From the beginning of time, there has been violence. We experience it everyday. Simply put violence is something that exists in order to cause physical harm, intending to hurt, or kill someone. People are fascinated by violence. Elements of violence exist in almost all parts of pop culture. Many books, plays, movies, and even songs exhibit themes of violence. For some reason people find it entertaining. So it should come as no surprise that people are extremely intrigued by a part of American History Known as “The Wild West” As the name would imply this was a very chaotic time for America.
People have taken such an interest that there has been countless pieces of media written as interpretations of the Wild West. These were written as entertainment, not as factual representations. So certain details were changed in order to make the stories more entertaining. Some of these embellishments began to catch on. The were so common that society began to view some of these embellishments as facts. Eventually it was hard to distinguish fact from fiction. A cowboy went from being a cow herder who got payed next to nothing, to a gunslinging vigilante.
Shootouts in the middle of the street went from almost never happening, to being an everyday occurrence. People began to view the west as this lawless wasteland. A place where every man fends for himself. The truth became more and more difficult to distinguish. It is true that the Wild West was a very violent place. But the violence that occurred either wasn’t entertaining enough, or was too upsetting to put in books and movies. In this essay I will answer the question, In what ways did violence actually occur in the Wild West?
One of the more prevalent sources of violence in the Wild West would be its justice system. Just like any functioning society, the Wild West had its own way of serving, and ensuring justice. In the first couple years after the California gold rush which began in 1848 and prompted countless families to migrate west in search of gold. Communities were lawless. The citizens resisted any attempts of creating a judicial system. As time went on though the citizens began to see that a court system was key to keeping the peace.
But with a system so young and loosely organized, unfortunately the easiest way to fight violence, was with violence. In order for a judicial system to thrive you need both capable Judges, and the full support of the population. The small mining towns of the west rarely had both of these. The U.S. government attempted to intervene by appointing district judges, enforcing an eastern “founding fathers” judicial system . This did improve the situation but there were still many issues. Every defendant had the right to a trial by jury.
The problem with this is that the population of the west was not very educated. The beloved author Mark Twain once recalled a time when a juror who thought that incest and arson were the same thing. Because of the lack of education certain harsher punishments were distributed. An example of this would be when a judge named Charles Parker and his jury tried 91 defendendents. Of those defendants 15 were convicted, 8 recieved life long prison sentences, one was killed trying to escape, and the remaining 6 were sentenced to death. So out of the 15 convicted of murder, 6 were put to death.
Which is 40%This may not seem like a lot but if you compare it to today’s statistic where only 1.15% of convicted murderers are executed, you begin to see just how easily they executed their prisoners. In fact, the man who sentenced those 6 men to death also sentenced 46 other people in just 14 years. Not all western communities subscribed to the judge and jury system. Many small remote towns convicted guilty men not by law, but by sheer common sense. Another name for this is “Lynch law”. The influential members of the community would form a committee where they would carry out justice in whatever way they saw fit. In some communities dozens of men were put to death by these committees.
With no laws set in stone, justice was issued on a case by case basis. And for small towns like that, execution was usually the easiest punishment to give out.The ragtag justice system of the west was responsible for a lot of the violence that occured in the Wild West. But how about those whose violent actions were not inspired for their goals for justice. The robbers, gangsters, bandits. All of them had one thing in common.
They were criminals. One extremely well known criminal was called Billy the Kid. One newspaper ad from 1881 wrote “The notorious gang of outlaws, composed of about twenty- five men, who, under the leadership of ‘ Billy the Kid,’ have for the past six months over- run eastern New Mexico, murdering and committing other deeds of outlawry, was broken up last Saturday morning by the killing of two and the capturing of four others, including the leader.
The prisoners were lodged in Las Vegas jail, and lynching was prevented by the vigilance of the captors, Deputy Sheriff Garrett and others.” – The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser. This shows how well known outlaws were known for causing trouble around the west. The fact that we still remember so many of their names along with their deeds proves just how well known they were.
Most of the violence in the Wild West was not committed by career criminals or judiciary’s. Most of it was committed by your average everyday citizen. While some cowboys and miners did carry guns, the overwhelming majority did not. And when they did it was usually to shoot lame horses, or snakes. Guns were almost never used in disputes. In fact most disputes were solved by fist fights. It was extremely hard to judge cases like these because the laws lacked specifics. For instance, assault was defined by “Intent to harm” Which is fairly difficult to prove in court.
Especially when both sides could plead self defence. Many of these cases were abandoned due to lack of evidence, which did nothing to incentive the citizens to stop fighting. Violence in the Wild West is far from many of our expectations. Most violence was not committed by big scale criminals, or lynch committees, but by the people. If you put people in a stressful situation and remove the restrictions of specific enforceable laws, violence is bound to break out. It’s not as romantic as the movies and books, But it’s equally as important and interesting.