John Tierney: The MIld, Mild West

Roundup: Talking About History

John Tierney, in the NYT (6-25-05):

The actors from HBO's "Deadwood" are coming to the scene of their crimes today, and they can expect a hero's welcome when they pose for pictures on Main Street. Some people in the real Deadwood are offended by the series' lurid language and scenes, but the ones who work in the tourist industry recognize a central truth about the Old West: violence sells...

...But if you talk to some historians and economists about Deadwood and the rest of the West, you get a much different picture from what's on television - or what's been taught in history classes.

These revisionists' history, unlike the one now fashionable in academia, is not a grim saga of settlers exploiting one another, annihilating natives and despoiling nature. Nor is it like the previously fashionable history depicting the settlers as heroic individualists who tamed the frontier by developing the great American virtue of self-reliance.

The Westerners in this history survived by learning to get along, as Terry Anderson and Peter Hill document in their new book, "The Not So Wild, Wild West." These economists, both at the PERC think tank in Montana, argue that their Western ancestors were usually neither heroic enough to make it on their own nor strong enough to take it away from others...

...Roger McGrath, a historian who studied dozens of Western mining camps and towns, found a high rate of homicide in them mainly because it was socially acceptable for young, drunk single men to resolve points of honor by fighting to the death. But other violence wasn't tolerated, he said.

"It was a rather polite and civil society enforced by armed men," Dr. McGrath said. "The rate of burglary and robbery was lower than in American cities today. Claim-jumping was rare. Rape was extraordinarily rare - you can argue it wasn't being reported, but I've never seen evidence hinting at that."...

...Another Deadwood historian, Bob Lee, said that the best account of the two peak years of the gold rush, 1876 and 1877, lists only 77 violent deaths in all the Black Hills, most outside Deadwood, and most attributed to Indians, who were understandably angry at the invasion of their lands by both miners and troops under George Armstrong Custer.

The Indians saw that Washington's new interest in the Black Hills would be disastrous for them (a topic for a later column). Raiding was no longer costlier than trading for the settlers because they could now let troops do the raiding for them. Hobbes had expected war in the absence of government, but the West didn't really get wild until the feds arrived.

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