The ‘Code of the West’ was an informal set rules or guidelines agreed upon by the cowboys and pioneers who ruled and rode the American west. While the code was said to have never been written down formally, the makeshift moral compass contained common sense protocols along with principles adapted from the Bible. This code was designed to help the person who followed it, to navigate and survive the difficult life on often lawless frontier.

While many authors, such as Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour, could be credited for popularizing the concept of the code in addition to capturing some of the tenets in writing, perhaps none would explain the concept better than the way, western historian, Ramon Adams, did in his 1969 book entitled, “The Cowman and His Code of Ethics.” he stated 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.”

The code would define personal honor and self-restraint, while detailing behaviors with respect to loyalty, hospitality, fair play, pride, respect and general dealings with your fellow man.

Although the credo was adhered to so very long ago, we would be fooling ourselves to think that people were all that different back then than today. Could it be that this code is still relevant in today’s modern world.

Let’s explore some of what is contained in the ‘Code of the West’:


The Ten Guidelines

First, is the more popular list of ten guidelines, which we can assume is the majority of the Cowboy Code boiled down to a more abbreviated list.  It reads as follows:

• live each day with honesty and courage.

• take pride in your work. always do your best.

• stay curious. study hard and learn all you can.

• do what has to be done and finish what you start.

• be tough, but fair.

• when you make a promise, keep it.

• be clean in thought, word, deed, and dress.

• practice tolerance and understanding of others.

• be willing to stand up for what is right.

• be an excellent steward of the land and its animals.


A Few More from an Extended List

But, as it was unwritten, there were also said to be a lot of other ideals that didn’t make the shortened list. There are some good bits to consider here as well…

•    don’t make a threat without expecting dire consequences.

•    never pass anyone on the trail without saying “howdy”.

•    a cowboy doesn’t talk much; he saves his breath for breathing.

•    do not practice ingratitude.

•    a cowboy is pleasant even when out of sorts. Complaining is what quitters do, and cowboys hate 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.

•    real cowboys are modest.  a braggart who is “all gurgle and no guts” is not tolerated.

•    be there for a friend when he needs you.

•    a cowboy is loyal to his “brand,” to his friends, and those he rides with.

•    consideration for others is central to the code, such as: don’t stir up dust around the chuck wagon, don’t wake up the wrong man for herd duty, etc.

•    honesty is absolute – your word is your bond, a handshake is more binding than a contract.

Could the Code be Applied Today?

it’s clear to see that character defined the people of the west.  Today, the measure of a person continues to be defined by how we deal with difficulties and challenges that life sits in front of us.

The Cowboy Code of Ethics, with principles that focus on courage, justice and courtesy could absolutely still be applied to any situation today, be it one of  family, relationships, business or personal behavior.

What if we would take more pride in what we do, and stop complaining about our jobs or responsibilities? How would this change us?

What if we chose to be more loyal?  To friends, family, or even co-workers and employers. How would this affect how others see us, or how we see ourselves?

What if we did the right thing? Not expecting recognition or reward in return, but simply because it is what needs to be done. How would our mindsets begin to change?

What dilemma couldn’t be resolved, or what situation couldn’t be improved, if we would simply apply any one of these enduring guidelines?  The answer is simple and straightforward, sort of like the people that this code once defined.