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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/7151/the-violent-and-wild-west-after-all/

The violent and wild west after all?

September 15, 2007 by

Reader “Albert Nock” was kind enough to send me notice of some new research on violence on the American frontier. This relates back to an article I wrote for Mises.org in 2004 and to extensive work done by Terry Anderson and Peter Hill (including an article in the JLS). There is also a chapter on the topic in Thomas Woods’ latest book.

The article, “Guns, Murder, and Probability” by Randolph Roth, makes the case for a very murderous West based on some reseach done on the California and Oregon frontiers in the late 19th century. Roth provides a statistical case for why the California and Oregon numbers, which show a high number of murders per capita, should provide a more accurate view of the frontier overall than the work done by Dykstra and Hollon, for example, showing that the frontier was quite mild in its violence.

Roth clearly is in search of the best data he can find, but he draws conclusions that may be far too broad.

First of all, I would have to point to the methods in the Oregon research right away. If the research is based on newspaper articles as Roth notes, then that could be thoroughly unreliable. As noted here about killings in Bleeding Kansas, contemporary accounts of killings on the frontier can be notoriously unreliable due to exaggeration. The same may be true of the California data as well, depending on its reliance on contemporary journalism.

The problem with drawing broad conclusions, as Roth does, is that the California case may be unique, and gives some indications that it is in fact unique, and not suited to be used as a generalization for the entire Western frontier. Roth notes that the areas he examines are areas of high Anglo-hispanic conflict, and that even among the areas he surveys, there are wide variances in the murder rate. In other words, we can’t even generalize a murder rate to the sample area, let alone all of California or the entire West.

Also, if we really see such a large difference in murder rates between that of Kansas (as shown by Dykstra) and the murder rates in Southern California or Oregon (as cited by Roth) doesn’t this all the more call broad conclusions into question?

But then, one could easily say that we have no reason to believe that the Kansas numbers, to name one “low-violence” case, are better than the California case. Fair enough, but which is really more typical for the West? Is a cattle town more typical or is Southern California?

Is Southern California even the “frontier” at this point? After all, it had been settled by Hispanics a century earlier, so we really have conflict betwen 2 European-derived groups, not just whites and Indians, as was generally the case elsewhere on the frontier. Also, it appears that the research cited by Roth is counting murders perpetrated on both Hispanics and on Anglos.

Thus, we’re looking at an area where the politics of the Mexican war and the resulting oppression of the native Hispanic population is a salient issue, undoubtedly leading to considerable violence between non-Indian citizens of California. Can we really extrapolate from this to the rest of the frontier?

These are just some initial observations, but It’s not clear that the theory of the “Mild West” should be overturned quite yet.


Scott Johnson September 16, 2007 at 8:48 am

Not sure how much it’s relevant, but you may want to look into Steven Pinker’s work on the history of violence.

Pinker lecture here:

Anthony September 16, 2007 at 8:52 am

Thanks for the article, and thanks for the link Scott.

TGGP September 17, 2007 at 12:16 am

Thank you for replying. You’re right that my name isn’t really “Albert Nock”, and to be honest I haven’t read his books either (I just reviewed Bertrand de Jouvenel’s “On Power” and I plan on going through Franz Oppenheimer’s “The State” next), I just like the name.

Speaking of conflict between different ethnic groups, I plan on putting up a post on my blog on the upside of Putnam’s study showing diversity results in less trust in a bit.

Nat September 17, 2007 at 9:56 am

“First of all, I would have to point to the methods in the Oregon research right away. If the research is based on newspaper articles as Roth notes, then that could be thoroughly unreliable.”

I have conducted research that “proves” that Stalin didn’t murder any Ukranians, based on contemporary articles of the New York Times. Afterall, if Walter Duranty didn’t report it, it must not have happened.

Chris September 17, 2007 at 8:41 pm

The Last Gunslingers

I remember one of my professors at university telling us all that the days when a man could start out life with a few dollars in his pocket and single-handedly turn it into millions were over. The way ahead now, he told us ,was to join the ‘corporate ladder’.

This was back in the 1970′s. Unfortunately (sigh), we believed him and, for the most part, followed his advice. But he was wrong, he was ignoring a special breed – the independent investor – by which I mean that small number who started with a few dollars in their pockets and who have actually single-handedly amassed fortunes. The corporate ladder was never the way for these guys, or if it was they didn’t stay that long. No, the people I’m referring to are the high plains drifters of the modern world of high finance.

Not for them the limelight – they neither need nor want it – they are solitary hunters who face their showdowns alone. They see the opportunities, get in first and sure as hell know when to get out. They don’t do what everyone else is doing – which is what makes them a special breed. Cool heads and cool hands and a trigger-finger that’s always at the ready. They make money and lots of it. These modern day gunslingers have traded the Wild West for the World Wide Web –have modem will travel.

And what qualities sets these dudes apart from the rest of us? Well, let’s just say it’s a combination of blazing intelligence, a rat-like cunning and a healthy distrust of nearly everyone and everything around them, especially governments and the rascals who comprise them; the fact is that they are actually more devious than the politicians, they have the jump on them, they can always beat them to the draw. They know that the system is nothing short of mob rule by another name. Not much different from a lynching really. The instigators manipulate the mob for their own ends. The mob hasn’t got a clue about what’s really going on. They’re so far into it they actually trust and believe the wretched hypocrites who are running them. A few stand by on the sidelines and observe – they see what is going on – but they know you can’t reason with a mob when it has been so expertly groomed. So they just shrug and leave them to it – they have other fish to fry.

We must admire them for their insight, admire them as they ride into town alone and leave the same way except that their saddle-bags are bulging. They are lone wolves who cannot he handled or led – not that they are averse to running with the buffalo when there’s a profit to be made – but it’s rare.

Are they cynics? Why yes of course they are. Can you blame them? Hardly. They see so much mayhem going on around them, fantasy and farce, mistakes and lunacy, lies and greed – and it never stops, it just goes on and on and no-one ever seems to learn. In the end they stop asking why and just become amused by it all.

And here we are at yet another unravelling. Our gunslingers jumped out of the stagecoach long before the other passengers saw the Grand Canyon up ahead. They have repositioned themselves. Someone has to pay for the nonsense of the last few years but it won’t be them. They do get ‘get something for nothing’ and they do treat themselves to many a ‘free lunch’ because they’re always one step ahead of the game. The paying will be done by the likes of the sub-primers who never should have been given mortgages in the first place, by ‘investors’ putting money into things they just didn’t understand and by ordinary hard-working people, who wouldn’t know a CDO from an IPO, seeing their living standards plummet.

And where will the gunslingers be as this latest tragedy unfolds? Camping out alone on the prairie? Taking it easy by the campfire for a while? Looking up at the stars and playing a lonely dirge on a mouthorgan? Not a bit of it. The boys have already saddled up and are heading for Dodge. They travel alone of course, they much prefer this. They ride steadily and with purpose. When two of our bounty hunters find that they are after they same prey then meetings become inevitable and can be somewhat, how shall I say, ‘fragile’. One will exit the hunt minus his scalp – if he is lucky. For they of all people know that now, especially now, when the blood is about to start running in the streets – that now is the time when there’s a real killing to be made!

Anthony September 17, 2007 at 9:38 pm

Nice narrative Chris, very allegorical. :P

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