Bankers or Bandits? Courts and the Making of Organized Crime on the Frontier

Jonathan Obert (Amherst College)

Abstract: Despite the myth of the “Wild West,” state-organized legal institutions were in actuality quite pervasive in many areas in the mid-nineteenth century U.S. frontier. At the same time, these frontier areas — marked by high levels of physical mobility, social ambiguity, and institutional change — were the the scene for the construction of some of the first large-scale organized criminal efforts in American history. This paper shows how an interconnected confederation known as the “Banditti” active in the midwest in the 1830s and early 1840s exploited the local nature of frontier courts, advances in physical mobility, and the creation of a national market, to establish an extensive trade in counterfeit bank notes and stolen horses. By providing scarce resources to other settlers and exploiting the anonymity of frontier life, members of the Banditti were able to forge powerful alliances with political notables, and were frequently protected by a court system in which local standards of jurisprudence trumped abstract law. Contra arguments that banditry often substitutes for a weak state, in other words, this paper contends that, in unsettled contexts, highly local forms of state-building and legal development can actually reinforce the growth of organized predation.