As I have expounded on at length in previous blog entries in this “Gunsmoke Journal” series, I have been a Gunsmoke fan pretty much all my life. I have also been a history fan most of my life- at least since I was 8 or 9. The fictionalized Dodge City of the television show was just one of many “universes” I loved to visit –there were also the worlds of superhero comics, Star Trek and later Star Wars, Middle Earth, and Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age of Conan. None of those places were historical, per se, but they each had their own, internally consistent, fake history (although as comics fans know, DC Comics had to do some alternate-reality maneuvering to make their chronology consistent by the 1960s.)
I never liked my stories to take place in a temporal vacuum, even when they were set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” I wanted the characters’ lives to have a narrative arc, and the universe they lived in to have a historical narrative, even if that history was made up. I eventually lost most interest in the superhero worlds, and even Star Wars and Star Trek, when their timelines became too ponderous and later creative teams started messing with continuity, introducing a word that is loathsome to me, “retcon”… retroactive continuity. In other words, changing their own history.
So –much as I love Gunsmoke –just imagine how freaked out my obsessive-compulsive historian’s brain gets when trying to make sense of its timeline.
When it comes to continuity and historical context, Gunsmoke has some serious problems. I think that most of them stem from the fact that, when it debuted, no one dreamed it would be on for twenty years.
Let me begin by describing the real, historic Dodge. It was founded in 1872, when the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad line passed through western Kansas. Dodge was one of several “cowtowns” that sprang up- railheads where Texas cowboys could drive their cattle, which could then be shipped to slaughterhouses in Chicago, making the western cattle business a viable operation for the first time. Cattle drives as we know them started in the late 1860s; it took western railroads to make the operation work, and before that there had been none. By the mid-1870s Dodge was a wild boomtown; by 1877 and 1878, it was home to all manner of now-famous westerners. Bat Masterson, the Earp Brothers, and Bill Tilghman were lawmen there; gunfighters, gamblers, and other colorful characters included Doc Holliday, Mysterious Dave Mather, Ben Thompson, and Luke Short.
By 1890 a lot had changed, in Dodge City and the West in general. The great blizzards of the late ‘80s had ended the open range system; ranches were fenced off with barbed wire. More railroads had been built, even in Texas, so the era of the cattle drive was already long over –there was no need for them when every ranch was relatively close to a railhead. The Indians were all on reservations, and –as of the 1890 census, as Frederick Jackson Turner eloquently pointed out –there was no more Great American Frontier.
But in the Dodge City we can now re-visit on TVLand, not much changed in twenty years. There were cattle drives in Season One, and they were still going strong in Season Twenty. Weapons technology had not changed in any way whatsoever. An astute observer will note that, in the course of those two decades, the town itself seemed to slowly grow –street scenes were a lot busier in the episodes filmed in 1975 than those from 1955, and there were more buildings. But other than that, and the characters who had come and gone, and the slight change in the type of subject matter that could be explored by the 1970s, the world seemed to have stood still.
An argument can be made, I think, that Matt Dillon’s Dodge exists, not in the historical West, but in the West of myth –as a mythic place, of course there is little change over time. And in the American consciousness of the 20th, and even 21st, century, that Mythic West stands outside the realm of chronology. In reality it lasted one single generation, roughly twenty years, but in our minds it lasted forever, with no beginning or end. Thus we can visualize a Wild West where people had always used six-guns that fired cartridges, where the cattle industry had operated by pushing cows to Kansas for generations. Where we can meet characters that are grown adults in the 1870s and learn that their father was a notorious gunslinger- which would have meant he had been doing his gunslinging in the early 1840s, before the first version of the Colt had even been invented. Or my favorite, the 70-something judge who reminisces about coming West to Nebraska when he was fresh out of law school, which would have had him practicing law on the Nebraska prairie in the early 1820s.
Gunsmoke was set in the 1870s. Twenty years passed for the characters –the amount of time Matt has served as marshal is mentioned frequently –but they never leave that decade. In fact, early seasons are set in the late 1870s, while the final season is set in 1873 (only one year after the town was founded!)
Those first seasons often made reference to historical characters. A wanted poster for Billy the Kid is on Matt’s pegboard for much of Season One, which would make it 1878 at the earliest; Chief Joseph shows up, recently captured, which would also fit in that timeframe. Season One had an episode entitled “Reunion ’78,” in which two men who’d met during the Civil War fifteen years earlier cross paths again. On the other hand, Wild Bill Hickock passes through, and the death of Custer is mentioned as being recent, and both those fellows died in 1876.
My fragile mind has tried to make sense of it all for decades… to find a way to make it fit. The best way, of course, is to use the formula from Bonanza (which was much better planned)… in that show, each episode took place roughly one hundred years in the past. So the program started in 1959, and was initially set in 1859. There are occasional references in the early seasons to a war brewing back east, then references to the war actually going on (including the occasional Confederate spy passing through), and in the late ‘sixties there are traumatized or disgruntled veterans. Of course, that means that for almost the entire run of Bonanza the Cartwrights should have been using cap-and-ball revolvers, changing caps and adding powder instead of shucking spent shells.
If you apply that to Gunsmoke, the show would have initially been set in the 1850s and ended in the 1870s. In fact, that’s what the writers decided to do in the last season, when they consistently referred to the current date as 1873 (which would have made it a hundred and ONE years in the past- take that, Lorne Greene!) There is a 20th season episode called “The Fourth Victim” in which a bad guy from the past is killing off people who were all of the same jury “fifteen years ago, in 1859.” It had been a jury of six… the first three are killed (one of them, Doc points out to Matt, “has lived in Dodge even longer than us”), two others have long since moved away, leaving Doc Adams as the “fourth victim.” Matt sends Newly to the courthouse to look through the old records and find a case that all three dead men had served together on; Newly is puzzled by the names of the two who had moved away, as he had never heard of them. Matt had, though.
“Chester Goode –he moved away not too long after that trial. And the other one, Quint Asper, was our blacksmith –he left Dodge about ten years or so ago.”
The retcon is on!
So according to that episode, all those years that Chester was the marshal’s assistant were in the 1850s, before the Civil War. A war that would have been raging when Quint moved away.
Which is fine, except Dodge didn’t exist until 1872; the Civil War was repeatedly referenced in those early seasons; there were cattle drives going on, then, in the early 1850s, fifteen years before they should have been; and Festus was allegedly a Civil War veteran, as was Doc (he had been a medic in an Ohio regiment.)
Most people would say “Well, heck, it’s a TV show. Who cares.” And they’d be right. Except I suffer from Historic OCD, and I have to figure out a way to make it all work in my mind to continue watching the re-runs. And I think I have.
First, you have to accept the retcon. Second, you have to accept that Matt Dillon’s Dodge City is in an alternate reality, where time unfolded differently from our own.
Here’s how it works.
Season One takes place in late 1854, the year the Kansas-Nebraska Act becomes law and Kansas Territory is formed. Doctor Galen Adams had been a medic in the Mexican-American War, and all those blue-clad vets we see are from that conflict as well.
In this alternate reality, railroads were built in the west much earlier, prompting cattle drives sooner (in real life, part of the reason Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas pushed for the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and for popular sovereignty, was because he wanted a transcontinental railroad to come through the Midwest.)
Chester (who may have gotten his leg injury in the war in Mexico) moves away in 1862. Festus, who had just moved to town, had in fact only served in the Confederate Army for a short time, perhaps deserting to ride the outlaw trail with his kinfolks.
Season Twenty ends in early 1874. Why does it end? Matt hangs up his badge and goes to the mountains to become a trapper (as we learn in the movie Return to Dodge.) Why does he do this? Well, first of all, Miss Kitty sold the Long Branch and moved back to New Orleans in 1872, tired of waiting for Matt’s proposal after 19 years and of expecting him to be killed any day. Miss Hannah, you’ll recall, replaces Kitty as Long Branch owner in Season Twenty… but she only appears in six episodes. It seems that Matt doesn’t hang out in the Long Branch very much after Kitty leaves.
My guess: In 1874 Galen Adams, who would have been well into his 70s, dies. Out of the original quartet of Matt, Kitty, Doc, and Chester, only Matt remains- the town is a reminder of lost friends and lost love, and he’s tired, and he just wants to be alone. He heads to the mountains.
With Matt gone, the town goes wild- wilder than it had ever been. Within a couple of years, the town council brings in some other famous lawmen to try to tame –or re-tame –the cowtown. These are the Bat Masterson/Wyatt Earp/ Doc Holliday years. Once they all move on (by 1880) and the cattle business starts to wither, the town shrinks and becomes much quieter. This time they ask former town deputy and blacksmith Newly O’Brien to be their marshal (perhaps –and probably –Newly has continued to serve as Deputy U.S. Marshal for all this time.)
That’s the situation when Matt makes his “Return to Dodge” around 1886 (Newly is even dressing in 1880s-chic.)
The other Gunsmoke movies, which center on Matt’s new life with his daughter Beth (product of an amnesiac liaison in the episode “Matt’s Love Affair) and the ranch they run together, are set in the late 1880s and early 1890s (an appropriate time period to encounter “The Last Apache,” for instance.) I like to think the old marshal died peacefully on that ranch, surrounded by family, circa 1910.
That version has a nice ring to me… and it just sort of feels right.
Check out the earlier blogs in this series:
#1 Dodge City and Me
Check out the earlier blogs in this series:
#1 Dodge City and Me
NOTE: Shameless plug ahead!
I got to have a hand in creating a different Kansas cowtown recently- the fictional town of Wolf Creek, setting of the new Western Fictioneers series of the same name. The books are written by “Ford Fargo” –a house name that represents about 20 authors, many of them the biggest names in the business. Each volume features about half-a-dozen writers, collaborating closely, each using their own unique character(s). As series editor I got to design the setting… and I made sure that the town of Wolf Creek was extremely historically accurate, even though it’s not real!
The first volume has been getting good buzz- you should check it out.