John Tierney's NYT column today questions popular notions that the old West was a wild and dangerous place. While settling the West was unquestionably tough, Tierney notes many scholars now believe there was more order and cooperation than many once thought. At the very least, the West was not as violent and tumultuous as portrayed in movies and on TV.
Tierney relies, in part, on The Not So Wild, Wild West by economists Terry Anderson and P.J. Hill. This book focuses on the development and evolution of institutions on the western frontier. Anderson and Hill have a particular interest in the evolution of property rights and cooperative institutions. Some of their prior work demonstrated how technological advances, such as the development of barbed wire, facilitated the expansion and enforcement of property rights on the western range. I would expect their new book to be equally informative and provocative, and well worth the read.
UPDATE: In a related vein, this paper by CWRU law professor Andrew Morriss argues that "Hayekian legal institutions" flourished on the Western frontier, until they were crowded out by more formal state institutions.