NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 20, 2005

The portrayals of the "wild" west in the new HBO TV series, "Deadwood" and Steven Spielberg's epic, "Into the West," are little like the real West, says New York Times writer John Tierney.

In fact, economists Terry Anderson and Peter Hill of the Property and Environment Research Center in Montana document a tamer version of the west in their book, "The Not So Wild, Wild West."

  • Most people of the old West were entrepreneurial and preferred trading to robbing and killing.
  • Burglary and robbery rates were much lower than they are in today's American cities, and rape was rare.
  • Homicides were mostly limited to young, drunk, single men as a socially acceptable way of resolving disputes.
  • Wild Bill Hickok was shot and killed in Deadwood (which is now part of South Dakota), but the town's past reputation as being particularly violent is false.

In fact, during 1876 and 1877, two peak years of the gold rush, Deadwood historian Bob Lee notes that only 77 violent deaths occurred -- mostly outside of Deadwood in the Black Hills.

The belief that the old West represented the spirit of rugged individualism is not quite true either. Most of our Western ancestors were not heroic enough to make it on their own, says Anderson and Hill.

Sources: John Tierney, "The Mild, Mild West," New York Times, June 25, 2005; and Terry Anderson and Peter Jensen Hill, "The Not So Wild, Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier," Stanford University Press, May 1, 2004.


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