The Old West: When men were men and women knew their place

The romantic view of yesteryear is just that-romantic. Photo: Western gunfighters

WASHINGTON, June 26, 2013 —


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How many times have we heard men declare of the days of the old West, ‘men were men and women stayed at home and knew their place’? This is a common refrain after folks watch a movie based on the period.

A peek behind the myths reveals difficult and trying lifestyle most modern men would never concede to and when a seeming minor health issue that would be easily cured today would take lives by the thousands.

The ‘cool’ concept of a man that stands tall for all that is good and right drawing a gun at sundown against a man of wrong and all things bad may appeal to modern guys who puff their chest full of air and momentarily feel courageous with the thought of yesteryear opportunity. The fact is, gun drawing is a myth and rarely happened. When it did, it was usually a couple of drunks full of liquid courage. The events at the O.K Corral were rare and more a slaughter than we would like to believe.

The term ‘cowboy’ does not apply to all men of the era. Cowboys were and are the guys who herded cows across the country under the worst of circumstances. The sign-on’s had to pay for their supplies and made little money. The whole ‘sleeping under the stars’ bit included torrential rains, snow, freezing temperatures, insects and vermin. The hours were incredibly long and the free chow was barley palatable. In other times of the year, the dust from the plains came in clouds and bathing was at best, sporadic.

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When the cowboy’s would reach, say Dodge City, and collect their pay. They often left large chunks of it in Dodge. History shows of the 25 murders of the era in Dodge, only two were from the guns of cowboys. In fact, most of those in shoot outs were shot in the back or from a hiding place.

The refrain that life was so simple back then is completely wrong. If a man chose to farm, the work was sun up to sun down and all manual labor. If the crop went bad, the settlers could starve in the winter. Waking up daily and having to hunt for food then skinning the catch is not glorious. Making a home from chopping wood and using mud clay and straw roofs with very little inside space is not remotely appealing. Making fires daily to stay warm in freezing temperatures and roasting in hot summers was not comfortable.

Hollywood has those in the Western days shooting off firearms with abandon. In many cases, ammunition was so scarce, much like today, a patron of a saloon would trade a cartridge for a jigger of booze. The two were of equal value. This is where the term ‘give me a shot’ came from; a trade-off.

For those traveling alone, making a camp fire could attract someone who would steal the camper’s food at gunpoint to avoid starvation. Men had little compassion after having served in the Civil War and witnessing 25 thousand deaths in a matter of days from a large battle and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was not in the vocabulary of the day. Medical emergencies were met with certain death or crippling injury. The life expectancy was about 40 years in 1880.

If injury, malaria, tuberculosis, flu, pneumonia or a variety of other illnesses that are cured today with ease didn’t get you, something else would. The doctors of the period were not exactly neurosurgeons. Most people died horribly and many at the hands of angry, indigenous American Indians. Many folks had severe chronic pain from the necessity of using horses for transportation or buckboards on bumpy, rocky roads.

Women were, for the most part, totally reliant upon men. They had to clean and cook the freshly dead catch, launder clothes in a nearby creek, there were no bathrooms in their home and worked the fields with the men.

If their farmer husband became disabled and had no older sons to take over the farm, they were in deep trouble. There were no government programs to help. If a woman’s husband died and she had child, most men of the day would spurn them. More women than history would like to admit had no choice but to turn to the only method of making a living available: Prostitution.

They would either become servers at the downstairs of saloon and a different type of server upstairs or migrate to towns where the cowboy’s would come and earn their wages there by taking on up to 50 or more customers nightly, more often than not, in an alley between two buildings.

The era was extremely difficult and today’s men could hardly survive let alone flourish in such conditions. Modern men should think twice before they belly up to a saloon bar and ask for a latte.


Paul Mountjoy is a Virginia based writer and a member of the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science.





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