Conclusion – How Wild was the Wild West?



Many historians question whether the Wild West was ever as wild as it has been made out to be.


In the five main cattle towns, there were only 45 killings during the whole period 1870 to 1885, and only two towns, Ellsworth in 1873 and Dodge City in 1876, ever had five killings in any one year.  In fact, two modern historians, Terry Anderson and PJ Hill, have written how – even though there was no ‘law’ on the frontier – there was little lawlessness, and people got together in Land Clubs and Cattle-Ranchers Associations, and voluntarily agreed to rules, and paid their own officials to enforce them.

In fact, civilisation came quickly to the frontier.  Every area declared by Congress a Federal Territory was given a Governor, three judges and a US Marshall, and each township could also appoint its own sheriff and deputies – though sometimes they were as wild as the bandits and rustlers they were employed to control.  When the population of a territory reached 60,000, it could apply to Congress and become a state, with its own government and taxes.



Deadwood – the city behind a recent TV series – is a typical example.  It was founded in 1875, and for a while, it was a place of lawlessness and murder, much of it centred around the character of Al Swearengen and his wicked Gem Theater.  In 1876, the famous Wild Bill Hickok was killed in Deadwood, when Jack McCall shot him in the back of the head during a game of poker.
But Hickok’s death made a local trader called Seth Bullock decide to become sheriff.  In the next year Bullock rounded up horse thieves and stagecoach robbers, organized posses to combat Indian attacks, and stamped on drunkenness, gambling and prostitution.  He drew a line across Main Street, separating the ‘Badlands’ controlled by Swearengen from the respectable areas of Deadwood where visitors were made to hand in their guns.

Things changed in Deadwood.  In 1892, local Methodists tried to get the Gem Theater closed down, and in1899 Swearengen went bankrupt – he died living as a hobo, trying to jump on a moving train.  


After you have studied this webpage, answer the question sheet by clicking on the 'Time to Work' icon at the top of the page.


The following websites will help you research further:


• The 'Frontier Myth'     

• Difficult article on The Culture of Violence in the American West: Myth versus Reality