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Shane Did Not Live in Dakota

It’s a debatable proposition which is the great Western novel: The Virginian, by Owen Wister, or Shane, by Jack Schaefer. Both works deal with conflicts on the open range, specifically in Wyoming, and the heroes who resolved them.

Wister’s Virginian has to do with cattlemen suppressing what the author portrays as outlawry, but what looks to historians today more like big stockmen suppressing competition. Schaefer’s Shane has to do with homesteaders trying to insert themselves into a cattleman’s empire and a mysterious hero--played by Alan Ladd in the movie adaptation--who helps them prevail.

If you are a cowboy wannabe nostalgic for the open range, then The Virginian is the tale for you. If you accept progress and the establishment of field agriculture on the prairies, then Shane is your story. You get a strong, silent-type hero either way.

My elder brother, a lifelong farmer who to my knowledge has never saddled or even ridden a horse in his life, named his son, his heir on the farm, Shane. Because Alan Ladd was a friend to the farmer. And come to think of it, my nephew is kind of a strong, silent type.

Here in Dakota Territory, the plotline from The Virginian works. We did indeed have lynch mobs spilling over from Montana into the western reaches of our territory.

The story from Shane, however, does not apply. Other states had range wars pitting stockmen against homesteaders; here, not, or at least not so much. In our range wars cattlemen battled one another--as was famously the case with Theodore Roosevelt versus the Marquis de Mores--or, more often, beat up on shepherds and their flocks.

I think I have figured out why things were different in Dakota Territory. It was the herd law, adopted by the territorial legislature early on, in 1874. As I described a few weeks ago, a herd law could establish the nature of settlement by requiring stockmen to restrain their beasts, to herd them or fence them in. This relieved farmers from the expense and trouble of fencing their crops in a land short on timber.

The herd law gives notice that this is to be a farmer’s country. Open range conditions will prevail only where field agriculturalists do not wish to go or are not permitted by law.

Open range cattle operations certainly established themselves during the 1870s and 1880s in western Dakota Territory, in the Black Hills and in the Badlands and in other open space. Under different circumstances, push might have come to shove and possibly an Alan Ladd shootout.

This did not happen. In the southern half of Dakota Territory, the Missouri River separated farming settlements from the Great Sioux Reservation. Stockmen made their own arrangements for grazing Indian lands in the west, while farmers agitated to open the ground to homesteading, but that took time.

Logistics imposed a similar insulation between stockmen and agriculturalists to the north. The Northern Pacific Railroad stopped at the Missouri in 1873 and did not bridge the river until 1882. Teddy Roosevelt, arriving shortly thereafter, was not molested by troublesome plowmen.

The editor of the Bad Lands Cow Boy railed against the territorial herd law. In 1885 he protested that some settler might “start an 8x10 garden patch,” let cattle run over it, and extort stockmen for “many times the amount of damage.” He was just whistling in the west Dakota wind; there was no such problem. It was not a Rogers and Hammerstein situation--the farmer and the cowman were not friends--but they left one another alone.

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