Civil Liberties

Soundbite: Mild, Mild West

Terry Anderson interviewed by Brian Doherty


The 19th-century American West is usually remembered as a region of rootin'-tootin' desperados brawling in a lawless land. In The Not So Wild, Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier (Stanford University Press), Terry Anderson, president of the Property and Environment Research Center, and Peter J. Hill, an economist at Wheaton College, use the insights of the New Institutional Economics to paint a different picture of frontier history, with businessmen developing sensible property institutions to meet the West's varied needs. Senior Editor Brian Doherty talked to Anderson in December.

Q: Why do we have such a skewed vision of the American West?

A: The truth behind the vision of the wild, wild West is found in a relatively few stories. It would be like going into a modern city and finding seven shootings on one day and concluding that the city must have been a chaotic place when mostly it's a place of social cooperation. If you went to a bar and got drunk [in the old West], you could get into a good fight. But when it came to developing institutions for how grazing lands are used or mining claims and water allocated, those were done peacefully. People recognized the zero-sum nature of constant conflict.

Early Western development outpaced the federal government, so there was a ground-up building of institutions. But when the feds caught up, much of that was reversed. The most dramatic example was that Indian wars replaced trading between settlers and Indians.

Q: What were some of these institutions?

A: Most ingenious to me were the customary grazing rights established by cattlemen. People associate barbed wire with Western development, but it was a latecomer compared to the first cattle drive. Cattle owners had to define boundaries and keep cattle within those boundaries. So they formed associations that manned line camps, where the "line" was the property line between customary grazing districts. Cowboys lived along the line to contain cattle and prevent rustling.???????

Another example is the evolution of mining claims. Rather than shooting at one another to get the richest veins, miners developed rules to determine what one had to do to establish a claim and maintain it, and a peaceful means of allocating mining claims evolved.

Q: You debunk the notion of Indians as too spiritual to deal with property.

A: Where they seemed to live in harmony with the earth were areas where they established property rights, like in fishing streams in the Pacific Northwest, where Indians systematically harvested small fish, letting larger ones go upstream to spawn, resulting in larger offspring.