Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Myth of the Code of the West

Cattle drovers, El Centro, California, 1972
Among western fans, a lot of deference is paid to something called “The Code of the West.” There apparently was such a code of behavior on the frontier—more likely several codes. Since they were unwritten, there’s no sure way of knowing exactly what they were.

A popular book Cowboy Ethics with beautiful western photographs by David R. Stoecklein gets mentioned by cowboy enthusiasts, often in connection with National Day of the Cowboy. Its subtitle, What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West, gives a curious twist to the subject. Published in 2004, just before the current economic meltdown, it also sounds more than a little prophetic.

Like the Commandments, the author James P. Owen lays out ten rules of conduct that the book calls “The Code of the West.” His source for these rules seems to be the western movies he has seen (Open Range, Shane), not any kind of historical research. Though he claims to have read a stack of books, there’s no list of them to verify that claim.

I’m not writing this to knock Owen’s efforts to get some accountability in the financial industry, or anywhere else for that matter. But while there may be some truth in it, the problem with his argument is that it’s based so thoroughly on myth.

When western fans evoke the Code of the West, it’s nearly always in service of an argument about an ideal American past when men were decent, honest, and incorruptible. My argument is that outside of a handful of idealists, some cowboys among them, that America never existed.

Land sale poster, Texas, 1800s
If you don’t read, you don’t know this. Over and again, reading early western novels, I find an America that’s little different from today. What you learn is that the urge to get rich quick prevailed. Everywhere, there were people gaming the system to milk it for every dollar they could get.

The land giveaways in the West are a prime example. For all those homesteaders with the best of intentions, there were many speculators with no higher aspiration than to buy low and sell high. Greed built boomtowns that were no more than bubbles engineered by profiteers. There were phony investment companies and banks absconding with people’s savings.

The railroad monopolies had their part to play in all this, luring settlers into the West with false promises and then bleeding them dry with crippling freight rates. They bought legislators and judges to look after their interests. The American West was a free-for-all for crooks, swindlers and robber barons.

Working cowboys. The code-abiding cowboy probably existed to a degree. The best evidence of that is his poverty. He worked and worked hard for low wages, and unless he turned to thievery, there was little alternative, given his lack of education and social polish. To tighten their grip on the cattle industry, cattlemen squeezed cowboys out of developing equity in a herd of their own by turning “rustling” into a crime.

Working cowboys, South Dakota, 1888
We know from reading newspaper accounts of the time that cowboys were regarded as a menace to society. Armed as they usually were, young, and given to drink, cowboys were also prone to high-risk, often lethal misbehavior. Some rebelled against the incursions of Eastern-style law and order. A gang of them, as just one example, gave the Earps trouble in Tombstone.

Historically, it makes more sense to see cowboys as social outcasts. Law abiding or law breaking, they clung to a kind of personal honor that men do anywhere who are disadvantaged and opposed by the same adversaries. The codes they lived by originated before the coming of the law in the West, and they remained mostly extra-legal.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Where men administer their own code of conduct, there are rarely any loopholes—and no need for lawyers. That system of justice has a tempting appeal in today's complex world. And its celebration in western movies accounts in large part for their continuing appeal.

But it has nothing to do with a lost America that many western fans believe once existed and yearn for a return to. I would argue that a return to the America of, say, 1885 would find a world little different from our own. Greed, corruption, and malfeasance up and down the social order—and people disadvantaged by them—would prevail as they do now.

And where there was a belief in progress, a hope for a more equitable future would be found everywhere. As we struggle clumsily for that same future today, an honorable code of conduct would do much to making progress toward that goal a reality. But myths about the past won’t do it.

Just my opinion, of course. I’m open to reasoned argument.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Randolph Scott, Man in the Saddle (1951)


  1. I've read more than one account of young men homesteading in the west with the intention of selling out to make enough money to buy a business back east.

  2. Ron, keep of the good work. The idea that that there was some wonderful Golden Age in America's past can only be made by those who are totally unacquainted with both history and human nature.

  3. I'm reading Robert Service's tales of the yukon now, about the gold rush. It sure shows the same thing as what you are saying above, not for the cowboys of the west but for the miners and golddiggers and those who preyed on them.

  4. Thanks, Susan and Mark. Another get-rich-quick scenario in our history was the gold rushes.

  5. Remember Gene Autry's "Cowboy Code"? So much of it is complete nonsense just like the "Code of the West". Good for kids going to B-westerns I guess:

    1-The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man or take unfair advantage.
    2-He must never go back on his word.
    3-He must always tell the truth.
    4-He must be gentle with children, elderly, and animals.
    5-He must not be racially or religiously intolerant.
    6-He must help people in distress.
    7-He must be a good worker.
    8-He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.
    9-He must respect women, parents, and his nations laws.
    10-The Cowboy is a patriot.

  6. I've been searching for am authentic code of the west for years, and haven't found one. They seem to rise from modern perceptions of a mythic past. There is a code, of sorts, in The Virginian, but it too seems to be a transplant brought west by Owen Wister.

  7. So much for the Code of the West. It appears to me that someone along the line mimicked the ten commandments and came up with this code of ethics, but it's like all codes of ethics. Take Congress for example and their Codes. I don't think half even read them and most only pay attention when the finger is pointed at them. The almighty dollar rules the waves and everywhere else and hasn't changed over time. And since we're a Capitalist society, I doubt that it will change. But, it's better than anything else in my estimation.

  8. A great article. I've got a book somewhere (and I can't put my hands on it at the moment) which lists a code of the west. When I find it I'll email the details over. I remember it went something like - respect yourselves and others, accept responsibility for your actions. Now where did I put that book.

  9. I am always surprised that no one figures this out. No there was no "code of the west," but there was a code. Mr. Wheeler above had it right in that it was a "transplant brought west," and it is known as the Victorian ethic, morals and values. Nearly everything in the early Victorian West was brought from the east, including their upbringing.

    Jeff Smith

  10. The thing about the past is that it's the past. But the way we look at it tells more about ourselves than about the historical reality. What we see is usually a stark reflection of what we are- which is why I don't look in the mirror that much.

  11. We always think back to a better time, maybe there's a bit of Eden stuck away in our DNA... Interesting Observations. Have you done any work with the Silver Party movement in the West and it's link to Eastern Populism, both of which seemed to be a backlash to the corruption of the latter part of the 19th Century.

  12. I agree. It's no different from the mythical "Pirates' Code", or the peculiar brand of 'honour' believed to be practiced by English highwaymen. It's easy to view the past with rose-tinted spectacles and to assume that because things were different, people were different. Yet as anyone with a working knowledge of history will attest, if there's one thing that never changes, it's human nature.

  13. Oh but we need a, “Code of the West,” there may have never been a definitive code but we need heroes and my heroes growing up were found in the library and on Saturday morning TV. There may not be a real code but I like to think that those of us who grew up believing in that mythical code of the old west are better for it. Plus it gave me a passion, a career and a lifetime joy of reading.
    As an afterthought I posted something (back when I was more active on the web) about the Wyoming legislature passing their own version of the “Code of the West,” as our official state something-in-a-rather. Still can’t find a politician who has made any attempt to follow it, but they did make the headlines.
    Loved the post-keep up the good work and follow the code.

  14. Fascinating post Ron. Myth indeed, but at the same time very real. Have a look at the website 'codes of the West'( You'll find Gene Autry's Cowboy Code of Honor, Hop along Cassidy's Creed for American Boys and Girls, Wild Bill Hickok Deputy Marshal's Code of Conduct, Buck Jones Cowboy Creed, The Lone Ranger Creed, The Ralston Straight Shooters Pledge of Allegiance of Tom Mix, Roy Rogers Riders Club Rules, Roy Rogers Prayer, and Texas Rangers' "Deputy Ranger" Oath. I would suggest that though based on myth, these codes were very real for millions of kids growing up on saturday matinees and radio westerns, and pledging to adhere to the codes of their heroes, who were living by an imaginary code of an imaginary West. Like 'old guy rambling' says, that generation shaped our post-war western world based in part on those values. Sadly now this generation is passing and I see little to take the place of the code. Great disucssion.

  15. Thanks Ron for your thoughtful blog post. I actually made a film called "Code of the West" which explores the same myth - but with regard to the medical marijuana debate in Montana. More info on our website:

  16. Thanks, everybody, for your generous comments. The topic seems to have hit a chord that a bunch of us can agree on.

  17. On July 2, the California Senate presented us with their National Day of the Cowboy resolution, passed in perpetuity, making the 4th Sat in July the NDOC. As part of the ceremony, CA Senator Ted Gaines (sponsor of the NDOC resolution) offered to read a version of the Cowboy Code of Conduct to the Senate and their guests that day, which he did. As part of our own "Read Em Cowboy" project, we are also giving all the kids who attend, a card containing our version of the Code of Conduct for Cowboys & Cowgirls, just like the cowboy clubs used to do.
    I think people are mistaken in saying there was no such code in the West. There was a definitely a code of the west, but it wasn't just exclusive to the cowboys who followed it. Many people of integrity and good character existed then and still exist today. I know this for a fact because I personally know many such folks.
    Here for your consideration is the National Day of the Cowboy Code of Conduct for Cowboys & Cowgirls:
    1. Live each day with honesty and courage.
    2. Take pride in your work. Always do your best.
    3. Stay curious. Study hard and learn all you can.
    4. Do what has to be done and finish what you start.
    5. Be tough, but fair.
    6. When you make a promise, keep it.
    7. Be clean in thought, word, deed, and dress.
    8. Practice tolerance and understanding of others.
    9. Be willing to stand up for what’s right.
    10. Be an excellent steward of the land and its animals.