The degree to which violence pervaded life on the western frontier is debatable; indeed, some recent scholarship argues that much of the supposedly lawless West was no more violent than the average American city of today. Nevertheless, there were “rougher” elements-- to say the least, of life on the frontier, and brawls and duels were a common, if not constant occurrence in many communities. Violence appeared to have been especially endemic to the newest communities, where initial inhabitants were likely to be young, rowdy men. Even in newer communities one could generally find a newspaperman, and the violence they observed frequently put them into an uncomfortable position, as while “their self-appointed role was to promote the camp and to convince distant readers of its boundless futures…they also had a time cherished responsibility to speak out against crime and injustice.” (Halaas, 77) Naturally, the fear here was that too much space allotted to discussions of violence would discourage the migration of the eastern emigres that were so desperately needed if the community was to strive for permanence.
The western editor, then, frequently took on the role of moral compass for the community, admonishing lawlessness and encouraging swift retribution towards law-breakers. Editors knew that their papers had a strong and unique community voice, and when law-breakers carried on unpunished, printers had no qualms naming the names of the offenders. Those who would allow such rowdiness to flourish, too were reprimanded, and much like today, papers savagely chastised the public officials who remained idle as local thugs caused problems. Judges who handed out weak sentences, sheriffs who presided over porous jail houses, and inept investigators all felt the force of the crusading press.
While western editors spent much of their energy deploring lawlessness, much of their zealousness looks fairly misguided in retrospect. A particular case in point being the manner in which most men of print spoke of the neighboring Indians, a perceived, if not always legitimate threat of violence. Most editors, like much of the country at the time, held no Romantic notions about the Native Americans. The American Indian was widely considered to be savage and inhumane, and many editors had no moral qualms in insisting upon a course of government led extermination. A typical diatribe reads “It were better that every Indian were killed by a bullet, and his bones thrown to the wolves…than that one man or one fair Saxon woman should ever cower in fright…at the hands of these red fiends who now seek to recover by barbaric war, the possession of that which destiny so long since took from them for a nobler use.” (Quoted in Halaas, 82).
Although the newspaper generally put its faith and editorial support behind the cause of law and order, editors were not above encouraging a bit of vigilanteism should crime problems prove severe. Such a move could be troublesome for the town, for “ to admit that violence and crime had gotten out of hand was a poor way to induce immigration or attract eastern capital.” (Halaas, 85.) Nevertheless, in particularly rowdy camps many editors felt that the best combatant to chronic violence or habitual thievery was a visit from “Judge Lynch”.
Of course, vigilante justice was never the preferred mode of justice, and editors were quick to condemn unnecessary extralegal activities. By urging peacefulness and goading law enforcement into doing an effective job, editors were a strong civilizing force on the frontier. Such civilizing was necessary, for “only when these initial days of crime and violence were spent could they direct their full attention to the more positive causes that also were of vital importance to the welfare and future of the community.(Halaas, 86)
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