The true “wild west”.

The following history is directly copied from the Foundation for Economic Education, FEE.ORG. I believe the truth is too important to be trampled upon by Hollywood myths and popular imagination. Here is a very brief history of the real pioneer-era United States “West”, whether you can accept it or not.

Before the Civil War, the Western territories were unincorporated land. No formal government (that Americans would recognize) reached that far west yet, so the settlers had no “official” way to keep the peace. But, wherever people begin to gather, conflict of some sort or another is fairly inevitable, so various forms of conflict resolution formed. Private organizations like land use clubs, cattlemen’s associations, wagon trains, and mining camps protected private property and mediated disputes. Civil contracts, localized constitutions, and social pressure including ostracism (a very real threat so far away from the rest of America) largely kept the peace instead of threats of violence. As Bruce Benson writes of the time, “The contractual system of law effectively generated cooperation rather than conflict, and on those occasions when conflict arose it was, by and large, effectively quelled through nonviolent means.”

The homicide rates, even in what qualified as the big cities in the Old West, were astonishingly low. Major railroad stops like Wichita and Dodge City (yes, that Dodge City) had lower murder rates than major eastern cities like New York and Boston at the time.

Interactions with the local Indian tribes were mostly peaceful and trade-based. White settlers may not have always liked the native tribes they shared space with on the frontier, but it was easier and less expensive to deal with them in a generally peaceful way than it was to wage war on them. As Jennifer Roback writes in Property Rights and Indian Economies, “Europeans generally acknowledged that the Indians retained possessory rights to their lands. More important, the English recognized the advantage of being on friendly terms with the Indians. Trade with the Indians, especially the fur trade, was profitable. War was costly.”

This all changed in the mid-1860s. Now that it wasn’t so busy with that pesky Civil War, the federal government of the United States could turn its attention westward. Terry Anderson and Fred L. McChesney, who have both written extensively on this subject, put forth in the Journal of Law and Economics that once the costs of using violence against the native tribes of the Plains became distributed across the rest of the country through the use of taxation, “raid” replaced “trade” in relations with the Indian tribes. Two of the US generals, General William T. Sherman and General Grenville M. Dodge, who headed up many of the major campaigns in the Western territories go into great detail about the atrocities committed against the Plains Indians following the American Civil War, and, more importantly, why. Deals had been struck prior to the War for the federal government to subsidize the building of the transcontinental railroad, and now that the War was over, it was time for the government to make good. Violence against the American Plains Indians was at the behest of the government on behalf of crony railroad barons. The campaign to “pacify” the Western territories resulted in the devastation of the native populations and fatally injured the tenuous relations between white settlers and native tribes.

“Raid replaced trade”. The “cost of violence…distributed across the rest of the country through the use of taxation.” Let that idea sink in. Taxation of the whole distributes the cost of harm done locally. Harm is always local—armies are composed of individuals, who fire the guns, launch the missiles, swing the swords, on other individuals. The costs—equipping and feeding the forces, making or buying the weapons—are great. Taxation can pay for public works, or it can pay for conquest.

Author: iamcurmudgeon

When I began this blog, I was a 70 year old man, with a young mind and a body trying to recover from a stroke, and my purpose for this whole blog thing is to provoke thinking, to ridicule reflex reaction, and provide a legacy to my children.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s