(Published in GralsWelt 32/2004)
Ranchers, cowboys and bandits
The conquest of the “West” went hand in hand with an economic development - not to say: a waste of resources - in which one (often short-term) “boom” replaced the other. It all started with the lucrative fur trade, which peaked in 1840. Then followed the California gold rush of 1849, the discovery of gold and silver in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, etc. This was followed by the railroad boom, the colonization of the west and the extermination of the bison, as well as the "lumber boom", the clear cutting of huge forests in the Rockies, the Pacific or Michigan, the Clondyke gold rush (Alaska, 1897), and finally industrialization.
But between the various economic boom there were recessions that ruined many workers and farmers. This last part of this series about the history of the Wild West is about the lives of ranchers, cowboys and bandits.
A separate article is dedicated to the religion of the Indians, those North American natives who - as shown in detail in this series - fell by the wayside. ("The Religion of the North American Indians", under "History of religion")
The great cattle drive
A boom has shaped the self-image of Americans in a special way: the Beef wrecks. After the Civil War, food was scarce, while eight million "Longhorns" roamed around Texas - descendants of the cattle introduced by the Spaniards who were feral during the war. These animals were of little value in Texas, but in the cities of the east they would make a fortune if only you could get them there.
In 1865, daring ranchers began to drive herds of semi-wild, stubborn longhorns northwards: across deserts, through fords of unpredictable rivers, in storms, in the fight against wolves and rattlesnakes, and under the constant danger of being attacked by Indians. The men who drove them, the cowboys, became an American legend (which, however, likes to hide the fact that the cowboys do not work much differently than the Spanish vaqueros).
The first “cattle drives” lost half of the cattle and a tenth of the crew, but with increasing experience and with provisions, like them, for example Jesse Chisholm (1805-1868) moored on the "Chisholm Trail", the losses decreased and the profits increased. Railways adjusted to the lucrative cattle transport to the east. Cattle loading stations like Abilene (1867) and Dodge City (1872) became the epitome of the West with staffages known from many cowboy films.
The cattle drive went over "free land", watering holes and pastures could be used by everyone. However, when railroad companies sold the land they had been given and government land was given up, farms blocked cattle drives. The final aftermath of the millennia-old dispute between nomads and farmers escalated. The clashes between "cattlemen" and "farmers" took on a number of times similar to civil war forms. In the end, the most effective weapon of the settled people was not the Colt, but the barbed wire that had just been invented, which separated the cleared from no man's land.
In 1886 the great herd hustle and bustle came to an end. New, more productive breeds of cattle had been bred, and the cattle barons had recognized that breeding in enclosed plots is more lucrative than semi-nomadic farming.
The cowboys' code of honor
"The following 10 commandments applied to the cowboy:
1. You shouldn't worry about your neighbor's past.
2. You should be hospitable to a stranger and dedicate your life to your own welfare.
3. You should give every enemy a fair chance and only fight them if they can see the whites of your eyes.
4. You should not shoot at an unarmed man or let go of an opponent who gives up.
5. You should not utter an insult without expecting serious consequences.
6. You shouldn't be ungrateful.
7. You should defend yourself whenever self-defense is necessary. Your life does not matter, only your honor and self-respect are important.
8. You should not take something away from anyone that is not yours.
9. You should be helpful, stand by the weak and women and defend them against everything and everyone and not tolerate that their hair is twisted.
10. As long as nobody asks or expects your help, take care of yourself. "
Stammel HJ (The Cowboy, Gütersloh 1978).
Cowboys - "real Americans"
In the few decades of the great cattle drives, the cowboy became the type of the "real American" - probably because his behavior was highly un-American. Because money and success, America’s most striking fetishes, meant little to him, whereas honor, self-respect, dignity and a “free life” were everything to him. Cowboys came in all shades of color, from black to red to white, because they didn't know about racism. They were proud riders who refused to do anything other than saddle work. The cowboy work was hard (they were often in the saddle for 12 or more hours) and poorly paid; in winter most cowboys were laid off and somehow had to get through the cold season. The citizens saw them as wild barbarians.
When the “time of the free pasture” and with it that of the nomadic rider came to an end, some cowboys preferred to become “free bandits” than to submit to the constraints of the rapidly changing world. However, a real cowboy did not rob private individuals, only large companies such as banks or railways. Killing people was against their code of honor, and few murders are attributable to cowboys for whom - unlike in civil society - when an opponent was shot from the front in an "honest shootout" was not murder.
Feature films stylize the cowboy as a folk hero and show him in the "fast draw", the quick shot from the hip, which in reality was as rare as the man-to-man duels that are shown again and again.
The Hollywood cowboy is a legend that historians cannot find in the history of the West.
When the bison were "harvested"
Bison has always been hunted. Their meat is tasty and nutritious, and the bison, with its poor eyesight, is easy to kill despite its size and dangerousness. There are reports that a single hunter could shoot an entire herd of 100 bison. At the beginning of the 19th century, the value of the skins, which was increasingly traded, was also recognized. The notorious "Buffalo Harvest" (bison harvest) began in 1868 when the "Kansas and Pacific Railroad" penetrated the prairie.
The industry had found that buffalo leather was ideal for power transmission belts; the demand grew enormously, and each hide brought in about three dollars. This raised hopes, as the following report shows, for example:
“When I turned to this business, I sat down and did the math. There were 20 million bison, each worth $ 3, makes $ 60 million. A cartridge cost 25 cents, if I loaded it myself, only 10 cents. A purchased cartridge increased my investment twelvefold, and a reloaded one thirty-fold. I could kill 100 bison a day, which made a profit of $ 200 a day, times thirty that made $ 6,000 a month, or three times what the President of the United States was making and 150 times what a normal job could make. "
(HJ Stammel, Der Cowboy, Gütersloh 1978).
Soon ten thousand buffalo hunters were out to exploit the "bison bonanza". Since mostly only the skin was salvaged, mountains of rotting meat contaminated the prairies - an ecological catastrophe. In the middle of the 19th century - depending on the estimate - there were between 10 and 50 million bison (according to more recent estimates, the lower number seems more realistic), which were eagerly decimated by buffalo hunters, wanderers, railroad passengers and Indians, only until around 1900 in the USA about 300 bison were still alive. The great buffalo slaughter, the greatest extinction of an animal species in modern times, was over, and one more resource was wasted.
There are now 300,000 bison again, and they are increasingly being bred for their tasty, healthy meat. Today 100 million cattle graze on the former buffalo prairies and turn huge areas into deserts through overgrazing.
The shooting at the OK Corral
The most famous street battle in American history took place on October 26, 1881 in Tombstone, a silver mining town in Arizona. The legendary Wyatt Earp (1849–1929), then not a sheriff but an innkeeper, with his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and the drinker Doc Holliday shot each other with five cowboys, of which they killed three. One can conclude that the gunslingers are shooting art when one learns that 36 rounds were fired from a distance of a few meters, killing three people and injuring two. This "showdown" (decisive battle) has since been filmed more than twenty times, and Wyatt is hyped up to be a hero; presumably because the professional gamer dictated his biography himself. Today this insignificant shootout is re-enacted every weekend in Tombstone.
Whether the Earps upheld the law or wanted to eliminate rivals is a matter of dispute; official Arizona state historiography calls it "proven murder."
In fact, such disputes were more of an exception and were discussed for weeks afterwards. In the majority of the settlements of the Wild West there were no such incidents, and those who lived in boom cities like Lost City or Tombstone were in no greater danger of being attacked and robbed than a resident of modern cities: 1879, the wildest boom year, was it was in Dodge City, the wildest boom city, 5 murders. For comparison, there were 30,000 dead and 200,000 injured by firearms and 650,000 robberies with firearms in the USA in 1993 (according to Wolfgang Ebert “Wilder Westen”, ZDF film, 1994).
The majority of the Westers never fired at a person; Above all, they wanted to survive for themselves and not get involved in dangerous duels with a questionable outcome.
Sheriffs and outlaws
The great majority of the settlers were peaceful, and shootings in the "Wild West" were far less common than books and films would lead us to believe; Probably the life there was safer than today in the problem areas of some big cities.
On the other hand, there was a great temptation for some to make a fortune with a quick robbery in a bank or a train and then disappear; the country was vast and it was difficult to prosecute a criminal, for example in the impassable gorges of the mountains.
The sheriff should keep things tidy. The names of famous sheriffs are glorified in films and books. In reality, however, good and bad were not always clearly separated from each other. With some legendary law enforcement officers, you don't really know whether they were more of a bandit, while notorious criminals like "Billy the Kid" (Henry McCarthy, 1859-1881) may have been the victims of targeted defamation. Because corruption was the preferred weapon of the rich, who bought sheriffs, judges, MPs and the press. Hence the wistful memories of the free life in gangs like the "Wild Bunch" with their leader Butch Cassedy (1867-1907). Like Robin Hood, these gangs allegedly stole money from the rich and generously passed it on to the exploited poor.
Buffalo Bill's "Wild West":
William Frederic Cody (Buffalo Bill, 1846-1917) is an American legend that has been told in innumerable stories and anecdotes. He was a pony express rider, soldier, buffalo hunter on the Kansas-Pacific Railroad, army scout in the battles against Sioux and Cheyenne.
In 1872 he was elected to the House of Representatives, and in 1873 he founded his famous Wild West Show, bringing America's East and Europe closer to the Wild West. He performed with Indians and rough riders. Prominent members of his troupe were Sitting Bull (1834-1883), the famous Sioux medicine man, and the art shooter Annie Oakley (1859-1926) who shot a cigarette out of the mouth of the young Kaiser Wilhelm II. This show made the already historic Wild West popular in Europe, and writers like Karl May stimulated imaginative Indian stories.
Like every boom in the Wild West, the days of bandits passed quickly.
Towards the end of the 19th century the country was so developed that the wild riders fell behind against the police with their technical aids such as the telegraph.
Today the "Wild West" is a legend - in some respects an all too glorified legend, because reality showed - with the whites as with the Indians - all aspects of our human existence: wisdom and committed decisions as well as thoughtless greed and profound malice. And much of the history of the West, especially the expropriation and extermination of the indigenous people, is still waiting to be dealt with honestly today.
You can also read about this under "Brief, succinct, curious" on page 33 "The wild east."
Davis William C., The Wild West, Erlangen 1994.
Hetmann Frederik, The earth is our mother, Freiburg 1998.
La Farge Oliver, The Great Hunt, Olten 1961.
Stammel, HJ, Der Cowboy, Gütersloh 1978.
Steuben Fritz, Great Chief Tecumseh, Stuttgart 1866.
Vanderwerth WC, Indian Oratory, University of Oklahoma 1971.
Wilson, RL / Martin, Greg, Buffalo Bills Wild West, New York 1992.