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The Myth and the Reality of Violence in the Old West


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It was Halloween thirty-seven years ago and I was seated with my thumbs balled into my fists, a bit too shy to look into the camera. My mother, hurriedly trying to snap the picture so we could set off trick-or-treating before sundown, attempted to coax out a smile. But I had donned my cowboy hat and my gun belt for this occasion and wouldn’t be caught dead smiling in either of them. Even at five years old, I knew that cowboys never smiled for pictures. But then my mother made a joke and despite my best efforts, she captured my pearly whites. That portrait stands as the earliest record of my fascination with the Old West.

I was raised in the East, and since I could remember, the West beckoned with an intoxicating promise of vast, mythical spaces where anything was possible. As I read deeper into the world, I began noticing that so many of the stories I enjoyed felt like different versions of the same story. It went something like this: A lone man rides into a lawless town where, outgunned and outnumbered, he battles bandits and dodges bullets until he has imposed law and order. When his work is done, he rides off alone into the sunset.

The first time I read such a story, I was enthralled. The hero was clever, valorous, decisive, and all but silent—an attractive trait for a shy child. While the talkative characters always seemed to reveal themselves as dimwitted natterers, the cowboy hid his interior self beneath a mountain of brevity. The less he spoke, the more in command he appeared to be.

Only later would I come to understand that his brevity was some kind of emotional disconnection, though even as a boy I felt something was lacking in him. I wondered if he was quiet because he was at peace, or because he had something to hide—something unspeakable.

Violence has been tangled up in Western lore since its popular beginnings in the late 19th century. It finds perhaps its purest embodiment in the Outlaw. To me, these deeply flawed men blazing through life’s gray zones were a most gripping, morally ambiguous subject. They felt real even if they were as fictitious as the lone cowboy bringing order to the chaos of the frontier. These were men who fled civilized life for open plains and new beginnings; who made mistakes then spent the rest of the story trying not to be consumed by them.

It was the Outlaw Myth that led me to crime fiction. Whether it was George V. Higgins or Elmore Leonard, so much of the genre seemed to pick up where the Western left off. I recognized many of the same tropes, which leads me now to wonder why Westerns are not considered crime fiction. Perhaps because, for there to be a crime, there must first be laws. There must be a system to push back against.

Even when a crime was committed in civilized lands, the outlaw inevitably fled west, seeking anonymity in the Territories, far beyond the reach of judicial institutions. Perhaps this is one reason why our perception of crime and violence in the West is so askew. It’s common lore that the frontier was a violent cauldron of mayhem and murder, where quickdraws devoid of moral accordance ran wild. According to historical records, however, this is more or less pure fiction.

Violence between individuals did occur, and for much the same reasons it occurs today, where roughly forty percent of convicted murderers have admitted to using alcohol before or during their crime. Though record keeping on the frontier was spotty at best, it’s safe to assume that alcohol played a part in the kind of gunfights that are emblematic of the genre. And though alcohol-induced violence was probably as prevalent in the Old West as it is today, our favorite books and movies would have us believe that every saloon and corral played host to daily gunfights.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Even on the frontier, civil order tended to prevail over violent chaos. Private organizations imposed authority on those lands beyond the government’s grasp. Cattlemen’s associations, mining camps, and wagon trains upheld social norms of civility and moralism and meted out punishment when those norms were betrayed.

But that doesn’t mean the American West was a peaceful place. Though there were pockets where powerful authorities maintained order, beyond those boundaries (and sometimes within them) blood was spilled by the barrel, innocents were slaughtered en masse, and no lone cowboy riding into town could do anything about it. Probably he wouldn’t have cared to, either. Because the actual source of violence in the latter half of the 19th century came not from gunslinging brigands but from the systematic extermination of the Plains Indians.

Prior to the Civil War, the American government sought a policy of trade with the indigenous populations of the West. After the war, however, militias were replaced by standing armies and conquest rather than negotiation became the desired means of acquiring land.

As economist Adam Smith noted, “[i]n a militia, the character of the labourer, artificer, or tradesman, predominates over that of the soldier: in a standing army, that of the soldier predominates over every other character.” The U.S. Army cut a bloody swath through Indian Territory that white settlers and railroad corporations were able to follow. “Trade” was replaced by “raid” and the so-called Indian Wars that followed marked one of the bloodiest periods in American history.

Though some $800 million was paid by the U.S. government to Native American tribes, that money was just as quickly siphoned back into white hands through policies of graft, predation, subjugation, and murder. Finally, in 1871, Congress no longer tried to mask its policy of “raid” over “trade” and voted not to ratify any more Indian treaties. No longer would they seek peaceful relations with indigenous peoples who occupied land deemed valuable by the government or the railroad corporations they were in bed with. As a result, an era of violence more horrific than most popular Western narratives would care to admit left the Territories drenched in blood.

In my book, The Loving Wrath of Eldon Quint, the history of systemic genocide and the resulting trauma visited upon those caught up in it—both indigenous people and white settlers occupying their land—serves as a formative backdrop for the main characters. And this is what separates the book from traditional Western dramas about good men vanquishing evil and imposing law and order to keep the peace. Though my novel is set in 1883, the Dakota War of 1862 is a pivotal event that echoes throughout the story. During this mostly forgotten war, traditional roles of good and evil were not so easy to assign—at the level of the individual, at least.

At an institutional level, the source of evil was the U.S. government’s policies toward Native Americans, full stop. The same can be said of its European predecessors. From 1492 to 1900, policies of conquest sparked systematic genocide which in the Americas resulted in the murder of roughly 12 million indigenous peoples (a conservative estimate).

By 1862, the rage these policies produced in the eastern Dakota people resulted in a gruesome slaughter that cost the lives of hundreds of innocents. For decades, the Dakota had been bamboozled by the U.S. government into ceding more and more of their ancestral lands in exchange for cash annuities and useless provisions such as beads or rugs. Eventually, tribes were corralled onto barren reservations and forced to adopt their oppressor’s way of life. However, when their crops failed thanks to the poor quality of the soil, they became dependent on the government for their survival.

At the time of war, government policies had turned the proud Dakota people into welfare recipients. But as winter approached, a white Indian Agent who administered provisions to the Dakota tribes decided to withhold their food, claiming that he could not release what they needed to survive because they did not have the money to pay for it.

This was nonsense. The reason the Dakota had no money was that the U.S. government was late with their annuity payment. As you might imagine, Dakota blood boiled. Still, the majority of the tribes sought a peaceful solution. But then a handful of young braves took some eggs from a white settler and when confronted, they killed him. That spark ignited a war that all but destroyed the Dakota people. The white settlers that lived next to them also suffered, though it may seem easy to cast off their deaths as less valuable. After all, they were living on stolen land. Yet many of those settlers were lured from across the pond by agents of power looking for cannon fodder to pave a clear path to the Pacific Ocean. In the end, the dead on both sides were victims of a ruthless colonizing force.

The Indian Wars ended in 1924 with the defeat of a different indigenous tribe. The Apaches had been fighting for their land for 200 years. But in the end, it wasn’t violence that broke their spirit, it was capitalism. Government officials gave cattle to each of the medicine men who led the Apache tribes. Previously, medicine men led only by example, never by decree. In the parlance of our times, they were a horizontal, decentralized organization. But with the ‘gift’ of cattle, power shifted from symbolic to material and now the medicine men could reward or punish their tribe members by giving or withholding cows. The Apache had been, for lack of a better term, Westernized.

In the 132 years since the Bureau of the Census announced the frontier officially closed, the West has remained an elemental mythic space. But its primal lore is not chiseled in stone. Whether by oppression, forced assimilation, bribery, or bloodshed, the policies of the U.S. government, and those who enacted them, destroyed the indigenous people of this nation—and that is the real crime of the Old West. If our hope is for a more robust understanding of history, we must seek out the true villains in every story and update our myths accordingly.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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