"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."

The Role of Guns in Western Development

by Don Baumgart

Guns, horses, and gold are three strong elements in the settlement of the American West, and in fact, the entire hemisphere. In South America Spanish troops came to the New World seeking gold and riding horses, which the natives had never before seen, and were perceived as gods.

Farther north and a bit later the United States' victory in the Mexican War opened the West to settlement and Samuel Colt had just the thing for that adventure: a pistol with a revolving cartridge chamber.

"...People who had no obvious reason to possess a gun acquired them," writes Michael Bellesiles in his book, Arming America. Wearing a pistol became a tourist accoutrement for western visitors, he adds. "European tourists particularly loved to dress in the `Wild West' costumes, complete with multiple firearms."

Although firearms became a part of the Gold Rush, Bellesiles claims the stories of rampant crime in the gold fields were over-emphasized. In the telling they became larger than truth, much as minor crimes are treated today on local television stations -- to the point where danger seems to lurk everywhere.

Were guns the cause of problems or the cure? The question was unanswered during the Gold Rush and remains so today.

In the 1850s guns were issued to California militia units, who stored them at their meeting places, several of which blew up.

In 1858 there were more than 300 gun makers in America employing some 1,500 workers. The average price of a gun was $25. In California, the wild frontier, there were only two gunsmiths, one at Sutter's Mill and one in San Francisco. Neither man made guns, sticking instead to repair work. Most of the gun making took place in the East and much of the production was rifles, not pistols.

As the West was settled magic names were planted forever in American history: Remington and Colt. These pioneering gun-makers brought a new wave of sophistication to the simple act of propelling a lump of lead down a pipe.

Before this modernization Massachusetts had 800 useless muskets in its militia arsenal and several thousand flintlock muskets. Until the start of the Civil War the federal government attempted to spur the growth of weapons development by imposing a 30 percent import duty on foreign-made guns. The count of American gun factories climbed.

It has been said that more men were killed inside western saloons than in all the Indian wars on the Plains, writes Richard Erdoes in his book Saloons of the Old West.

"In a comparable period, an equal number of killings occurred in New York's Hells's Kitchen, Chicago's Tenderloin, and New Orleans' Storyville," Erdoes says. "More people were killed in New York's Civil War draft riots than in a wild and wicked Kansas helldorado in ten years."

He calls the historic gunfighter an eastern invention. The image was fueled by the gold miner's habit of boasting that his town was the most dangerous in the West. Devil's Basin, Hell's Delight, Dead Man's Bar, and Bloody Gulch were town names that bragged of the peril that awaited visitors.

"The morbid enjoyment of one's hometown's evil reputation continued long after the wicked burgs had become sleepy and peaceful, long after the only stiffs in town were those who had died of cirrhosis of the liver."

Along with the stories of gold in the streets that reached this country's eastern population came the tales of bold and dangerous western gunfighters. Neither story was entirely true.

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Copyright Don Baumgart, 2005


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