4 Reasons Cody, Wyoming Still Stick to the ‘Code of the West’
Written by Nick on April 1, 2023
Cody Was Built on the Code of the West
Folks from all over the world come to Cody country and the Yellowstone region to see the sights and experience the American West — which is still alive and kicking, by the way.
But many of these travelers, nice as they may be, miss what the people who call this place home are all about. Long before millions of people crowded Yellowstone, before the road from Cody to Yellowstone was paved, and heck, before Wyoming was even a state, the people who put down roots in the Bighorn Basin relied on a set of ideals: the Code of the West.
Get on the internet and you’ll find dozens of variations of this code. Gene Autry had his own version, and there are plenty of different values that people see as essential to cowboy culture.
Let’s look at what the Code of the West really is, and why — even in this era of streaming and smartphones — it’s still at the core of how Cody country lives.
Wyoming Made the Code of the West Official
In 2010, the Wyoming Legislature made the Code of the West the official state code with Senate File 51.
As mentioned previously, there are different versions of the code, and they don’t all share the same principals. The legislature, in Senate File 51, took its version of the code from James P. Owen’s book Cowboy Ethics.
Here’s the Code of the West, according to Owens and the Wyoming Legislature:
- Live each day with courage;
- Take pride in your work;
- Always finish what you start;
- Do what has to be done;
- Be tough, but fair;
- When you make a promise, keep it;
- Ride for the brand;
- Talk less, say more;
- Remember that some things are not for sale;
- Know where to draw the line.
Some folks from bigger places might hear the term “Code of the West” or “Cowboy Code” and imagine some outdated, irrelevant how-to guide for traveling the Oregon Trail. But if you look at the code passed by the legislature, it’s easy to see that each of these tenets is valuable to this day.
Let’s discuss a few reasons why the Code of the West is so important to anyone living and working in Cody or elsewhere in Wyoming.
We Have a Duty to Do the Right Thing
Take a look at items number one, four, and six in the Code of the West. Those are all different ways of saying “do the right thing.” But like much of life, it’s easier said than done.
Doing the right thing takes courage, usually because the right thing isn’t the easy thing. Whether you have to rise to a mental or physical challenge, or stand up in the face of misguided peers, doing the right thing for you family and your community often takes guts — just like it took guts to build the Buffalo Bill Dam and bring water to the Bighorn Basin in the early 20th century.
As any veteran could tell you, doing what has to be done means doing the right thing for the group, regardless of the personal consequences you might face. Sometimes, that simply means being accountable for your actions. On other occasions, it means taking one for the team, with no guarantee that you’ll see any individual benefit.
Doing the right thing is at the very core of the Code of the West. It’s how we create and perserve a world fit for generations to come.
We’re Dedicated to Our Families and Community
Specifically, look at items two, three, six, and seven in the Code. There are times when we have to ask ourselves that tough question: If not me, then who?
Taking pride in your work and finishing what you start are about more than just being a professional and enjoying gainful employment. Half measures beget half results. If you aren’t willing to put your heart into something, it probably isn’t worth doing.
It’s universally applicable, from your latest woodworking project to how your raise your family.
Making this place livable in the late 19th and early 20th centuries wasn’t easy. Our forefathers had to know they could count on one another, so integrity was paramount. There was no room for shirkers or double-talkers. That’s why we all have to hold ourselves accountable and keep our promises.
We Play it Straight
Arguably, that’s the message from elements five and eight of the Code. It’s always been true that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. That’s how it had to be to survive in the early days of Cody, Powell, and the rest of the Bighorn Basin.
You’ve got to be tough to make it here, but just like anything else, too much of a good thing can be detrimental. There’s no sense flying off the handle. When you lose your cool or pass the buck, you just make it more difficult to solve problems and get things done. That’s why number five reminds us to be tough, but fair. Not just to the people around you, but to yourself, too.
Number eight is a shorter way of saying, “Don’t use 10 words when four will do.” This is solid advice for keeping conversations shorter and more productive — ask your boss, could this meeting have been an email? Maybe they need to have a look at the Code of the West.
But what number eight is really saying requires us to distinguish between “talking” and “saying.” It’s easy to talk without conveying any real meaning, just like it’s easy to style yourself as whatever’s fashionable or trendy.
It’s tougher to walk the walk. How you conduct yourself every day, how you handle adversity, and how you treat people who can do nothing for you — all these things “say” far more about who you really are than any of the “talking” you could ever do.
And, usually, the people who know what they want to say in life don’t have to do much talking about it.
We Know There’s More to Life Than Money
Sounds obvious, but witih the way so many people live and behave these days, maybe common sense isn’t so common.
No, not everything is for sale. But there are plenty of folks who’d like you to believe that’s the case. We’re lucky to live in a place where we’re free to make our own way, but too many people conflate that with the ability to buy your way into or out of whatever you’d like.
Being wealthy is a situation, not a character trait. Conversely, if you’re in a bad spot financially, it can be difficult to keep in mind that there are some things you should never sell — as well as things that can never, ever be taken away from you.
Which brings us to the last item on the Code of the West: knowing where to draw the line. Like doing the right thing, this can take guts as well. It’s things like, even when you have the upper hand, knowing when the other guy has had enough. Or calling a friend to pick you up from the bar.
Sometimes, it can be more challenging — gut-wrenching, even. Like knowing when a relationship has run its course, or when it’s time to say goodbye to a pet that’s clearly in pain. Or, maybe you decide not to pick up that extra shift this weekend so you can watch your kid’s t-ball game. Because not everything’s for sale, right?
Want to know more about this history of the Bighorn Basin and Wyoming? Check out this story about how Absaroka almost became the 49th state.