Monday, October 11, 2010

The Ridiculous Myth of the Violent Wild West

...and five more myths of history.

How many murders do you suppose these old western towns saw a year? Let's say the bloodiest, gun-slingingest of the famous cattle towns with the cowboys doing quick-draws at high noon every other day. A hundred? More?

How about five? That was the most murders any old-west town saw in any one year. Ever. Most towns averaged about 1.5 murders a year, and not all of those were shooting. You were way more likely to be murdered in Baltimore in 2008 than you were in Tombstone in 1881, the year of the famous gunfight at the OK Corral (body count: three) and the town's most violent year ever.

Read more: Ridiculous History Myths (You Probably Think Are True)

h/t Check Your Premises

And most ordinary people in the Old West didn't go around with a gun strapped on, either. They just wanted to live in peace and go about their lives. But if criminals tried to come into town to rob the bank or a store, they were ready to grab their guns and fight back. It was actually quite dangerous for the outlaws.


  1. Yeah um... it wasn't the citizens that outlaws worried about, it was the "sheriffs" and private security paid for by banks, stage coaches and trains (eg Pinkerton & Co.). I put sheriffs in quotes because, frankly, they weren't really police officers as we think of them today. They certainly weren't state-appointed, if only because a lot of the frontier had not even attained statehood.

    And actually, the murder rates were rather high. The murder count was low, but most of these towns had only a few hundred people. Tombstone's population in 1881 was just over 5,000 (it was experiencing a boom at the time due to nearby silver mines). Three people out of 5,000 would actually give it a higher murder rate than Camden New Jersey, the most dangerous city in the US, which has a rate of 40 murders per 100,000 people, compared to Tombstone's 60 per 100,000.

  2. Those three were the most Tombstone experienced in a year, which means all other years it was lower. Averaged out you'll get a lower overall rate. The fact is, the violent nature of the old west is greatly exaggerated.

    As for the citizens, most could shoot and had guns and weren't afraid to use them. There are numerous western incidents of the time period of citizens either assisting lawmen or acting on their own to successfully fight off gangs of criminals.

  3. ... and Indians and Mexicans and people in families they didn't like and...

    I'm not denying gun ownership was high, it certainly was (we have no way of knowing the statistics on that, unfortunately). But crime rates were still quite high if you looked not at cities, but territories. Most deaths by gunshot did not occur in cities, and many cities practiced strict gun control by making visitors check their weapons upon entering town.

    Learning is fun.

  4. And where did this come from, by the way? Did the NRA check come in today?

  5. You lost this argument last time Bret...


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