How Dangerous, Lawless Was the "Wild West"?

I have my father’s Great uncle George’s revolver, a Colt .45. George worked as a cowboy in Montana in the 1890s. A big adventure for a kid from Cleveland. The family story is that the only time George fired the pistol was to put down a broken-leg horse. The movies, the nickel and dime novels, the Chas. Russell and Frederick Remington paintings and Owen Whistler’s “The Virginian” not-with-standing, I suspect that Uncle George’s experience was typical.

I worked for the Dodge Daily Globe a few years back when the town fathers were considering putting up plaques everyplace in town there had been a gunfight, a backshooting, or the random person shot in order to give tourists a bit more of the flavor of the Old West (there are daily gunfights down on Front Street - the replica Old West town). It was discovered that there weren’t really enough nefarious activities to justify the plaques. One of the councilmen suggested making up a few more shootouts just to keep the tourists happy. Both ideas were voted down.

I should point out that Hays, Kansas, another Kansas railhead (one marshalled by Wild Bill Hickock I might add) did put up similar plaques a few years back. I am pretty sure there are not more than six or seven.
"First let us dispense with some fictitious ideas and misconceptions that many of us hold. Much of my early study in the firearms field dealt with the gunfighters of the “old West” – Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Johnny Ringo, etc. The guys who walked in blood up to their ankles and killed a man before breakfast most mornings – right? Would it surprise you to learn that there is no record that Doc Holliday ever shot a man before the shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone about 5 years before his death – in bed. He had been involved in a couple of barroom fights but it is recorded that he actually never hit anybody with his pistol (he most likely was wielding a shotgun in Tombstone that October day). That man of deadly reputation Wyatt Earp likely never killed a man until that day either though he did fire, along with Jim Masterson (the seldom mentioned brother of Bat and Ed) at a rowdy cowboy who ran through town one night. One bullet struck the cowboy in the arm and he later died but no one knows if it was Wyatt’s or Masterson’s.

"The first shocking thing you learn when you start “mining’ for such information is that it was much safer to live in a place like Dodge City than in a place like New York City or Chicago – my how things change, right? If you look real hard at the record of Dodge City, Kansas from the time the cattle herds started shipping from there until the last year as a “cow town” – a span of about 15 years you can come up with approximately 15 people who died by violence. Yep that’s fifteen, not 150, in a period of 15 years. An average of 1 per year. However in the worst year, five people died so there were several years in that 15 in which no one was killed in Dodge City.”

DODGE CITY Population in 1870, 427; population in 1875, 813; increase in five years, 386; population in 1878, 2,160; increase in eight years, 1,733. Rural population, 1,512; city or town population, 648; per cent. of rural to city or town population, 70.

NEW YORK CITY Population:

1860 1,175,000
1870 1,478,000
1880 1,912,000
1890 2,507,000

Paul Kirchner reports in Everything You Know is Wrong that the frontier town of Aurora Nevada (pop 5000, mostly young males, some of whom had struck it rich) was more peaceful than one might expect, given the lack of law enforcement.

There were fewer than 20 muggings from 1861-65; per capita this is about 30-40 times less than that in US cities today.

Homicides peaked at about 5 per year (which is high), mostly in barrooms among men defending their honor. These sorts of “duels” were legal at the time. Only one innocent was killed in cold blood, and the murderer was promptly hung.

(Original research by Roger McGrath, UCLA).

5 homicides per 5000 residents corresponds to 100 per 100,000. I notice from the site below that the homicide rate for San Diego has ranged recently from 8.0/100,000 to 4.0/100,000 which is way less that the wild west cited by flowbark. either homicide rates have gone WAY down from when Roger McGrath did his research or San Diego is really safe.