historical violence database
Homicide Rates in the American West
by Randolph Roth
(July 2010 version)
Was the “Old West” violent? Scholars have established that it was not as violent as most movies and novels would suggest. Murder was not a daily, weekly, or even monthly occurrence in most small towns or farming, ranching, or mining communities. Still, homicide rates in the West were extraordinarily high by today’s standards and by the standards of the rest of the United States and the Western world in the nineteenth century, except for parts of the American South during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Most data that historians have gathered are preliminary, based on a single source such as newspapers, legal records, or official statistics, rather than on multiple sources. They are minimum counts, not estimates of the number of homicides that occurred. But preliminary data are available for Oregon, British Columbia, Texas, nine counties in California (which together held 57 percent of the population of central and southern California), eight Native peoples in California, five cattle towns, five mining towns, and two counties each in Arizona and Colorado.
To appreciate how violent the West was, we need to consider not only the annual homicide rate, but the risk of being murdered over time. For instance, the adult residents of Dodge City faced a homicide rate of at least 165 per 100,000 adults per year, meaning that 0.165 percent of the population was murdered each year—between a fifth and a tenth of a percent. That may sound small, but it is large to a criminologist or epidemiologist, because it means that an adult who lived in Dodge City from 1876 to 1885 faced at least a 1 in 61 chance of being murdered—1.65 percent of the population was murdered in those 10 years. An adult who lived in San Francisco, 1850-1865, faced at least a 1 in 203 chance of being murdered, and in the eight other counties in California that have been studied to date, at least a 1 in 72 chance. Even in Oregon, 1850-1865, which had the lowest minimum rate yet discovered in the American West (30 per 100,000 adults per year), an adult faced at least a 1 in 208 chance of being murdered.
If we assume the towns and counties that have been studied to date were representative of similar towns and counties, and that their inhabitants were a fair sample of the inhabitants of similar towns or counties, we can also be confident (because of the laws of probability) that homicide rates were high in towns and counties that have not yet been studied. For instance, we can estimate that there is only a 1-in-200 chance that the homicide rate for all Western cattle towns was less than 97 per 100,000 adults per year, if the five cattle towns studied to date were typical (as there is every reason to believe). The chance that the rate in all cattle towns was low or moderate by the standards of the most of the rest of the United States and other Western nations—10 per 100,000 adults per year or less—is vanishingly small.
The data on homicides in the nineteenth-century West appear in the WORD, EXCEL and CSV worksheets below. State-level homicide rates for the United States, 1907-1941, are available in Randolph Roth, "American Homicide Supplemental Volume: American Homicides in the Twentieth Century," Figures 1 through 8, available through the Criminal Justice Research Center at Ohio State University (http://cjrc.osu.edu/researchprojects/hvd/).
Data in WORD, EXCEL and Comma-separated Variable Files:
- Homicide rates in the West (WORD tables)
- Homicide rates in the West (EXCEL)
- Homicide rates in the West (Comma separated variable file)
On the mathematics of homicide rates, risks, and probabilities, see Randolph Roth, "Guns, Murder, and Probability: How Can We Decide Which Figures to Trust?" Reviews in American History 35 (2007), 165-175; and Randolph Roth, Michael D. Maltz, and Douglas L. Eckberg, "Homicide Rates in the Trans-Mississippi West in the Nineteenth Century." Western Historical Quarterly (forthcoming in 2011).