The Code of the West

ImageThe American West, with its loosely organized communities of strangers, its scarcity of women and its mixing of people from all over the world, produced its own behavioral norms which, while they had their roots in Victorian America, also had their own unique character.

One of the most striking features was the Westerner's obsession with minding his own business.

Given the dubious backgrounds of many of the people who had felt compelled to leave everything behind and move out West, it became a particular point of etiquette to leave people alone and never pester them with questions about where they came from, what they were called or what they did before they left "the States".

"We ate dinner and then I joined my older brother in asking the stranger what his name was. 'Jones is the name' he said. As soon as he rode off, our mother laid us boys out for being so ill mannered as to ask any man his name".
Quoted in the Time Life Book "Cowboys"

"In the western states, I do not think that I was ever addressed first by an American sitting next to me at table. Indeed I never held any conversation at a public table in the West. I have sat in the same room with men for hours, and have not had a word spoken to me. I have done my very best to break through this ice, and have always failed. A Western American is not a talking man. He will sit for hours over a stove with his cigar in his mouth, and his hat over his eyes, chewing his cud of reflection. A dozen will sit together in the same way and there will not be a dozen words spoken between them in an hour".
Anthony Trollope, North America. 1863

"This was the first time I had ever found myself in a large party of Americans, and, as in the gambling houses of San Francisco, the first thing that struck me was the strange contrasts in their dress. The ladies were all in a grand state, and might have gone into any full-dressed parties without changing their traveling costume (the author is on a riverboat on the Sacramento); but the case was widely different with the gentlemen. Some few were well dressed, but the majority wore jackets, often torn ones, dirty boots pulled up over their trousers, and had hands so extraordinarily coarse and burned--even the best dressed gentlemen among them--that they looked as if they belonged to the commonest plowman.

The company passed the time in playing cards and chewing tobacco, without excepting even the boys of ten and twelve years old; but they did not spit about at the dreadful rate described by many travelers. They had another practice, however, if possible more abominable--namely, though they carried a pocket handkerchief, of making use of their fingers instead of it.

I actually saw this atrocity committed by quite elegantly dressed men.

If, however, these points fell grievously short, in another they maintained without any exception the character of gentlemen.

The men, one and all, showed the utmost attention and politeness to our sex. Old or young, rich or poor, well or ill-dressed, every woman was treated with respect and kindness; and in this the Americans are far in advance of my countrymen [the Austrians] and indeed, Europeans in general, who usually keep their civilities for youth, beauty, and fine clothes."
A Lady's Journey Round the World, Ida Pfeiffer, 1855

Say what was your name in the States?
Was it Johnson or Thompson or Bates?
Did you murder your wife and flee for your life?
Say what was your name in the States?

Did you have to change your name?
Was it Miller or Benton or James?
Did you spend time in jail or ride on a rail?
Say what was your name in the States?
A song of the Gold Rush, by "Anonymous"