Code of the West

by Courtney King

Many folks are moving to Montana through a great migration from cities and areas that are experiencing wildfires, riots, and hurricanes. If you are among the newbies, welcome—and help us preserve our Montana lifestyle through the Code of the West.

The Code of the West is a set of informal laws that originally shaped the cowboy culture of the Old West, and is still active today. What are these unwritten rules, and why are they important? If you come from a bigger city where it’s more acceptable not to speak to strangers and keep to yourself, know that it’s basically the complete opposite here. If you come from California and wonder why you feel shunned all of a sudden, there’s a backstory to this behavior. Previous newcomers tried to bring Californian ways to Montana that simply were not well-received.

The pioneers of the West, agree with them or not, paved the way to civilization using laws of the land. While things have changed with the times, in Bozeman we stay true to the best of those values. Statutory morals centered on hospitality, fair play, loyalty, and respect for the land and each other. We treat others as we want to be treated, and we still hold the contract of a gentleman’s agreement to a high standard. Most folks still consider a handshake a contract.

The Code’s implications can be as simple as waving to a passerby driving down your road, to striking up a brief conversation with someone out on the trail. Montana is not a hurried lifestyle; take your time and enjoy it. If you’re coming from out of state, embrace your new different life.

Back in the day, anyone who broke the Code became a social outcast. Here is a brief list still applicable today as it was back then—if not in the literal sense, at least in the figurative.

  • Don’t inquire into a person’s past. Take the measure of a man for what he is today.
  • Don’t ask a rancher how many cattle she has; that’s like asking how much money she has in the bank.
  • Close the gate when you open it.
  • Say howdy to folks on the trail (and pick up your dog’s indiscretions).
  • Never order anything weaker than whiskey.
  • Always fill your whiskey glass to the brim.
  • Do not practice ingratitude.
  • 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.
  • Respect the land and the environment by not smoking in hazardous fire areas, and not disfiguring rocks, trees, or other natural areas.
  • Honesty is absolute—your word is your bond; a handshake is more binding than a contract.