October 22, 2013
I often get the question: "Did they really swear in the Old West like they do in Deadwood." The short answer is yes they did. So this short piece by our friend Chris Enss caught my eye. We're considering it for the magazine. What do you think?
You Don’t Say
Profanity in the Old West
By Chris Enss
In the 1800s, it wasn’t uncommon to hear pioneers and miners from Deadwood, South Dakota, to San Francisco, California, swearing in paragraphs. Indeed some historical accounts note the air was cloudy with cursing in such wild and uncivilized locations like Denver, Colorado, and Tombstone, Arizona. Even so, citizens in Washington, D.C. were “more prevalent in swearing than in any other place in America," reported the Bedford Indiana Democrat on December 6, 1915.
Laws against swearing originated in the nation’s capital in the mid-1850s and were strictly enforced. “Money was at one time raised by the state by imposing finances on those given to the habit of foul language,” the Bedford Indiana Democrat noted. “It is also thought that men who swear habitually are unfit to be in command of other men or themselves,” the newspaper further reported, referencing officers in the Civil War and the Plains Indian Wars.
Popular ministers of the time preached that the objectionable habit of swearing originated from the profane use of bywords. “The tradition of a byword, which may be perfectly harmless, to profanity is not a very large transition,” Rev. De Witt Talmage told parishioners at a church in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1888. “Bywords such as 'My, stars,' 'Mercy on me' and 'Good gracious' work for a little while, and then you swear,” the Reverend added.
Swearing, which included oaths and obscenities, was not limited to grown men. Women of all ages and children cursed too. “The profanity from young and old alike, which many are forced to listen to, is a nuisance,” reported Wisconsin's Dodge County Citizen on October 13, 1859. Loud blasphemous rants from soiled doves and teenage boys was heard so often in the gold camps in and around Sutter’s Fort in California that ministers petitioned law enforcement to intervene. Judicial officers must have been complaining as well, because California eventually drafted a law that prohibited cursing in the presence of a Justice of the Peace, reported the Daily Alta California on December 3, 1858.
America's politicians argued that laws against swearing were ridiculous, but others insisted “there must be the appearance of virtue no matter how common the vice.”
Chris Enss is working on a book about the Sand Creek Massacre, which references historical documents about the battle written by Col. John Chivington and other military leaders that are filled with curse words.