Traveling in the West (not quite a rant)

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Montana is colder than Arizona. I don’t know if any of you will disagree with me on that point. In Montana you NEED to wear thermal underwear during the winter. In the Arizona mountains, it’s optional. You also need to plug in your truck’s radiator in Montana. Not in Arizona.
Moving on, I came across a “Code of the West” brochure, stuffed into the Bible in a motel in Whitefish, Montana. Naturally I read it (having read the Bible previously). The brochure advised that you weren’t in ‘the city’ anymore and that when out west, you were expected to take care of yourself, which included arming yourself against hostile critters. It didn’t define ‘hostile critters’ farther, but I understood where they were going.
There are a lot of “cowboys” in the world today, who aren’t. There are black hip-hop urban cowboys and there’s a congresswoman from Florida who wears a cowboy hat for some reason unknown to me. It’s not about the hat, it’s about character, and we’re back to the Code, which has NOTHING to do with your hat.

The CODE OF THE WEST was first discussed by Zane Grey, in his 1934 novel The Code of the West. That interested me immediately because Grey lived and wrote of the area near the White Wolf Mine, where I live today. I thought to myself as I reflected, “Could what would be true in the late 1800’s be equally true in our freaky post modern world, where men can’t decide which restroom to use and women delight in killing their unborn and recently born children?”

Ramon Adams, a Western historian, explained it best in his 1969 book, The Cowman and His Code of Ethics, saying, in part: 

“Back in the days when the cowman with his herds made a new frontier, there was no law on the range. Lack of written law made it necessary for him to frame some of his own, thus developing a rule of behavior which became known as the “Code of the West.” These homespun laws, being merely a gentleman’s agreement to certain rules of conduct for survival, were never written into statutes, but were respected everywhere on the range.

Though the cowman might break every law of the territory, state and federal government, he took pride in upholding his own unwritten code. His failure to abide by it did not bring formal punishment, but the man who broke it became, more or less, a social outcast. His friends ‘hazed him into the cutbacks’ and he was subject to the punishment of the very code he had broken.
Here are a few of the guidelines set forth in the brochure:
Don’t inquire into a person’s past. Take the measure of a man for what he is today.
Never steal another man’s horse. A horse thief pays with his life.
Defend yourself whenever necessary.
Look out for your own.
Remove your guns before sitting at the dining table.
Never order anything weaker than whiskey.
Don’t make a threat without expecting dire consequences.
Never pass anyone on the trail without saying “Howdy”.
When approaching someone from behind, give a loud greeting before you get within shooting range.
Don’t wave at a man on a horse, as it might spook the horse. A nod is the proper greeting.
After you pass someone on the trail, don’t look back at him. It implies you don’t trust him.
Riding another man’s horse without his permission is nearly as bad as making love to his wife. Never even bother another man’s horse.
Never lift another man’s rifle or pistols without permission.
Always fill your whiskey glass to the brim.
A cowboy doesn’t talk much; he saves his breath for breathing.
No matter how weary and hungry you are after a long day in the saddle, always tend to your horse’s needs before your own, and get your horse some feed before you eat.
Cuss all you want, but only around men, horses, and cows.
The Code of the West wasn’t written down back when there really was a West (before Amazon orders were delivered to the most remote ranch next-day). But here’s another take on it.
Camp Cook 
Marfa, TX – Lee Russell, 1939.
Complain about the cooking and you become the cook.
Always drink your whiskey with your gun hand, to show your friendly intentions.
Do not practice ingratitude.
A cowboy is pleasant even when out of sorts. Complaining is what quitters do, and cowboys hate quitters.
Always be courageous. Cowards aren’t tolerated in any outfit worth its salt.
A cowboy always helps someone in need, even a stranger or an enemy.
Never try on another man’s hat.
Be hospitable to strangers. Anyone who wanders in, including an enemy, is welcome at the dinner table. The same was true for riders who joined cowboys on the range.
Give your enemy a fighting chance.
Never wake another man by shaking or touching him, as he might wake suddenly and shoot you. (doesn’t only apply to cowboys on the range. also applies to SPECOPS types who sleep weird)
Real cowboys are modest. A braggart who is “all gurgle and no guts” is not tolerated.
Be there for a friend when he needs you.
Drinking on duty is grounds for instant dismissal and blacklisting.
A cowboy is loyal to his “brand,” to his friends, and those he rides with.
Never shoot an unarmed or unwarned enemy. This was also known as “the rattlesnake code”: always warn before you strike. However, if a man was being stalked, this could be ignored.
Never shoot a woman no matter what.
Consideration for others is central to the code, such as: Don’t stir up dust around the chuckwagon, don’t wake up the wrong man for herd duty, etc.
Respect the land and the environment by not smoking in hazardous fire areas, disfiguring rocks, trees, or other natural areas.
Honesty is absolute – your word is your bond, a handshake is more binding than a contract.
Live by the Golden Rule.
The Code of the West was a gentleman’s agreement to certain rules of conduct. It was never written into the statutes, but it was respected everywhere on the range. It’s one of the central charms of The West. It still exists in some areas, but you won’t find it in Washington DC, San Francisco, Chicago, New York or most parts of Austin.

32 thoughts on “Traveling in the West (not quite a rant)

  1. You still see it in rural South Dakota and I imagine in most rural parts of the West. I don't know if it's a symptom or the problem, but the more lawyers you see the less likely the code of the West is still being used

  2. I try to live by most of those and like to believe that I do. The last is particularly important. If I say I'm going to do something, I will follow through.
    "Never steal another man’s horse. A horse thief pays with his life."
    In a southern suburb of Kansas City Missouri on a street named Santa Fe Trail(because the Santa Fe Trail roughly followed its course), There's a small cemetery in a church yard. One of the markers reads simply "the horse thief 1898." I'd like to know the story about that one.

  3. Montana gets pretty dang cold. Windy, too.

    Pretty country up there, and I like the name of the local gas station / quik-e-mart chain. Probably to most libertarian place I've ever been, somewhat hilariously so.

    A lot of the towns are turning into resort-style little Californias, though… sad to see.


  4. The code was what my father and older kin lived by so that is what I grew up observing.

    One Montana winter hazard seldom mentioned is the drop cords strewn all over motel walks plugged into the parked vehicles. Outside nearly every door is an electrical outlet. Stumbling back to your room from the bar was a challenge.

  5. Does the code apply to barbarians? Or is it just reciprocal to human beings? These are troubling times, it would be good to know.

  6. For a good laugh, see George L. Voss' 1970's Western "The Man who Believed in the Code of the West". It's long out of print, but used copies are inexpensive (for example, see ). It's very funny.

  7. Truckers used to have a code, also; but not so much any more.
    We could do with more "unwritten code"; but I can just hear all the snowflake generation…

  8. The code is social in nature and applies to human beings (defined more narrowly than is politically correct).

  9. The code does not create law, but it does imply a duty and obligation to behave in a civilized way. The drop cords are necessary.

  10. The thief's descendants are likely in Congress now. Former Senator Harry Reid descended from a horse thief who was hung. He procreated before his demise – and we got Harry. Lucky us.

  11. Anyone who has ever stood topside watch knows you kick the rack and never touch the sleeping replacement. Ask me how I know?

  12. Love God.
    Love your neighbor as yourself.
    Let your yeah be yeah and your neah be neah.
    Visit widows and orphans in their need and keep yourself unstained from the world.
    These are hard enough. 🙂

  13. I am reminded of the Code of Bushido, which I read was made up in late 1800's fiction, yet many attempted to adhere to.

  14. Well said, and good points all. 'Some' parts of Texas it's still adhered to (cattle and oil country)

  15. Excellent…time for a resurgence to cowboy honor and respect (some of my neighbors fit the bill). I'd add to the mix:

    "Never ask a rancher the size of his ranch or how many cattle he owns, that's like asking him how much money he makes."

    UW in Laramie put out a slogan last year, "The World Needs More Cowboys", and immediately took it in the shorts from the rabid Left though social media because the woke moral superior crowd didn't have a clue the statement was attitude and manner, not "male only."

    UW caved (because that's what university's do)…got the UW brochure a few months later, not a single cowboy shown in it.

    As John Wayne would say, They were "all hat and no cows."

  16. It's a good code, I think, though I rarely drink whisky. Of course THEY DID, right here in Hillsboro in the 1870s. Then they'd steal horses, shoot eachother, generally break the code and then slope off to join a cattle drive on the Chisholm Trail, no questions asked.

    When the law, such as it was, caught up with them they'd end up dead, sometimes hanged from the oaks outside the courthouse in the Square. Hangin' trees.

  17. I think that many in the military have a similar code (well outside of the UCMJ) that applies to members of their own "group". Naturally, those codes are not often recognized or appreciated by upper echelons because loyalty to one's brothers takes precedence. It's not unlike the French Foreign Legion where the members swear loyalty to the Legion and not to France.

  18. Leave it to those cowboys of yore, they could turn a phrase:

    "Dance with who brung ya."
    "That's the horse I rode in on."
    "Smile when you say that."

  19. Between the military, the fire service and now living amongst the rock solid men and women of rural Montana – the code I follow has had different names, but always focused on courage, honor and honesty. The old codes only die if we let them.

  20. We need to keep strong, DaveS for ourselves and for our posterity and for the sake of the nation.

  21. There are a fair number of Westerners who still follow the code, they just don't talk about it.

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