“Anarchy” in the (not-so-wild) Wild West

Terry L. Anderson and P.J. Hill debunking myths about the Wild West (channeling Frank Prassel):

To show that the West was more “lawless” than our present day society tells one very little unless some measure of the “demand for law and order” is available. “While the frontier society may appear to have functioned with many violations of formal law, it sometimes more truly reflected community customs in conflict with superficial and at times alien standards.” 

In other words, to say that the Wild West was “lawless” presumes that its inhabitants demanded more law and order than that which existed. As Anderson and Hill note earlier in the essay, preferences for law and order can differ across time and people. Calling the Wild West “lawless” superimposes modern-day standards of law and order onto a society that very well may have felt more than happy with the level of law and order extant in their society.

It’s hard to tell whether people in the Wild West were happy with what laws existed there, but the fact that the region saw huge levels of immigration for decades on end, and while the region was certainly “lawless” by today’s standards, says something. If the lack of formal “law and order” in the Wild West was really so terrible and allegedly led to so much chaos and death, why did people continue settling there?

Some other interesting tidbits from the essay…

  • Between 1870 and 1885, only five homicides were reported in the five of the major cattle towns (Abilene, Ellsworth, Wichita, Dodge City and Caldwell).
  • In Abilene, no one was killed in either 1869 or 1870.
  • Only Ellsworth and Dodge City ever had five killings in any one year.

Granted, these cattle towns were fairly small (think several hundred up to 5,000). But considering there was no formal law enforcement and most inhabitants were migrant workers with little connection to one another, I think that’s impressive.

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