The Code of the West: Unwritten and Baffling
Does it represent frontier justice or Hollywood hokum?

This issue is chock full of stories dealing with frontier justice, and that naturally calls to mind a concept that has long baffled me—the Code of the West. One gentleman from the East, where we apparently have no code, told me that the Code of the West is synonymous with frontier justice. The thing is, on the 19th-century frontier, nobody wrote the code down, so it has been subjected to many interpretations through the years. One military history buff from New York suggested that the Code of the West was merely another version of the 16th-century Samurai code that stressed loyalty, fighting ability and honor until death. A woman from Virginia told me the Code of the West really didn’t blossom until the 20th century, and what did it were the writings of Owen Wister (The Virginian) and Zane Grey (one of his many novels was called Code of the West) and the Hollywood Westerns. Does that mean the fictionalized Code of the West is something different than the actual frontier Code of the West or just a romanticized extension of the real thing? And was the real thing just something for gunmen to follow or did it extend to the general frontier population, including women?

Sorry, I could find no easy answers. The Code could be about murder or about manners. It might mean all or none of the following: Not shooting an unarmed man or an unwarned enemy; facing off with an adversary and letting him draw first (fair play, giving him a fighting chance); having the right to shoot in self-defense even if merely threatened; the right to hang horse thieves; being loyal (to a friend or to a “brand”); being honest (a handshake was as good as a written contract, bills and debts must always be paid), being self reliant but also being there when a friend needed you; respecting women (and certainly never shooting them), showing hospitality (at home or in camp, sharing your food and giving shelter); not asking too many questions (inquiring about someone’s past was impolite, not to mention potentially dangerous); always doing the right thing (“a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do”); valuing the trees, the mountains and the rest of the environment (the natural beauty of the West); believing in God and the Golden Rule; not saying much but always meaning what you say; never selling guns, whiskey or women to American Indians. More baffled then ever, I turned to two esteemed Western historians.

Bob DeArment has a few things to say about the Code of the West in an upcoming biography of gunfighter Ben Daniels that he is writing with Jack DeMattos. “Thieves who stole horses and mules from ordinary folks in the West were considered the lowest form of human vermin and, according to that unwritten Code, were often harshly punished, and sometimes lynched,” DeArment writes. When it came to man killing man with guns and knives, the Code also came into play: “The right of self-protection when attacked was a legal defense, but the Code carried this concept one step beyond. Since little or no law enforcement was present in the new Western settlements, each man was responsible for his own protection. Therefore the mere threat on a man’s life, voiced in public, was considered just grounds for the threatened individual to kill his enemy at the first opportunity.” DeArment adds that part of the Code was to take the measure of a man based on his courage and brave deeds now rather than any past transgressions.

Paul Andrew Hutton took a broader look at the Code of the West. “I think it evolved in the 19th century from the Southern concept of honor and dueling,” the University of New Mexico history professor said. “We see it in law (in Texas) and what Richard Maxwell Brown labeled (also the title of his 1994 book) No Duty to Retreat. And we see it reaching its literary zenith with Wister’s The Virginian at the turn of the last century. Movies, pulps, TV follow.” Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy all had their own versions of the Code, written down and designed mainly for children. I personally like Bret Maverick’s version of the code as passed down to him from his Pappy: “You can be a gentleman and still not forget everything you know about self-defense.”

Gregory Lalire