On the American frontier of previous centuries, the possession of a firearm was often a key to survival. In this regard, the frontier of 20th-century America, although different geographically, is very much like earlier frontiers.
As different waves of Europeans arrived in North America, each took a distinct approach to trading guns with the Indians. The Dutch, settling in New Netherlands (now lower New York State), came from one of history’s greatest trading empires. Dutch settlers of the Hudson River Valley bartered guns to the Mohawk tribes. In 1543, some of the Mohawk launched a two-year war against Dutch settlements, but they spared the Hudson communities that continued to sell guns to the Indians.
The Dutch attempted to license gun traders in 1650, hoping to shut off the Indians’ supply. The West India Company protested, arguing that Indians would pay a black-market price so high that controls were impossible. In 1656, the government decreed that settlers could possess only matchlock rifles; modern flintlock rifles, which were more reliable and easier and faster to fire, were banned. A death penalty for selling guns to the Indians was enacted, but the law failed to stop the trade.
No matter what the Dutch did, the natives had a ready supply of guns from the French. One firearm, usually a musket, was worth 20 beaver pelts. The main partners of the French were the Ottawa (whose name means “to trade”), who brought guns even deeper into America, and shared in French prosperity—much to the annoyance of their rivals, the Iroquois.
In the early 17th century, the Iroquois nation allied with the Dutch settlers in the Hudson Valley or with the nearby British. By mid-century, the heavily armed Iroquois began a 60-year campaign called the Beaver Wars to destroy the trade of France and her Indian allies, especially the Ottawa. The Iroquois’ main objective was to replace the Ottawa as middlemen, trading beaver pelts for European guns. The French and Ottawa prevailed, however, and their trade continued to expand.
The war confirmed to the governor of New France, the Comte de Frontenac, that friendship with Indian traders was the best policy. Building an empire of commerce that stretched deep into what would become the Louisiana Territory, Frontenac did everything possible to supply the Indians with guns. Because the gun made big-game hunting so much more profitable and because many Indian tribes were involved in wars with each other, firearms were the most valuable commodity a European could offer. The French explorer La Salle observed: “The savages take better care of us French than of their own children. From us only can they get guns and goods.”
Unlike the English (and later the Americans), the French did not settle the land with waves of immigrant farmers. Trade was what the French wanted, and the sparse population necessary to trade throughout the Louisiana Territory and Canada did not threaten the Indians. Thanks to the success of their commerce with the Indians, the French, coming down from Canada, reached western Pennsylvania and Ohio before English settlers from the Atlantic coast found their way through the gaps in the Appalachian Mountains.
But with the victory of Britain and its colonies in the French and Indian War of 1754-63, the French were expelled from much of North America. In a hundred years, France had sold the Indians 200,000 guns. Although there were no more imports, French traders within formerly French territory kept trading their existing stock of guns to the Indians.
Exploring the southern part of North America, the Spaniards enslaved the Indians to expand the Spanish Empire. In 1501, only nine years after Columbus’s discovery of the New World, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella banned the sale of guns to Indians. Many Indians in Florida and the Southwest, though, stole guns from the Spanish or bought them through a trading network linked to the French. The enslaved Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, who had acquired and hoarded guns one at a time, revolted in 1680. Pueblo attacks in the next 16 years killed hundreds of whites and pushed white settlement out of Santa Fe, all the way back to El Paso. In the 1750’s, Comanche raiders, using guns supplied by the French, forced Spain to abandon north Texas.
When guns were not going into Spanish territory, the Spanish realized that selling guns to Indians could be in Spain’s interest. For example, Spanish Florida supplied firearms to the Indians of the Gulf Plain, to be used to harass British settlers in Georgia and Alabama.
At first, the English colonists followed a policy similar to that of the Spanish. Officially, arms trading with the Indians was prohibited. In 1641, the Crown ordered that no person should give the Indians “any weapons of war, either guns or gunpowder, nor sword, nor any other Munition, which might come to be used against ourselves.” Despite the Crown’s orders, however, many merchants in the colonies found trade with the Indians advantageous.
Soon enough, the British began trading guns with tribes in Illinois and the rest of what would become the Northwest Territory. As trouble with the American colonists worsened, the British saw the advantage of arming the Indians to attack the encroaching American farmers and backwoodsmen. When the British cut off the arms trade in the Great Lakes region in 1763, the Indians were outraged. Chief Pontiac—acting on the advice of a prophet who preached that guns should be rejected as evil instruments of the whites—organized the Ottawa and nine other tribes into a confederacy that annihilated numerous English frontier posts in the West. But the American Indians were incapable of carrying out sustained warfare, and when English reinforcements arrived, the Indians retreated to Illinois.
For the new people who would be called “Americans,” life itself would have been impossible without firearms. Historian Daniel Boorstin notes, “Shooting small game with a bow or a gun and throwing a tomahawk became lifesaving skills when Indians attacked.” As Lee Kennett and James La Verne Anderson explained in The Gun in America, because frontiersmen had to hunt their food and defend themselves against Indians, “civil and military uses of firearms dovetailed as they had not generally done in Europe.” Survival meant not only fighting Indians, but also hunting for food. The European emigrants who settled America abandoned aristocratic anti-poaching rules. Game animals in the American wilderness were a public bounty, not a private possession.
The special demands of the American gun market led to major innovations in firearms production. Because of the lack of big game, civilian rifle output and design had been stunted in Britain since the 16th century; America took the lead in making rifles for its people. The .45 caliber Kentucky rifle was introduced for hunting game and killing Indians; it also served well in the wars with Britain.
Pistols gained popularity as backup sidearms in case a rifle jammed or more rapid fire was needed. The practice of carrying two guns persisted even after flintlocks were replaced by more reliable guns: Most Western gunfighters sported a pair of revolvers.
The introduction of the revolver in the 1840’s changed the face of warfare. Almost all earlier guns needed to be reloaded after every shot; the few guns that could hold three or more rounds (such as the “pepperbox”) were eccentric and unreliable. With the mass production of Col. Samuel Colt’s revolving handguns, the whites gained massive firepower superiority over the Indians.
The first major application of Colt technology was in Texas; there, Indians on horseback could launch arrows more quickly than settlers could fire and reload single-shot rifles. Moreover, a rifle was heavy and difficult to discharge from horseback. With Colt revolvers, Texans could exceed the Indians’ rate of fire and shoot while mounted. The leap in technology from single-shot guns to the revolver was of far greater significance than subsequent refinements of multi-shot weapons. According to historian Carl Russell, the introduction of the revolver “marked the turning point in Indian warfare in the Far West by giving the white man superiority.”
“The gun had a greater influence in changing the primitive ways of the Indians than any other object brought to America by the white man,” Russell writes. The spread of French guns into the Louisiana Territory changed relations among the many tribes. The French trade shifted the balance of power to tribes that could get guns, and set all tribes on a feverish arms-trading race.
Even after the French were gone, the race continued. For example, British traders from the Hudson Bay Company traded guns for beaver with the Kutchin, who in turn used the guns for defense against the Eskimos. Tribes that lived near the encroaching English faced “the choice of buying guns to defend themselves, or else being killed or enslaved,” explains Charles M. Hudson in Indians, Animals, and the Fur Trade.
Guns were used for more than war. For the Plains Indians, the combination of guns and horses (brought to the New World by the Spanish) engendered a new era of material prosperity. Hunting and survival became much easier, and the standard of living skyrocketed.
Nevertheless, the firearm remained a symbol of white superiority. Most tribes did not know how to make gunpowder. Although Indians became adept at firing guns, they still could not manufacture or repair them. A malfunctioning rifle was apt to be coerced with fire, water, and brute force. Weapons were also destroyed through neglect and lack of maintenance. Moreover, the gun trade itself drew the Indians into an economically dependent relationship with the whites.
As Indian cultures faced extermination, prophets arose. By returning to the old ways, the prophets said, to the ways before the gun and whites and the technology that could never be mastered, the tribes could restore harmony with the spirits. The spiritual rejection of firearms and other white technologies, first preached by a Delaware in 1764, was taken up by Pontiac in his efforts to unite all eastern tribes to push the whites into the sea. Haifa century later, as the whites were conquering the upper Midwest, the mystic Tenskwatawa implored the tribes of the Northwest Territory to reject firearms, alcohol, and other evils introduced by the Europeans. His half-brother, Tecumseh, organized tribes from Alabama to North Carolina to Canada in a grand alliance to stop white expansion. Tecumseh disdained firearms because the explosions frightened the deer. Practicality intervened, though, and the prophecy was elaborated to allow guns for fighting the whites but not for hunting.
The frontier war against the Indians meant that, for over two centuries, many Americans were armed and ready to kill at a moment’s notice. Wliile the savage war between whites and Indians laid a foundation for America’s attachment to the gun, it does not provide a convincing explanation of why America still cherishes the gun, long after the danger of an Indian raid has passed.
The frontier conditions which forced so many Americans to own guns for protection have changed, but they have not disappeared. The lawless frontier is no longer found in the woods of Massachusetts or in remote parts of Texas. Rather, the frontier is the American city. While the racial warfare between whites and Indians has disappeared, today decent Americans of all races must defend themselves from a large criminal class of all races. But there is one important difference. Indians and whites, vicious as they could be in warfare, typically grew up in two-parent families and lived in close-knit traditional communities. Our modern criminals are much less civilized.
As the late Senator Frank Church wrote in Restricting Handguns: The Liberal Skeptics Speak Out, most people
would not go into ghetto areas at all except in broad daylight under the most optimum conditions—surely not at night, alone or on foot. But some people have no choice. To live or work or have some need to be on this “frontier” imposes a fear which is tempered by possession of a gun.
Chief Justice Rehnquist agrees that the inner city is not adequately defended by the government: “we are rapidly approaching the state of savagery. . . . In the Nation’s Capital, law enforcement authorities cannot protect the lives of employees of this very Court who live four blocks from the building in which we sit.”
The famous cattle town of Dodge City, Kansas, experienced many wild times when drunken cowboys rode into town, ready for a fight and willing to spend their season’s wages on women and liquor. When former Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry enforced a ban on gun ownership for self-defense, he declared, “Washington is not Dodge City.” No, it is not: Modern Washington’s per capita homicide rate exceeds Dodge City’s during the frontier era. Despite the recent drop in crime rates, many American cities today are much more dangerous than Dodge City ever was.
In Dodge City, victims were at least allowed to defend themselves. (Indeed, the drunken cowboys of Dodge City and similar locales tended to pick on each other in “fair fights” rather than prey on innocent women and children.)
According to a Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics study, the chance that an American child aged 12 years will be the victim of a violent crime during her lifetime is 73 percent. The chances of two or more victimizations is 52 percent. Nevertheless, the United States Conference of Mayors insists, “The probability of being raped, robbed, or assaulted is low enough to seriously call into question the need for Americans to keep loaded guns.”
Of course big-city mayors like Chicago’s Richard Daley really do not need to keep loaded guns. They are protected by taxpayer-supplied bodyguards carrying loaded guns.
Many other gun-prohibition advocates, although not surrounded by taxpayer-funded protection, have their own security guards. While there are several hundred thousand police officers in the United States (dedicated to protecting the whole population), there are 1.4 million private security guards dedicated to protecting those who can pay them. “Private security guards are simply vigilantes for the rich,” writes former West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Neely. If society allows rich people to hire security guards (most of whom are very poorly tiained), is it just for society to forbid less wealthy citizens to protect themselves?
Chief Justice Neely writes:
The same government, academic and media elites who cluck their tongues at even such benign citizen forces as New York’s Guardian Angels have nothing unkind to say about bank guards, railroad detectives or the little chap who sits in the guard shack at the entrance to Jonathan’s Landing in Palm Beach County, Florida.
Today’s gun prohibition advocates often claim that, while gun possession on the old American frontier might have been justifiable, modern conditions are different. They are right. Many parts of the modern American frontier are more dangerous than the old frontier. And on the old frontier, potential victims did not have to contend with hypocritical, wellguarded elites who wanted to disarm the common people.