Before white men settled in America, there were no towns at all. At first, people lived in jumbled, unorganised groups of houses, situated and built anywhere and anyhow they wanted. Soon, as more and more people arrived, and the area between the Atlantic Coast and the Appalachian Mountains became more and more crowded, people realised they had to cross the mountains and head further West.
This time, things were more organised, and there were more settlers skilled in carpentry and building, so small towns started to get established. Also, with discoveries of gold in certain areas, towns were set up so that miners could keep sheltered, sell their finds and buy supplies and food.
These new towns may seem a big improvement from the old jumbled layout of the East, and on the whole this was the case, but these new towns did still have major flaws which brought about many problems with living in them.
The first problem was the lack of vital facilities. The towns, although more organised than before, were rushed, and not very well planned; many lacked very important building and services that made town life possible. For example, there were very few qualified teachers in these towns, so the children lucky enough to have a school to go to got a very poor education, while others could not get to a school at all.
There was also a similar problem with hospitals. These people were mostly new to the area or the country, and sometimes got sick from eating the wrong thing, or caught diseases from others in the town. When this happened, there was rarely anyone qualified to care for them, and many people died from illnesses that could easily have been treated had there been anyone there who knew what it as.
This was because the townspeople had to start completely from scratch. When they arrived on the site for their town, there was nothing but hard, dusty ground. Because of this, it took them time to develop the area, and build every necessary building, as there was a lack of money, and a lack of resources. Isolation was also an issue. The next town could be ten thousand miles away, so if one town did not have something, like a hospital, there was no way for people to travel to one like we did today. A town had to fend for itself, and anything it didn’t have, its people had to live without.
Other problems came around from the lack of buildings such as banks and stores. With nowhere to safely hold their valuables, theft and other crimes were not uncommon, as many people had lots of gold, or other valuables just lying around their homes.
Making a living in the new towns also presented a problem, because if you could not get a job in the local town, which there were very few of, like working in one of the shops, or the local school if there was one, it was often hard to get enough money to feed your family. Usually, to survive, people had to turn to farming. This way, you could get some food and sometimes use their crops to obtain other goods. But even then, the towns were very spread out, and there were no trade routes between them, so there wasn’t many people to sell the things you have grown to.
But the problems with selling produce only occurred to people who could get anything to grow at all. The land was often dry and salty, and there was not much rain. Many families were very poor and hungry, because they could not get their crops to grow. The availability of farming tool was very scarce, and machinery was mostly impossible to obtain or, more importantly, afford out on the Plains, so people had to work very hard, often with poor results.
In the rush to build towns, not much consideration was given to the site of the town. This was especially common in mining towns, as they were built where people were mining, with little regard given to other important things. This led to some towns being built in inappropriate locations, such as places with very dry, hard, salty soil, or without a good water supply. This poor planning worsened a situation that was already very difficult to cope with, as it made growing crops even harder than it already was in the hot, dry weather of the Plains.
But mining towns had many other problems the residents had to deal with. Originally they were designed as temporary dwellings as the miners were just there to take their fill of gold, then leave. Unfortunately this was not the case. Many miners spent all the money they had on mining equipment, and then when their attempts at striking gold failed, they were stuck, with no money, and forced to live in the town permanently. These temporary building were very poorly built, which wouldn’t have matter for a few weeks, but they were definitely not designed for long term stay, like some people were forced to use them for. They were rushed to be built, and started to fall down after a while, and they were often designed to only be used during the summer months during the time the people were mining, so they were very cold in the winter.
As if the housing wasn’t bad enough, the facilities in the town were just as poor. Many towns did not have a water supply, and hospitals or schools, as rare as they were in normal towns, were unheard of in the mining towns, as they were not designed for family life. These conditions, mixed with the frustrated and angry men, led to many other problems, such as crime and violence.
Another common problem in towns was the gender imbalance. In the newly established areas, there were lots more men than there were women. This made it difficult for women, for those who were not married found it very difficult to get work, harder even than the men, as the few jobs that there were usually occupied by men, as they were considered more able and reliable.
Other jobs available to women were also more difficult, like farming, as they were simply not strong enough to work the land on their own. Also, with a lack of women in the towns, they often faced abuse from single men, which could sometimes turn nasty, in the forms of rape and physical abuse.
Plus, a large group of men together that are bored, frustrated and often drunk is always a recipe for disaster, as arguments and fights are often likely.
Other people who found it hard to settle in the new towns were anyone who was a minority, either by religion or nationality. The population in these new towns was made up completely from immigrants from other countries. This caused there to be people in the towns with varied beliefs and practices, which could sometimes cause friction and often problems for those living there.
A good example would be the Mormons. As part of their religion, they practised polygamy, which involved having more than one wife. In the town of Illinois, the non-Mormons did not agree with this, and this caused discrimination against the Mormons, which eventually led to them having to flee.
All this was made worse by the lack of intervention by the government. It is very unlikely that the government would have let these people be treated so badly, but with the towns being so spread out, and no other means of communication, such as post or rail services set up, they simply were unable to find out what was going on in the towns.
All these factors made living in the newly established towns of the West very difficult indeed, and some people fled the towns to live in the country, or attempted to return to the East. Those who did not have the strength or the money to leave the towns sometimes just gave up hope, and gradually withered away, or, if they were able, committed suicide.
Why were towns in the West often violent, lawless places?
In the newly set up towns in the West, among all the problems and hardships of living there, things were made much worse by the unsafety of the whole place. These towns were often violent, lawless places, and most people felt insecure and at threat living there, even while in their own homes.
Fights often broke out in places where people were close together, such as saloons, and as many people were very poor, incidents involving money often cause trouble, such as disagreements in shops, or sometimes even bank or train robberies.
These troubles sometimes escalated, and it was not uncommon for riots to break out, or for someone to be killed, sometimes accidentally during other, more petty struggles, or sometimes for money, or in revenge for an earlier disagreement. In mining towns things were especially bad. Many people were extremely angry about not being successful in finding gold, and most people were very poor. This led to problems, such as Claim Jumping, where someone would claim someone’s mine as theirs. Robbery was also common, and disagreements occasionally led to deaths.
The reasons behind violence cannot be wholly explained, as there were many causes for it, from simple disagreements, to vengeance for murder. And sometimes there was not a reason at all; some people were naturally violent, or did it because they had nothing better to do.
But definitely one of the largest contributors to violence was alcohol. Many people were depressed, for many reasons. Life in general was very hard, there was not much food, work or money. Many people felt bad at leaving family back in the West, or others had lost family to the illnesses of the West that they did not know how to cure. So, on a regular basis people, usually men would go to the local saloon to drown their sorrows. Lots of drunk, angry men, all congregating in one place is bound to cause trouble, and often did. Small disagreements often escalated as more and more people joined in and sometimes turned into a huge town-wide brawl before it were stopped.
But drunkenness was not the only cause of violence in the saloons. As most people were poor (and the rich greedy), to try to gain a bit extra gold, men often took part in card games, or similar gambling games, with lots of money at stake. Trouble could arise from people losing, cheating, or sometimes simply gambling away all their money, and getting angry. Gambling related fights, and even murders were definitely not unheard of in these towns.
The whole white population of the West was made up of immigrants from all over the world. Therefore, there were lots of different races, religions and cultures all living in close proximity. These different practices and beliefs could often cause discrimination and dispute.
There was a difference in language, so there were often misunderstandings between people, such as a person thinking someone else had insulted them, when really it was just a mistranslation on either of their parts. Things like this could lead to arguments, or possibly more serious encounters.
Religion was also a problem. Some religious practices, especially those others had not heard of before, could possibly worry or frighten them. In some cases, this could lead to the person whose practice was not like being discriminated against, or them being executed for being a witch or something similar.
Not only was the clash of background a problem, the clash of attitude also made the towns a violent place. Some people were hardworking innocent people, and their attitude didn’t really cause a problem, but others did. Some people were greedy. These people could be driven to rob people or properties for more money or possessions. They might also take part in gambling, and get into disputes there.
Others were lazy, and wanted to not have to do a job. These people might also steal, or partake in other crimes, such as Claim Jumping. This was bad enough, but violence could break out if they were caught, or when the person realised they had been robbed, they may get very angry, or drunk (or both) and start trouble then, to take out their frustration.
They were some causes for the violence in the town, but they do not explain the lawlessness. The reason a lot of them were allowed to happen were because of the lack of law, but why was there none?
These new towns were spread across the Plains. They were mostly built in the mid 1800s, so long distance communication was not very widely spread. Therefore, the US government, thousands of miles away in the Original States, had little or no information about the towns that were being built. Because of this, they did not have any intervention with the towns.
Therefore, these newly-set up areas had no official police force, not court houses, no judges, and therefore, no law. Some, more organised towns elected their own sheriffs, but these unofficial figures of authority were not accepted by all, and sometimes they were not listened to. In other areas, they did nothing, and crime, or what would have been crime if there were laws, ruled the areas. There were lots of robberies, murders, and groups of known criminals often had the say of what went on, as everyone was to scared to do otherwise.
But, in some, vigilante groups reigned. These were groups of people that decided that they were the authoritative group in the town, and they were in charge of enforcing law. In some cases this worked, and the town had a fully functional justice system, and the lawlessness, and therefore the violence, subsided. But other areas, the vigilantes were not so fair, and the situation worsened. In some cases, the vigilantes would be biased, and use their authority to favour their friends and themselves, like arresting a rival shop owner, or convicting a someone they did not like for a crime they didn’t commit. They were also open to bribes, and would sometimes do the above mentioned things for valuables, gold or a favour.
The vigilantes could often be unfair in another way too. Very few towns had a prison, so there was no way of detaining someone who had been arrested, fairly or not. Because of this, the vigilantes would often give on the spot death sentences. This made it both easier to dispose of the criminals, or, if the person was innocent, not give anyone time to find out. This was often unjust, as there was no time for a trial, giving of evidence, and therefore a fair trial.
As if all these things did not make the towns bad enough, there was one invention which added no end to both the violence and the lawlessness in the towns: Guns. When these were introduced, many people bought them, to protect themselves from the current violence and lawlessness. It was presumed by most that guns would put an end to the muggings, robberies and killings, as people would be able to protect themselves, but in most cases, this was not true. A lot of people did not have it in them to shoot another man, even if it was in their best interest, so a lot, if no all, of the time, guns made things a lot worse. Robbing banks was much easier, muggings were easier as well, because the criminal had a very plausible threat if the victim refused.
For example, Jesse James and Billy the Kid are not fictional characters, made up for use in film. They were real life criminals in the West who used guns to their distinct advantage. They were both very quick shooters, and used their skills to both rob banks or trains, and often avoid capture by the law enforcers.
Murders also became more common with the introduction of guns, as it was much easier, and took much less bottle than before, as pulling a trigger is a lot easier than stabbing someone. Also, accidental deaths, or people killing someone, or themselves, in a moment of anger was now more common with the introduction of these weapons.
So the law system, even if it was in place, was often unsuccessful. This meant that often somebody could do something that should be illegal, and not get stopped, or if they did, not punished. This made the towns lawless places. But the crimes sometimes involved assault, fights, or other physical attacks. So, the towns were often violent and lawless, and often violent because they were lawless.