Sunday, September 27, 2020

Life on the American Frontier

Above all else, frontier life was tough. It was not for the faint of heart, the weak, the uncommitted, or those lazy and irresponsible ne'er-do-wells who wanted things without working for them. They worked hard, and most reaped the benefits of their labor. The land served as a magnet to draw newcomers West. And frankly, though a challenging American frontier was waiting, settlements and towns were established with the hope of economic gain and personal freedom. 

I believe that what makes America completely different from other nations is the fact that our citizens  are first and above all else "not subjects." Those who came here were fleeing tyranny, starvation, caste systems, and more. They came to America to find better lives. And they came West to have their own land and property, and not be shackled to some sort of servant class system. 

Even though all came from diverse backgrounds, their goals were the same in that they wanted a better life than the ones they left. For themselves and their families, together, they endured pestilence, famine, diseases, droughts, and the evil that lives in some hearts. Though that was the case, we forget that their hard work was not usually seen as drudgery. The toil that they put out on their properties and businesses was not simply done to endure or get by for the moment. They worked hard to prevail, succeed, and grow their success.

They saw the difficulties and efforts that they themselves put into their farms and ranches, their stores, liveries, banks, shops, and assorted businesses on the frontier as investments in the future. It was their land, their business, their endeavor. They came West to have more than just living a menial existence in overcrowded Eastern cities with jobs in thankless places such as garment factories and coal mines.

But let's not deceive ourselves. Their's was not always hard work. There were celebrations in some form. An example of that is when families combined projects like a barn-raising with a dance. Of course, roundups and branding season took place when neighboring ranchers helped each other. Out of those roundups came rodeos based on friendly competition.

Businesses celebrated their openings to thank those who help them get started and to draw customers. Harvest festivals were about harvests. The dances that followed were events most all looked forward to attending. Corn-huskings were about storing food and also about socializing. Quilting bees were a way to have fun while something needed was being done. While work was mixed with enjoyment, it was only had after the work was done.

Frontier Women

Those who get their knowledge of history from Hollywood may assume the Old West was only inhabited by young men who drank a lot, gambled, sat around a saloon all day, always had money from some unknown source, wore expensive Colts, and were ready to shot someone at any given moment. Well, that's Hollywood.

Fact is only a very few single men ever attempted to run a ranch or work a homestead alone. Those who tried to do it alone failed more than not compared to those who came West with wives, or those who sent for their wives to join them. The vast majority who succeeded did so with a hard-working wife at his side.

So now, was it only men who made a difference in the Old West? Was it only men who made a difference in the Old West since they were the ranchers, farmers, loggers, outfitters, teamsters, cowboys, soldiers, and more? Absolutely not.

As citizens, women did not have the rights that men had back in the day. And frankly, it isn't that long ago that women finally received their equal rights. As for obtaining equal rights? While it never should have been the case, and women should have been seen as equals from the start, women worked really hard and risked a lot to get what they deserved. Some even went to jail just to get the right to vote.

Women made a significant difference on the frontier for many reasons. As with most social activities, church activities, and school functions later after schools were built, such events were left to the wives to organize. The men organized the work projects, but the women organized the meals and almost everything else -- including getting the word out.

As for children, common sense at the time said that having a passel of children to help with chores on the frontier was a bonus. They were seen as an asset and a blessing around farms and ranches. Children were also seen as a blessing to shopkeepers and other businesses on the frontier. Many saw using family-help as a way to get things done while keeping down their overhead of having to hire more employees. By the way, that tradition has not changed in some cultures today.

Because they created families, frontier wives were the glue that held families together. They raised the children. Wives taught the children to read and write using the family Bible. In most cases, the family Bible was the only book available when educating their children. What took place was what we today call "Home Schooling." And as for disciplining the children, mothers were not the buddies that moms try to be today. While frontier mothers were responsible for educating their children, they were also responsible for teaching their children respect and manners.

Frontier wives dutifully attending to child-rearing, gardening, making clothing, canning food, and more. She managed the family, including being responsible for feeding hired hands. Unlike in the movies where we see huge cattle outfits with hired cooks, most ranches and farms were not that way. And yes, the job of providing meals for their family, hired hands, and visitors was left up to the woman of the house.

Now, please don't think that women were tied to their homes. Frontiers wives played an important role in the operation of their farms and ranches -- including working outdoors. Especially on homesteads starting out, she worked side by side with her husband, bringing in hay, milking, planting, harvesting, and even taking her turn on the plow. As for businesses in town, wives worked hand-in-hand with their husbands to make their businesses a success. In most cases, whether working a homestead, running a mercantile in town, or caring for a family, wives were usually what assured the family's survival.

Crime & Mutual Survival

Frontier towns required its citizens to be productive to ensure its survival. Survival meant participation. To survive, citizens were required to be involved. Being involved and not shirking one's duty was, in essence, "making a difference." In some places, those who weren't productive were run out of town.

While some believe Americans on the frontier were isolated and alone, away from neighbors, that wasn't the case. In reality, farmers, ranchers, and townfolk had a rich social life. The connection between them was strengthened by their dependence on each other for mutual survival. The need for mutual survival against Indian attacks and outlaw bands is why militias and vigilance committees were formed. Together they fought diseases, fires, droughts, hard economic times, and threats from outlaws.

Crime did increase when the population increased in the boomtowns. That was not unusual since more people bring more crime. Shootouts, gunfights, and murders were not as commonplace as some may think. That's not an assumption, that's a fact.

Thefts and assaults were commonplace, but shootings were not. Saloon brawls were commonplace, but they were usually just brawls. It was very uncommon for a fistfight to turn into gunplay. As for gunfights and saloon killings, newspapers, journals, letters, and court records simply don't show that many incidents of such taking place.

Did such things take place? They certainly did. But when looking at the actual facts of what took place, the numbers of shootings and killings in the Old West are relatively small compared to the numbers of people there at the time. That's why shootings, even relatively small shootings like the one that took place in the small lot near the rear of the O.K. Corral livery stable in Tombstone, Arizona, made headlines for a little while. Such things were an affront to all because they were not commonplace on the frontier.

With little to no city or county governments established, law enforcement was left to the citizenry in most cases. In the absence of a structured law system known in the East, most settlements on the frontier were forced to establish citizens' committees.

Let's understand what was taking place there at the time. In the days when Americans came West to do their part in building our nation, men in frontier towns were required to do several things as part of their communities. As citizens of new towns, newcomers made a difference because they were required to be on fire brigades, sit on planning boards, be part of the local militia, assist with bringing in provisions, help maintain community stores, and assist in community projects -- especially during those first years before established town governments were created.

Let's keep in mind that what little government they did have was provided by the newcomers' simple association with each other. Families looked after their family's own needs. Though that was the case, newcomers were part of community projects such as digging a community well, building dams, creating levees, digging irrigation ditches, and erecting a town windmill. In frontier towns, able-bodied men were required to serve as local militia members and on the local citizen's committee. Also known as vigilance committees, they were the only law enforcement available to maintain law and order before organized law enforcement was established.

Consequences & Values

So, though not widespread, we know that violence did exist. To address those instances where the law was needed, citizens gathered and took action while understanding that society has to use violence to create peace when dealing with outlaws. People in the frontier towns understood that there were consequences to breaking the law. The consequence was swift punishment.

Why were murders not commonplace when looking at the facts, and not the myth of the Old West? Well, I believe that has to do with citizens being armed, consequences for criminal acts, and the Judeo-Christian values that people practiced at the time. 

As for citizens being armed? It is just a statistical fact that while Americans in the East were walking around unarmed in the mid to late 1800s, the murder rate there was soaring. In contrast, in the West, in the frontier termed "a deadly and savage land," the murder rate was significantly lower during the same time period because Americans in the West were armed. In the West, armed citizens responded to criminal acts immediately. In the East, unarmed citizens were prey for predators who saw the unarmed as ripe for the taking. And as for someone responding to the criminal acts, the vast majority of crime in the East went unanswered during that time period.   

As for having consequences when committing a crime? History shows us time and time again that outlaws who faced swift punishment of being hanged as the consequence of their murderous ways did not break the law a second time. 

As for the values and ideals that people lived by back in the day? Friends and neighbors created bonds. Husbands and wives communicated with other husbands and wives. Yes, even back then. Most attended the same church services, baby Christenings, dances, social gatherings, and knew each other from town meetings, fire drills, and of course, in town shopping.

Those folks shared a value system based on courage, conviction, loyalty, and family. Whether some like it or not, the Christian ideals such as that of service, faith, benevolence, truth, trust, hope, love, and their belief in the Golden Rule were the foundation of what they lived. It seems to me that people without values and a code to live by are really no different than ships without rudders -- absolutely incapable of going in a positive direction. A good value system is what keeps us on course. It steers our moral compass in the right direction. 

The value system of those pioneers was passed on to their children. That made a big difference in the growth of our society in years to come. And while it's a fact that there were other religions in the Old West besides Christianity, we should not cancel out, we should not diminish, the significantly positive impact Christianity had on the American frontier. The vast majority of Americans on the frontier practiced Judeo-Christian values. Because of what was handed down to us, it's not a surprise that Christian values were assets in the Old West. Those values built America.

Tom Correa


  1. Elizabeth here, from Redding up north: Good post. Thanks. I enjoyed reading about our history, while I sat with a mug of coffee this morning, on the front porch, looking out on the valley filled with smoke from forest fires. I don't know, but have an idea that no other countries are like what you describe, then and now. I say that because other countries were not based on Judeo-Christian values. That's exactly why there are third world countries, communist, and socialist countries, or just plain countries full of chaos, like in Africa, the middle east, China, Russia, Indonesia and certainly South America. That's one reason why I don't desire to travel to those countries. I don't like the filth, the deception, and poverty in countries with no Godly foundation. Probably why we have missionaries! Someone has to reach the lost living in chaos.

    1. Hello Elizabeth,
      First, I hope and pray that you and yours are safe up there. I have a buddy that just moved to Anderson a few months ago, and he says the smoke is horrible. Back in 2015, the Butte Fire had everyone around here evacuating. So yes, since I've been through such a thing, my heart goes out to those in the way of the fires. Second, I believe that what made America completely different from other nations is the fact citizens here were first and above all "not subjects." People came here to stop being subjects, serfs, stuck in a caste system. And while other countries claimed to be Christian, it was what a friend of mine called "selective Christianity" to keep the masses in check -- including making their heads of state the heads of their church. Americans changed that and let each of us live to our Judeo-Christian values to our fullest. I find it interesting that our Christian faiths are also under attack by the Left in the exact same way that Communist nations who preach Atheism attack Christians. And lastly, you are absolutely right when you say that those other nations are living in constant chaos. It seems to me that people without values and a code are no different than ships without rudders -- absolutely incapable of going in a direction that is needed. While I've travel some while in the Marine Corps, like you, I have no desire to travel to other countries. For me, other countries have no respect for human life. That's probably because they have, as you so aptly put it, "no Godly foundation." As for Missionaries? I don't think I would do it in other countries. Besides, we need more Missionaries right here these days.
      By the way, I want to take this time to say, thank you for supporting my blog. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate that.
      May God bless you and yours.


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