The Code of the West

There’s a lot of negative talk about this young generation coming up. The cowboy in the photo above, however, represents some of what’s great about this country by living a heritage every day built on promoting our agricultural roots, providing food and products to an entire nation, and keeping the hope and promise of the American West alive. They also live by a code each and every day.  A code that is built on the notion of hard work, honest effort, and just rewards.  A code that has been passed to these young cowboys from those who came before, and to those who came before from those who came before them. 

You see before the American West was fully settled and barbed wire started to close off the open range, a code among those moving westward was slowly established and became the one civilizing influence that could be relied upon. This code of the west was first recounted by the famous western writer, Zane Grey, in his 1934 novel The Code of the West.  Ironically before 1934, no “written” code is known to have actually existed. However, the hardy pioneers who lived in the American West were bound by these unwritten rules nonetheless—rules that centered on hospitality, fair play, loyalty, respect for the land, and respect for each other.

Ramon Adams, a Western historian, explained it best in his 1969 book, The Cowman and His Code of Ethics, saying:

“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 a cowhand might break every written law of a territory, state or the federal government, he took great pride in upholding his own unwritten code. And while his failure to abide by this code didn’t bring him formal penalty, mind you, the man who broke it became, more or less, a social pariah. His friends “hazed him into the cutbacks” and he was often subject to the punishment of the very code he had broken.

“A man’s got to have a code, a creed to live by, no matter his job.”

– John Wayne

Though the early Code of the West was unwritten, here is a “loose” list of some of the more interesting and, for me, impactful guiding principles:

  • Don’t inquire into a person’s past. Take the measure of a man for what he is today.
  • 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. And never steal another man’s horse. A horse thief pays with his life.
  • Defend yourself whenever necessary, but don’t make a threat without expecting dire consequences.
  • Never order anything weaker than whiskey, and always fill your whiskey glass to the brim.
  • Never pass anyone on the trail without saying “Howdy”. After you pass someone on the trail, don’t look back at him. It implies you don’t trust him.
  • Don’t wave at a man on a horse, as it might spook the horse. A nod is the proper greeting.
  • Real cowboys are modest. 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.
  • Cuss all you want, but only around men, horses and cows.
  • Do not practice ingratitude and never complain. Complaining is what quitters do, and cowboys don’t tolerate 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.
  • Never try on another man’s hat.
  • Respect the land and the environment.
  • Honesty is absolute – your word is your bond; a handshake is more binding than a contract.

In his 2004 book, Cowboy Ethics – What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West, Jim Owen made anew a heartfelt case for this cowboy approach by applying it to business ethics — one that goes back to the simple, timeless principles of the cowboy code. He also interpreted the unwritten Code of the West into his own ten principles for all of us to live by:

Code of the Wes1

And, it turns out this message, and those like it, strikes a deep chord with people from all walks of life, from those in business to academics and even to a few college athletic coaches along the way. Since ethics has become part of our national conversation as of late, the ethics of the working cowboy, both historic and modern, are as important now as ever. The good news is that we all have an opportunity to discover the cowboy code and to adopt it into our own lives, and in the process be like the working cowboy full of courage, optimism and plain ol’ hard work.  His code represents the best of America and the best of us as a people.  

Cowboys are our heroes because they stand for something greater than themselves and they represent what’s right about the notion of hard work, honest effort, and just rewards. Even though their way of life may have changed in some ways over the last 150 years, cowboys still honor and live by their code. They are an abiding source of inspiration to do better and to be better, and hopefully these “new world” codes, like the unwritten code of the early West, will be of good use to all of us in our travels.

Please feel free to share your thoughts as to the value of the codes you live by. I look forward to hearing from you and until then, happy trails! ★