally regarded as the most blood-soaked participant in the Lincoln County war, killed 3 people. Most agree that he could have killed as many as three or four more people, but considering the circumstances, it is difficult to ascertain how The Kid managed to gain a reputation as a “psychopathic killer” or how stories began to circulate of how he had “killed 21 men by the time he was 21.” 

Much of the confusion was due, as Richard Shenkman indicates, to American movies. Films that depict the Lincoln County War like Chisum (1970) (which portrays Billy as a rather sympathetic character), and Young Guns (1988) (which makes Billy look a bit more crazy), play up the violence for obvious reasons. However, even considering the rather alarming body count (by contemporary as well as modern standards), events like the Lincoln County war were hardly everyday occurrences, and in the end, those involved were corrupt officials and cowboys who didn’t much care for having their friends gunned down by unscrupulous Sheriff’s deputies.

How this translates into the Frontier being essentially uncivilized and coming apart at the seams remains to be seen. For its part at least, Chisum did portray the struggle of the individual against the state and against outlaws, and does celebrate the self-reliant man. But the violence of the West contained in Chisum and in hundreds of pictures like it, has helped to burn an image of an inherently violent Frontier into the minds of Americans. And in recent decades, this image has now been turned from glorifying nationalism on the Frontier, to a new one of showing—almost exclusively—the Frontier’s horrors.

Western Lore and Liberty

Whether or not the American Frontier was a place anyone would want to live is of great importance in the story of American liberty. An essential and remarkable characteristic of the Frontier West, of course, is that it was more or less self-policing. In most cases, it was little more than a loose confederation of municipalities and local governments held together only by economic interests and a dim loyalty to a far-off national government that in the early days of the Frontier was virtually invisible, and in later times was still represented by little more than small bands of cavalry.

In other words, it was a quite libertarian society where political power was locally controlled, economic dealings were virtually unregulated, and defense of an individual’s property was usually the responsibility of the individual.

The Frontier was a place where people went to make money, and they stayed there if they made it. If they failed, they returned to the East. Certainly, many people died unpleasant deaths on the Frontier from disease, accidents, and general misfortune, but such things were sure to befall travelers undertaking similar endeavors anywhere in the world in the 19th century.

The truly important question is whether or not human beings on the Frontier were less prosperous, more violent, and generally more barbaric than their counterparts in more “civilized” parts of the world. If this can be proven to be the case, then the case for active government, commercial regulation, and an aggressive police apparatus is granted much more currency in the minds of Americans. And certainly, this is what critics of Frontier society have been attempting to do for a long time.

The settling of the American Frontier represents some of the most undirected, spontaneous and free settling of land seen since the ancient world. All modern Frontier states (i.e., Australia, Canada, and the Latin American countries) were settled for largely economic reasons by courageous settlers willing to brave an unknown geography, but nowhere was the State less involved in this settlement than on the American Frontier.

The wagon train era which we so closely identify with the settlement of the West was started by the Mormons, who while also largely motivated by religious freedom considerations, quickly set up shop (literally) in their new environs and began trading with both the Americans in the east and with the Mexican settlers on the West Coast (as well as Indians). While many other Americans began to brave the plains to travel to the riches described in the guidebooks about Oregon and California, the trend only began to really accelerate after the discovery of gold in California in 1849. By 1850, there were literally thousands of wagon trains on the trail to California with one train rarely out of sight of another.

Entire industries grew up around getting people to their destinations, and serving them once they got there. Markets for scouts, guides, equipment, guidebooks, and teamsters were all readily supplied by enthusiastic entrepreneurs. While government surveyors like Charles Fremont promoted and helped map the West, the actual settling was always done by men and women looking to make a better living in a new land. In other words, civilization was brought to the West by private citizens, private entrepreneurs, and private law enforcement.

Indeed, as Louis L’amour has noted, many wagon trains of the day had been organized like small armies, complete with embroidered uniforms that resembled “an army detachment.” And certainly this made sense, since once on the plains, the settlers could look to no one but themselves for defense against outlaws, Indians, and their own members. And yet, with no “help” from federal regulators, police, or social workers, the American Frontier became a source of riches for thousands and thousands of farmers, ranchers, miners, merchants, and any other entrepreneur willing to fill a need. Settlements sprang up where money could be made.

Unlike government-planned Frontier outposts in British and Spanish colonies, the American Frontier town was often formed out of little more than a few ramshackle buildings and a latrine (if you were lucky). But of course, wherever money was to be made, civilization followed. Interestingly, the effects of the government-planning approach can still be witnessed in Siberia where the Soviets (and the Czars before them) expended much effort and treasure attempting to settle the Frontiers of their east.

A few withering settlements still remain there, but they are now little more than reminders of a failed attempt to settle a Frontier without the entrepreneurs, the bankers, the churchmen, and everyone else that it takes to create a civilization where none existed before. The settling of the West was unplanned, unregulated, and free of virtually all the paternalism growing up everywhere in the Western world.

The Civil War and the Violence of the East

In many ways, the American Civil War fundamentally changed the way the Frontier was settled. The war changed the settlers, the economy, and especially the federal government that would eventually send its soldiers to put a new face on the American West. While the settlement continued, the war, which drew men and their families back to their cities and towns of origin in the East (both North and South), slowed settlement considerably.

The citizens of small Frontier towns like Denver, for example, then bickered over whether they would consider themselves to be Northern or Southern. The stars and bars might be flown over city hall one minute only to be torn down and replaced by the stars and stripes the next. In many places, Northern or Southern loyalties were decided simply by whether the majority of a town’s population hailed from Northern or Southern states. Those unfortunate enough to be on the losing side of this discussion were frequently run out of town. The killing, though, was mostly going on back east, and when the war was finally over, the settlers who returned had seen a kind of wholesale violence never experienced on the Frontier.

Consequently, the post-Civil War Frontier was populated by men intimately familiar with killing their fellow human beings. Just as today, when we are scarcely surprised to hear about domestic violence on Army bases or that Timothy McVeigh and beltway sniper John Allen Muhammad received their weapons training in the U.S military, so we can reason that the Civil War veterans of the Frontier might have produced a more violent society themselves.

To be sure, records indicate that in many places around the country, violent crime increased by as much as 50 percent following the war. The West was not immune to this. That the Frontier was uniquely violent in this period, however, is hardly the conclusions we must come to. Since the East would have retained its share of veterans, we still find little that is uniquely violent about the West when taking a comparative approach. Indeed, the ethnic strife of the newly impoverished Southern countryside and the crowded Northern cities would have made the relative quiet of the Frontier a welcome change of pace.

The greatest change in the West, however, was the sudden appearance of a battle hardened and well-equipped cavalry sent by Republican presidents to clear the West of Indians. These Civil War veterans brought a brutality and efficiency to the West unheard of before the war. After four years of killing Southerners, the cavalrymen of these later Indian wars cleared the way for settlement, but also built up a federal apparatus that has persisted to this day.

This phase of the Frontier then, would certainly fall well within William Handley’s discussion of the nationalistic explanation for violence of the West, and this aspect of Frontier settlement has been portrayed in countless novels and films in positive and negative terms.

But, the true settlement of the West was not dependent on the soldier with the rifle, but on the blacksmith, the school teacher, and the saloon owner. The federal soldiers could have murdered every Indian between the Mississippi and the Pacific (which would have suited civil war “heroes” and Indian fighters like Generals Sherman and Sheridan fine) but in the end, it is not armies that settle frontiers. Private citizens build the towns, dig the sewers, and ship the goods that make a decent life possible.

Government to the Rescue

All too often, however, the model of the Frontier settler that suits both the nationalistic mythmaker and the modern anti-nationalist mythmaker is the portrayal of the settler-as-victim. This has been quite popular in novels and in film simply for its versatility as a plot device, but it has also been employed as a propaganda tool. Louis L’amour’s The Tall Stranger for example, features a battle-hardened gunfighter who saves a naive wagon train duped by a con man (essentially a re-telling of the Donner Party story with a happy ending). More famously, A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and the Magnificent Seven (1960) feature similar dynamics (and were both based on Akira Kurosawa films about wandering Samurai saving cowering villagers from outlaws).

Probably most notable in the pathetic villager genre, however, is High Noon (1952), with Gary Cooper fruitlessly attempting to recruit a posse to beat back invading outlaws. By the end of the film, Marshal Will Kane (Cooper), disgusted with the lack of courage in the town, tosses his star into the dust of the Frontier town “too dishonorable to deserve protection.” 

As film historian Thomas Doherty notes, the “slanderous central conceit” of High Noon was that “the Old West was packed with no-account yellow-bellies.”  Notably, the cowardly townspeople are concerned about real-estate values, and boring old business matters rather than with settling scores with the bad guys. The government Marshal is heroic. The local merchants are cowards. It’s a formula that would work well in any anti-corporate propaganda piece hitting the screens today, but it is especially damaging to the image of the Old West as the supposed refuge of the individualist.  

Most writers of Western films and novels have little interest in proving that the West was a desolate land of the victimized, yet the images propagated by such writers is essential to how Americans now view the settlement of the Frontier. Intended or not, this image has now become an important component of the revisionist efforts to portray the West as a violent free-for-all where only the strong survive, and the weak meekly wait for a shameful end. Research like that of Riley and McKanna as mentioned above, therefore, naturally appeal to that part of the American psyche that sees violence and chaos as the price of settling in a free country.

Thus, violence, while it was first used in Western lore as a vehicle to show the adversity overcome in order to establish the civilizing influence of Anglo-Saxon civilization over the presumably barbarous Indians and Mexicans, has come to be used as a symbol of how the settlers victimized themselves. The women and children of the West are now often portrayed in fiction and in research as hapless victims of a society run amok. The new paradigm is one of the West being settled by the human refuse of the east. The solution to this horrendous state of affairs, then, comes only when the bureaucracy, the police, and the politicians of the East set up shop in the West and bring an end to the chaos.

A Workable Anarchy  

The American West, regardless of how it is portrayed, is a powerful image for Americans, and few things are seen as more archetypal to the American national identity than the life of the Frontier settler. It is not surprising then, that such a long battle has raged over who could claim these images as proving one’s fundamental assumptions about Americans. For both the nationalist promoters of Manifest Destiny and the modern proponents of the settler-as-victim image, violence has been a key factor in describing the life of the West.

Was the West a barely livable place replete with antisocial trigger-happy misfits and rampaging Indians and tyrannical capitalists?  Much of the evidence would indicate that it was not. Few would argue that life in the 19th century was luxurious for any more than a tiny minority, but even when it can be shown (as it has) that ethnic strife, homicide, and domestic violence were constantly present on the Frontier, this does little in the way of showing that such problems were less of a problem in the cities of the East.

The Civil War, even if we adjust for population density, killed more people and ruined more lives through direct state action than dozens of bands of outlaws and abusive husbands could have ever accomplished on the Frontier. The violence surrounding the “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” campaigns in cities against Catholic immigrants and Southern whites, immigrant riots against blacks (as in the case of the New York Draft Riots), Republicans against Democrats, lynchings, murders in the slums, and so on, all illustrate the kinds of dangers that could have been experienced in a myriad of places in the world in the 19th century.

The defense raised in turn by the detractor of the West is that, had the West had the population density of the East, given the alleged sociopathic tendencies of the Western settlers, violence per capita would surely have been greater. But of course, had the Frontier been like the East, it wouldn’t have been the Frontier. The population in the West was small and dispersed, which was part of the draw. For many families, it was far preferable to scratch a living from the soil on the Frontier where one could be left alone than to deal with commonplace violence in the cities back east. They took with them their ingenuity, their knowledge, and their families, and they planted civilization where none had existed before.

Ultimately, the greatest threat to the opponents of liberty when discussing the American West, is that if the Frontier can be shown to be a civil and civilized society, this offers a powerful example of a self-sufficient society existing apart from the increasingly overbearing machinery of government growing daily in the cities of the East and in Europe.

If the American Frontier could produce trade, towns, learning, and prosperity in the absence of a centralized and bureaucratic state (which it did), then the power of individuals working together for economic prosperity exists as a significant problem for the proponents of the modern State.

Indeed, 90% of the daily activity among settlers was trade-related and therefore peaceful, for as Ludwig von Mises noted, economic cooperation among individuals is the essence of peace, while the taxation, the regulation, the policing, and the wars produced by states is the essence of violence and coercion.

Even before Americans arrived in the West, Spaniards, Mexicans, Indians, Russians and Brits had been trading, exploring, mining, and living in there. Men and women settled the West with a mind toward peace and economic independence. With the ambitions of states, however, came wars of conquest against the Mexicans, against Indians, and even against disaffected Americans (such as the Mormons) who sought a life in the West free of the meddling government in the well-regulated and “civilized” world of the East.

And while the different economic, religious, ethnic, and cultural groups that settled the West might have quarreled and competed for space and economic success, the creation of a civilization could only be done by individuals bringing with them a diverse array of knowledge, skills, religions, and ideologies. These individuals did always share a few things in common, however. As historian Carl Becker noted, the men and women of the West had learned that to rely on the State was a waste of time. Their efforts were best placed elsewhere: “Altogether adverse to hesitancy, doubt, speculative or introspective tendencies, the frontiersman is a man of faith. A faith not so much in external power as in himself, in luck, his destiny; faith in the possibility of achieving whatever is necessary.”

Naturally, many failed in their attempts to set up a prosperous life in the West. But, no society since the dawn of civilization has been able to offer anything more than the mere opportunity for success. Life in all times and places has been fraught with risk. Had Americans of the 19th century had access to the technology and medical science we now enjoy, the settlement of the West would have no doubt been immeasurably easier, yet it still could not have been accomplished without those brave individuals willing to live in a strange and unsettled land where they possessed little to rely on other than themselves.

Glorious Tedium

Unfortunately for novelists and filmmakers, the American West was far less exciting than we have long been led to believe. The frontiersmen knew this themselves. In his old age, Buffalo Bill Cody, one of the most flamboyant architects of our perceptions of the West, openly admitted to lying about his violent exploits to sell more dime novels. He was, after all, wounded in battle with Indians exactly once, not 137 times as he claimed. And such tales are no doubt popular with many Americans today who seem increasingly open to believing almost anything about the West as long as it is simultaneously exciting and violent and bleak.

As with so many success stories, however, the story of the West is primarily a story of hard work, trade, tedium, and peace. The original mythmakers would have us believe that the settlement of the West was some kind of crusade. A war of righteous American legions against everybody else. In reality, there were no legions, and there was certainly very little righteousness.

There were men and women trying to make a better life for themselves, acting under their own will, and pursuing their own ends. On the other end of the spectrum, the purveyors of the new Western victimology would have us believe that these individuals brought with them messiah complexes and violent tendencies which would never be brought under control until “civilization” caught up with them. Yet, the messiah complexes, the “Manifest Destiny,” and the raging violence have always mostly resided in the minds of politicians, pundits, novelists, and movie directors; none of whom ever tamed any land harsher then their own back yards.   


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