A Look Back at Gambling Laws in the West

Characteristically, one of the first acts of the newly elected territorial legislatures was to pass anti- gambling statutes. This was particularly true of the Great Plains, where the legislatures were dominated from the beginning by farmers.

Kansas and Nebraska, for example, both gained territorial status in 1854, and by 1855 the sod busters had triumphed over the veteran frontiersmen by passing a comprehensive gambling law.

Unlike other Western states, Utah never experienced conflict between new settlers and old. The Mormons were the first pioneers to reach Utah, and the first territorial anti-gambling law was enacted without significant opposition.

This legislation was reminiscent of the laws, passed in the Puritan colonies in the seventeenth century. For example, the mere playing of games was forbidden, regardless of whether the players placed wagers.

The laws were theologically derived.

Alaska is another Western state that experienced little conflict over gambling in its early years. The Yukon gold rush of 1896 led to an increase in gambling and lawlessness, but the gold rush eventually ended, and the hordes stopped coming.

Throughout most of its history, Alaska was largely regarded as a government outpost, and federally appointed officials simply decided which laws should be adopted. Typically, early territorial statutes were modeled on the existing laws of most eastern states.

For example, the Kansas Act of 1855, which was identical to a Missouri statute passed in the same year, outlawed all games of ABC, Faro Bank, E.O., Roulette, or Equality.

Conviction under the statute was limited to cases where the accused kept a prohibited device and permitted someone to play it. The maximum penalty was one year's imprisonment and a $1,000 fine.

Rather, as in the South, they were intended as methods for controlling the abuses of public gambling only. The majority of Western states, like Virginia, tolerated private, social gambling; they attempted to outlaw only the public, commercialized variety.

Even when individuals were caught in public gaming houses, they were only lightly fined or not held liable at all.

Texas law illustrates the general Western distinction between private and public gambling. The Penal Code of 1856 acknowledged that a private room in an inn or tavern did not come within the intended ban on gambling in public places.

Further, the code did not prevent individuals from indulging in games of chance for their own amusement. As legends of the Wild West recount, gambling often resulted in disorderly conduct and violence. Those abuses had to be controlled before farmers would move their families into the towns.