Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Code of the West, a Worthy Ideal

"Assiniboine hunting buffalo," by Paul Kane
The Code Of The West
Worthy Ideals To Practice
By Dakota Wind
THE GREAT PLAINS - The following is a commentary about the American West and the ideals of the west at the turn of 1900. Zane Grey wrote about life in the American west at the end of the nineteenth century. Though his observations about life on the frontier were largely based on his

Southwest experiences, his writings could easily have been about life anywhere in the American western frontier.

There are various interpretations of his “Code of the West,” an unwritten code that frontier men and women lived by. This unwritten code, of necessity, applied to all races and both sexes living in the frontier era. 

If one were to carefully examine the origin of the cowboy culture one finds an interesting twist. The rodeo comes from the Mexican vaqueros and early American cowboys and began as an extension of everyday life for the cowboy such as branding, roping, racing, and general riding.

Who made up the cowboy? According to Dee Brown's The American West, we see the cowboy population made up of about 1/3 white, 1/3 black, and the last 1/3 consisting of Mexicans and American Indians. Race had no impact on the job that needed to get done, but Hollywood and associated media have frozen the west as something between Cowboys and Indians, with cowboys almost exclusively being white. Were one to review the Bismarck Tribune of the 1870s and 1880s, one would find this to certainly be true, at least in Dakota Territory.

Certainly movies are about heroes, villains, and motivations. And movies, especially movies about the West, have served to perpetuate the West as being about the cowboy against the Indian. Media about the Little Big Horn have gone from good guy vs. bad guy, to romantic reluctant soldier vs. going-down-with-a-fight, stoic, heroic underdog.

One element remains missing from Raoul Walsh's They Died with their Boots On to Steven Spielberg's Into the West, and that is the simple fact that many American Indians were peaceful, and on their reservations; some were there by choice and others by force, though all practiced the unwritten code to some degree with their fellow frontiersman.

A general etiquette practiced amongst code followers was never to pester people about where they came from, what they did, or what their names were. Given the backgrounds of many people (social, political, religious, ethnic, legal, etc.) who had left much, if not everything behind to go west, it was best to hold one's peace.

There is nothing political, social, or racial about the code. It worked person to person then, and it works person to person today.

Below is an interpretation of the code from Dakota Livesay's Chronicle of the Old West:

1. Respect yourself and others.

2. Accept responsibility for your life.

3. Be positive and cheerful.

4. Be a person of your word.

5. Go the distance.

6. Be fair in all your dealings.

7. Be a good friend and neighbor.

Hopalong Cassidy's take on the code stressed humility, thrift, conservation, obedience to the law, and pride that one is born in America. Roy Rodgers mentions that one should protect the weak and offer assistance, a love for God, and American patriotism. Gene Autry includes all the above, and adds that a cowboy is free of racial and religious prejudice.

Zane Grey in his Lone Star Ranger's Creed argues that we should live by the rule of what is the best for the greatest number. A logic that fits the times he lived in, where Manifest Destiny was the most true, righteous, and logical choice of action to pursue to make our country better. However, Grey continues, “That sooner or later…somewhere…somehow…we must settle with the world and make payment for what we have taken.”