The Western Code

Recently at my place of work, I underwent a loss-prevention training in which I learned how to better handle dishonest people and their cunning scams and thievery. It all had to do with specific policies and examples pertaining to the company I work for, but I came out of it with several impressions that led me to think about the human moral code and what the heck happened to it. In my conversations shortly thereafter with my coworkers, we talked about how things had spiraled out of control since the simpler times when a handshake was more binding than any legal contract. Even when people used to count on someone showing up at the time that they say, even after traveling for days.

Now fast forward a few days to one of my classes in which a young lady gave a speech titled, “Why The World Needs More Cowboys.” Keep in mind that I attend a college set in a very rural community, so topics like this are not foreign to me. However this time she talked about something that piqued my interest. Her comments reiterated the ideas I had formulated after my loss prevention training. The concept is something called “The Code of the West.” And if there is a set of values other than God’s own 10 Commandments that our very own United States of America, the greatest country in the world, is built upon, it is stated in this code.

In his 1969 book, Ramon Adams outlines this unwritten code by which the cowboys lived their lives. These rules are centered on hospitality, fair play, loyalty, and respect for the land. To me, those words in and of themselves seem like enough to run a dominating society, but nevertheless, the Code of the West goes a lot deeper. On a webpage published on, Adams’ summary is outlined as follows:

“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.”

Like I mentioned previously, the Code of the West was always unwritten. However, from a variety of sources you can get a general idea of what it means. After some research, here is a list of some unwritten laws that kept the western frontier in chivalrous order:  

  • Live each day with courage.
  • Take pride in your work.
  • Always finish what you start.
  • Do what has to be done.
  • Be tough, but fair.
  • When you make a promise, keep it.
  • Ride for the brand.
  • Talk less and say more.
  • Remember that some things aren’t for sale.
  • Know where to draw the line.
  • Don’t inquire into a person’s past. Take the measure of a man for what he is today.
  • Defend yourself whenever necessary.
  • Look out for your own.
  • Never pass anyone on the trail without saying “Howdy.”
  • 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.
  • Complain about the cooking and you become the cook.
  • 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. 
  • 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.
  • Real cowboys are modest.  A braggert who is “all gurgle and no guts” is not tolerated.
  • Be there for a friend when he needs you.
  • A cowboy is loyal to his “brand,” to his friends, and those he rides with.
  • 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.

One might say that “well…those were simpler times.” And they would be right. I honestly don’t know what happened to humanity…I don’t know why things got so complicated and downright sinister and criminal. I mean, if it weren’t for my own personal system of beliefs, I have no idea where I would even be. But I do know that if we were to re-adopt these laws and live the code of the west, America would be even better than it is today. America was built on these laws. The westward expansion was paved on this code. I may be a true westerner at heart, but I am not a cowboy. I never will be either. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be like one. The girl in my class was right. The world really does need more cowboys.

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