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The Code of the West

Although ranchers and cowboys made something of a fetish of individualism, they nevertheless behaved, or pretended to behave, by an unwritten set of rules that came to be known collectively as the code of the West. It was a most peculiar code—in part a canon of ethics, in part a rationalization for rapacity and sometimes an excuse for murder.

In its more benign application the code was a sort of frontier version of the Golden Rule. A cattleman fed a visitor because he might himself be far from home next month. He asked no questions of strangers because in leaner days he might himself have preferred not to have his affairs pried into. He returned stray cattle because his own livestock might wander.

Nevertheless, the rancher was not bothered by inconsistencies in his use of the code. Protection of property was an integral part of the canon, so he erected fences; meanwhile he cut his neighbor's fences (freedom of the plains was also enshrined in the code).

The Sunday-school aspect of this unwritten book of laws disappeared en tirely when the cattleman felt himself threatened. The code gave him the right to set up vigilance committees whose members acted as sheriffs, prosecutors, judges and executioners, dispensing justice on the spot. If no vigilantes were available for the job, he took matters into his own hands; the grim results of one such episode are pictured below. In the final analysis the code was whatever a man said it was — and if some of the noblest deeds of the Old West were performed in its name, it also accounted for some of the most sordid. Since there was little or no law in the Old West, the cowboy made his own rules from the outset. In his unwritten code there were certain principles understood by nearly everyone, and stories of the range are filled with examples of their observance.

In Lavaca County, Texas, one February day in 1874, cattleman Willis McCutcheon sized up a spunky young lad named West and decided that despite his youth he'd do to drive the McCutcheon firm's first herd of the year to Ellsworth, Kansas. "You'll get half of whatever these cows bring over the price per head after expenses," McCutcheon promised. The boy said that would do.

The drive was halfway to Ellsworth when a five- hour blizzard killed the trail crew's remuda of 78 horses. Having promised to get the cattle through, West traded some cows—and with them part of his profits—for six horses and a mule. A month later he managed to get the cattle to the Kansas market. He sold them off a few at a time during the summer and fall.

When West finally returned to Lavaca County in December, McCutcheon's bookkeeper figured the profits, deducting the value of the lost horses (West made no objection). "Are you going to buy a herd of your own, or start a bank?" the bookkeeper joked as he handed over the young man's profit — 75 cents. West smiled and pocketed the coins without a complaint at the outcome of a deal that he had sealed with his word.

In 1876 cattlemen near Fort Griffin, Texas, formed a vigilance committee to put down an epidemic of horse thieving. On April 9 the vigilantes, patrolling at night, caught a man in the act and immediately hanged him from the nearest pecan tree. Beneath the dangling body they left a pick and shovel in case someone cared enough to dig a grave. Of such activities a local newspaper commented: "As long as the committee strings up the right parties, it has the well wishes of every lover of tranquillity."

Two cowpunchers out looking for work rode up to a Texas ranch in time for dinner, expecting the customary offer of a free meal. The boss fed them, but afterward demanded 50 cents in payment. Outraged at this violation of Western hospitality, the men roped a three-year-old steer belonging to their host and used a saddle ring to brand on its flanks the message: "Meals—50 cts." The steer was left to roam the range and proclaim the owner's ignominy.

The contractual bond of a man's word, the noose for all horse thieves, the obligation of hospitality to a visiting cowboy — these were among the cardinal principles of the code, but there were a great many more. Certainly rules were required, because the conditions of life in the West cried out for some regulation of man's activities. Opportunities for dubious deeds were almost unlimited. On the open range wandering cattle were virtually unprotected from rustlers. With boundary lines in constant dispute fences were sometimes uprooted as fast as they could be strung across the land. The consequent confrontations frequently led to gunplay— and when this happened the code itself often broke down. But in such an atmosphere of violence it is surprising that any rules prevailed at all.

Indeed, the code of the West and the violence that helped create it not only existed side by side in an inextricable symbiosis, but together formed the principal breeding ground for the legend that Westerners themselves soon began to export to the credulous East, initially in the form of dime novels and Wild West shows that glorified both the code and the violence.

In its simplest form the code was merely a common ethic of fair play, and it worked reasonably well. At the N Bar Ranch in Montana, for example, the foreman fired a hand because he failed to pay a prostitute her promised fee. On the bank of the Colorado River in Texas a young puncher, asked to take the lead in swimming the herd across, said that while he was not a good swimmer and was afraid of the water "I am a hired hand and will not shirk my duty." He made it.

Some of the fine points of the code dictated horsemen's etiquette. No one borrowed a horse from another man's string without his permission (which was rarely given). One did not whip or kick a borrowed horse. When two mounted cowboys approached each other on the trail both were supposed to keep course and perhaps pass a friendly word; to veer off was to suggest furtiveness —or even danger. But a wave of greeting was considered bad form —it might scare a horse. If one man dismounted, the other did too, so they would meet on equal terms. A man on foot did not grab the bridle of a mounted man's horse, for that could be taken as an intrusion on the rider's control.

Other rules of the code governed the practicalities of rangeland housekeeping. Cowboys were expected to close pasture and corral gates behind them, and to remove their sharp- roweled spurs when they entered another man's house. On roundup a cowboy did not wait for his fellow hands to arrive before beginning his meal; he helped himself and began eating at once so he would be out of the way when other punchers came to dip food from the common pots and pans.

In matters of money, most cowboys bound themselves to be trusting and trustworthy. One North Dakota hand gave back part of his wages for digging postholes because he realized later he had dug one of them too shallow. At payoff time on the range bosses might dump sacks of money on the ground and leave them there, unmolested, for days at a time until the boys came by to pick up their wages. On a handshake cattle buyers would take whole herds sight unseen. G. W. Rourke, a railroad agent at Dodge City, recalled, "I've seen many a transaction in steers, running as high as 5,000 head and involving more than $100,000, closed and carried out to the letter, with no semblance of a written contract." In the market crash of 1873 Texas cattlemen, stuck with notes totaling $1.5 million to Kansas banks, paid off the debts almost to the penny—at the price of personal ruin for a number of the ranchers.

In such straightforward activities and transactions the code worked well for both sides. When differenc- es of opinion or disputes arose, however, the cowman tended to change his definition of the code. Taking matters into his own hands, he rationalized his behavior as fol- lowing a code, but this time the code was distinctly one-sided. Now the emphasis was on might rather than right. Property—legitimately owned or not— took precedence over people. It was true, as up- holders of this unilateral ethic sometimes argued, that on the frontier vigilance committees helped to bring order where none existed. And in the name of swift jus- tice a number of deserving stage robbers, horse thieves, fence cutters and even a few cattle rustlers got strung up. But too often these demimobs killed on mere sus- picion. Some of the vigilance committees did double duty as musclemen for the cattle barons who sometimes acted more like robber barons. And too often these armed groups were able to subvert what justice there was on the range. One night in 1879 night riders hanged a prostitute and a saloonkeeper whose principal crime had been to set up small homesteads on land coveted by the powerful cattlemen. The vigilantes were arrested. But their members included some ranchers, and they persuaded the local press, and ultimately the jury, that the victims were blackhearted cattle thieves. The vigilantes were acquitted.

The cowmen's attitude toward rustling illustrates how their code of ethics could be strained. The penalty for stealing cattle seemed to depend, in large part, on Who you were or 'how you did it. When 'Texas teemed with wild longhorns right after the Civil War cowmen routinely branded unmarked animals as their own, considering them a natural resource—which in most cases they were —comparable to the nuggets of gold that miners found in creek beds. Cowman John James Haynes told how he built a pen to trap strays and confined them there without water or grass until they were tame enough to drive to other pens. "We kept this up until we had about a thousand head of maverick yearlings," he said. Years later, long after the last wild longhorn had been corralled, some cowmen still would pick up any uribranded cow on sight and claim it, even if the rightful owner was just over the next divide. One rancher wrote, tongue in cheek, that since many ranchers neglected to brand their cattle by the time they were a year old, "I adopted some of those neglected yearlings and put my brand on them."

In time an understanding grew that a maverick belonged to the owner of the range where the animal was found and could be branded accordingly. But the fact was that range ownership itself was a crazy quilt of overlapping claims, and the finder might be genuinely uncertain about which rancher really owned any part of a given pasture. So enterprising individuals naturally interpreted the rule in their own favor.

Rustling, in short, was not generally regarded as a grave breach of ethics when it was done among friends and with decent restraint. Between neighboring barons a little maverick snitching met with smiling tolerance. One cattleman announced that he was serving a friend at dinner with "something you've never eaten before - your own beef."

Key employees of the big outfits also qualified under this loose set of rules and were permitted by their bosses to do a bit of freelance rustling. A ranch foreman might register a brand of his own, hoping some day to start a herd. Riding his boss's range 20 miles from any other human being, he finds a maverick. He builds a fire and heats his running iron. Somehow the design comes out as his own brand, not the boss's. Pretty soon the foreman has a little herd of cattle all his own, grazing right on the boss's grass in a coulee where no one would bother to look.

Some big ranchers, having started this way themselves, maintained a certain respect for such initiative. When a veteran cowpuncher named George Clutts arrived at Charlie Goodnight's ranch in Texas and asked for a job, Goodnight greeted him with the challenge: "George, they say you're a cow thief." The cowboy replied, "They say the same thing about you, Mr. Goodnight." Impressed by this brash logic, the cattle baron instructed his foreman to find Clutts a job.

It was the stranger — the lone cowboy with little means or the farmer — who found that this capricious set of rules did not apply to him. For the solitary rustler there was a simpler code, which dictated summary punishment. In Texas a lone rustler named John Leaverton was caught slapping his brand on the favorite calf of a rich rancher in Adobe Walls; when he imprudently showed fight he was killed on the spot. In 1875 cowmen in Mason County, Texas, broke into jail to grab five rustlers and swiftly executed three of them (the sheriff appeared in time to save the other two). Elsewhere around the West, ranch managers like John Clay of the VVV in South Dakota openly sanctioned lynching of cattle thieves. The crime in such instances appeared to be lack of social or business connections as much as actual rustling.

Most rustlers, not surprisingly, dropped any pretense of ethical behavior. Not only did they simply appropriate mavericks they found, but they also manufactured artificial mavericks, usually by nullifying the instinct that keeps cow and calf together for nearly a year. The simplest method was to pen a bunch of calves and drive their mothers away. Other cattle thieves slit the calves' tongues so they could not suckle, or cut their eyelid muscles so they could not see to return to their mothers, or burned them between the toes to keep them from walking to the cows. Once the calves got used to grazing instead of suckling, they would drift off from their mothers, and the rustlers could brand these new mavericks as their own.

Equally ingenious and iniquitous was the practice of brand changing, a dark science by which a skilled man could, with a couple of quick strokes, transform a V into a diamond and wind up with a cow of his own. The mere possession of a running iron — a metal rod with a curved end that could be used to alter a brand —came in time to qualify a man for the noose. Rustlers then learned to burn brands with cinch rings or telegraph wires. Sometimes they created a temporary brand by cutting away a cow's hair with a jackknife. Another even more subtle rustling technique was to put a wet sack between the hot branding iron and the hide of the cow. This so-called cold-branding method served to delude the true owner into believing that his calves were branded. But after hair grew over the temporary marks the rustlers could burn in their own brands — deep, permanent and unblurred by the earlier marking.

The problems of law enforcement and codes of behavior became really chaotic when, as sometimes happened, the rustlers banded together with farmers and townsmen in open defiance of the cattlemen. In certain areas they actually controlled enough votes to elect sheriffs, judges and county commissioners. Frequently the confrontations that followed developed into range warfare. In 1892 the established cattlemen of Johnson County, Wyoming, reacted to the threat of organized rustling by importing 20 gunslingers from Texas. The mercenaries arrived on a special train, laid siege to the first band of rustlers they found, killed one and suddenly found themselves in trouble. Rustlers came all the way from the Platte to the Powder River to join their comrades. Reinforced by nesters, disaffected cowhands and assorted other enemies of the cattle barons, the outlaws closed in with a countersiege so devastating that the ranchers sent a cry for help to the Governor's mansion. Law—or at best the power of local authority —finally prevailed. The Governor called in the militia, which rescued the hired gunfighters and their leaders.

Although cattle rustling might be winked at under some circumstances, there were hard and fast rules for dealing with the horse thief. Unlike official laws written long before in the East — where horse stealing was a misdemeanor because the animal was worth only about $25 —the unwritten law of the Western plains measured horse theft severely because it could leave a man afoot in hostile country. Thus the code's penalty for horse stealing was instant execution. Granville Stuart, who had been known to give fair warning to cattle rustlers before lynching them, felt no such compunctions when he and his vigilantes went after some horse thieves in 1884. Trapping part of the gang in a cabin, Stuart's men set the house afire and killed three of the thieves. Four of the horse stealers escaped to the banks of the Missouri, tied some logs into a raft and floated away, only to be arrested downstream by a group of soldiers and turned over to a U.S. marshal. But neither the marshal nor the law could protect the horse thieves from the vigilantes. "At the mouth of the Musselshell," Stuart reported, "a posse met the marshal and took the prisoners from him. Nearby stood two log cabins close together. A log was placed between the cabins, the ends resting on the roofs, and the four men were hanged from the log."

The cattleman's code was almost equally severe on the sheepherder. Sheep grazed grass down to the roots, then cut the roots with their sharp hoofs, ruining the pasturage for cattle. Furthermore, the ranchers believed — wrongly —that sheep could spoil lush pasture simply by walking across the range; all sheep secrete a sticky fluid from a gland between their toes, and ranchers accepted the myth that cattle were repelled by the smell. The coming of sheep thus seemed to represent a theft of the grassland that cattlemen regarded as their rightful property. Vigilance groups rode out at night to get it back. One August evening in the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming, masked cowmen, using guns, dynamite and clubs, killed 4,000 sheep, burned wagons and ran the remaining sheep out of the country. In Colorado 1,000 sheep were driven over a cliff — a method of mass slaughter quaintly known as rimrocking. In South Dakota 32 cattlemen killed a sheepherder, and then, in an afterthought remarkably generous in the history of the cattle-vs.-sheep vendetta, gave his widow $1,000 in gold to square things. Many Texans put a much lower value — something around zero — on the lives of sheepherders since so many of them were foreigners. Grazing sheep was a job that attracted Basques, Frenchmen, Mexicans, Scots and Englishmen

The arrival of barbed wire on the range triggered a crisis for the code and revealed how Janus-faced it could be. By his use of the fence, or his efforts to destroy it, the cowboy simply changed the rules to serve his own situation: if the cattleman jealously protected his land (plus perhaps a little more that didn't actually belong to him) he built a fence; but if he preferred open land (or had little he could claim) he cut others' fences down.

The first Westerners to see barbed wire were so mystified by it that they guessed it might be intended for horses' bits. But the remarkable utility of barbed wire as a cheap, strong fence soon became obvious, and many cowmen began to enclose the land. In Archer County, Texas, the fence mania was so great that at one time the county seat could be reached only by snipping someone's barbed wire. Such overzealous wiring outraged the open-range ranchers, who felt that the whole outdoors should be free to everyone. Fencing also antagonized small stockmen, who began to find the choice water holes fenced off; nesters, whose small farms were completely enclosed; and even the cowboys, who felt that cheap fencing material would reduce the need for range riders.

In an unlikely alliance farmers, rustlers and some small ranchers banded together to destroy all fences. When Texas cowman R. A. Davis built a four-strand fence around a 1,000-acre pasture, he discovered two days later that it had been cut in 3,500 places. The Galveston News reported in 1883 that 20 miles of fence on the property of the Hickey Pasture Company had been hacked to bits because the neighbors needed the enclosed water.

It was inevitable that the confrontation between the fencers and the fence cutters, like that of the rustlers and the ranchers, would erupt into shooting. Whether it flared over fences, water rights, sheep or cattle, gunplay somehow came to be the gaudiest and most popular symbol of the cowboy.

The gunfight, according to the popular mythology of the West, was the ultimate expression of the cowboy's code. A man was not a man unless he could coolly face death and fight for his good name. This was the American equivalent of the European duel, with similarly punctilious rules of conduct and the same emphasis on honor above all else. In historical fact, however, the classic gunfight was virtually the invention of the pulp novelists and the 19th Century journalists. Only a few such shoot-outs ever occurred. In an 1893 duel on the Kansas plains two cowboys faced each other with Winchesters at 50 paces, advanced with each shot, fired seven times apiece and simultaneously fell dead at 10 paces. In a less dignified but similarly lethal variation of this confrontation, George Littlefield, later to be a cattle baron and a leading banker of Austin, got into a dispute with a neighbor just after the Civil War. The two adversaries came within pistol range at camp on a roundup. Each pulled a gun, each squeezed the trigger—and both guns misfired. Littlefield's adversary fled behind a tree, then peeped cautiously around it. At that instant Littlefield got his gun working; he scored a clean kill.

However unclassical, these were undeniably real face-offs. But they took place nearly 25 years apart. Most other gunfights occurred not between cowboys but in the Western underworld, among the gamblers, toughs and professional criminals who walk the dark corridors of any society. There was, for example, nothing particularly honorable about William (Billy the Kid) Bonney and Jesse James, both of whom were pathological killers. Wyatt Earp was primarily a barroom bouncer, bush-league gambler and petty politician, who may also have dabbled in a little rustling. The code of these gunslingers was what Westerners called a rattlesnake's code. The fact is, it lacked even the rattlesnake's fair warning.

In the rare cases when real cowboys did exchange gunfire honor and rules were conspicuously missing. There were Wyoming range wars, Texas fencing battles and family feuds involving gunplay. In most such instances the intent was simply to shoot a man in the front, back, side or wherever the shot would take effect. Most commonly, however, bullet wounds among cowboys occurred in the course of drunken cattle-town sprees. A Wyoming newspaper recounted a typical episode: "A large number of cowboys, who had been working the beef roundup, came into town yesterday and started to paint the community a crimson color. A large number of them became fighting full of whiskey and several scrimmages occurred. In the evening Leon Williams endeavored to take Harry Mason, who had got very quarrelsome, to bed. Mason started off quietly but soon turned and shot Williams through the right breast and shoulder, the ball passing out near the collarbone. Sheriff M. Doze was at once called, and when he attempted to arrest Mason the drunken cowboy emptied all the chambers of his six-shooter at him. Fortunately they failed to take effect. Doze, nothing daunted, immediately knocked Mason down and placed him under arrest."

Does a Code of the West still exist?

Self reliance continues to be a Western trait. For the first time since the Civil War, the federal bureaucracy is being seriously challenged. Washington is being asked to prove why it is a more effective trustee of Western lands and their resources than the locals who live, work, and play on those lands. I think welfare especially rankles Westerners because of its implied insult — that men and women are incapable of earning a living on their own, or are unwilling to help those temporarily down on their luck to get back on their feet. In the West I believe there remains a willingness to trust a person rather than trust fine print. Unquestionably, the Westerner's symbiotic relationship with the land has never been lost. The value placed on the region's traditional industries, like ranching, has never diminished, even among many urban Westerners. The West was as much a state of mind as it was a historical phenomenon. And the Code? Like I said, it's unwritten, how are you to prove it still exists?

William H. Forbis. The Old West: The Cowboys. Time-Life Books. 1973.


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