Around about 1960 the word “frontier” became an American watchword. The campaign slogan for the youthful Democratic presidential candidate, you may remember, was “the New Frontier.” On the central plains, Dodge City, Kansas, began to promote itself as a frontier cowtown, complete with a bogus Boot Hill and fake gravestones, and to the north, in 1962, Harold Schafer started buying historic properties in Medora, North Dakota, and converting the place into a frontier theme park.
Wyatt Earp in black and white was a guest in homes across the land, while Gunsmoke, which, as its promo said, told “the story of the violence that moved west with young America,” made a successful transition from radio to television, with James Arness replacing William Conrad as Matt Dillon. We all knew for certain that the West was wild, which is to say, violent and crime-ridden—that, as one newspaper editor said, a cattle town “had a man for breakfast every morning.”
That’s what we knew until 1968, when a new sheriff arrived in town in the person of historian Robert Dykstra. Bob Dykstra, author of The Cattle Towns, was sort of a hippie professor who preferred sandals to manly footwear. Combing through the records of the old cattle towns, he discovered there was a lot of talk about violence, but not that much gunplay. He concluded that personal violence was more common in eastern cities than in the frontier cattle towns. What a party pooper.
Today’s equivalent of Professor Dykstra has to be North Dakota attorney general Wayne Stenehgem, who recently called a press conference to talk about rising crime rates in North Dakota, the impact of petroleum development and all that. Yes, crime is up a bit, including crime in the oil patch, but only a bit, and that pretty much in line with the increase in population. The one category which was up more than others was aggravated assault, that is, beating up on people, but even that was not enough to say there was any outbreak of lawlessness.
Commentators around the state immediately responded with variations of “Yes, but,” and indicated a stubborn unwillingness to give up the stereotype of a Wild West. I’m not deluded enough to think that historical perspective is going to change current perceptions, but if we were to take historical experience into account, we would recognize that we have always overblown our violent Western image, for a variety of reasons.
In the current situation there are some really intriguing factors no one yet has highlighted. For instance, from the days of the cattle trails, as well as experience before and after that, we know that crime rates for males are greater than those for females. Historical experience also tells us that crime rates are higher for younger people than for older people. Our petroleum production region over the past several years has seen a powerful influx of young males. We should be living the Gunsmoke experience, having a man for breakfast every morning—but we are not.
What does this mean (as we used to say in catechism class)? It confronts us with an inconvenient truth: that the young people streaming into North Dakota today are, by and large, industrious and good-hearted, unusually so—in fact, arguably, taking the demographics into account, they are more peaceable folk than the population in place in North Dakota prior to the current petroleum boom.
We are left to wonder why it is that we have fostered, and continue to nurture, a perception of a Wild West somewhere beyond the Missouri—a question that is hard to tackle in a 500-word essay, but maybe next week I’ll give it a try.