First chronicled by the famous western writer, Zane Grey, in his 1934
novel The Code of the West, no "written" code ever actually
existed. However, the hardy pioneers who lived in the west were bound by
these unwritten rules that centered on hospitality, fair play, loyalty,
and respect for the land.
Ramon Adams, a Western historian, explained it best in his 1969 book,
The Cowman and His Code of Ethics, saying, in part:
"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.
Though the Code of the West was always
unwritten, here is a "loose" list of some of the guidelines:
Don't inquire into a person's past. Take
the measure of a man for what he is today.
Never steal another man's horse.
A horse thief pays
with his life.
Defend yourself whenever necessary.
Look out for your own.
Remove your guns before sitting at the
Never order anything weaker than
Don't make a threat without expecting
Never pass anyone on the trail
without saying "Howdy".
When approaching someone from behind,
give a loud greeting before you get within shooting range.
Don't wave at a man on a horse, as it
might spook the horse. A nod is the proper greeting.
After you pass someone on the trail,
don't look back at him. It implies you don't trust him.
Riding another man's horse without
his permission is nearly as bad as making love to his wife.
Never even bother another man's horse.
Always fill your whiskey glass to the
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.
Cuss all you want, but only around
men, horses and cows.
Complain about the
cooking and you become the cook.
Always drink your
whiskey with your gun hand, to show your friendly intentions.
Do not practice ingratitude.
is pleasant even when out of sorts. Complaining is what quitters do,
Always be courageous. Cowards aren't
tolerated in any outfit worth its salt.
always helps someone in need, even a stranger or an enemy.
"The Code of the West was a
gentleman's agreement to certain rules of conduct. It was never
written into the statutes, but it was respected everywhere on the
-- Ramon F. Adams