When a television show is around as long as “Gunsmoke,” it’s bound to leave a lasting impact on the culture. For 20 years, the Western drama delivered plenty of memorable moments. It comes as no surprise then, that phrases it popularized like “get out of Dodge” are still around today.
But the story behind the phrase may surprise you. “Gunsmoke” was set in Dodge City, Kansas during the 1870s. It is a very real place and the mid-1800s were a restless time for the frontier city. The decision to set the gun-slinging Western here was far from accidental and was not a new idea.
As a newly established town on the frontier of the American “Wild West,” Dodge City gained a violent reputation. According to Smithsonian Magazine, “Newspapers in the 1870s crafted Dodge City’s reputation as a major theater of frontier disorder by centering attention on the town’s single year of living dangerously, which lasted from July 1872 to July 1873.”
‘Gunsmoke’ Setting Was Created By News Media
Some of this reputation was deserved. But the news media at the time saw an opportunity. Newspapers began to embellish some of the stories coming out of Dodge City and other places like it.
According to Smithsonian, the city became a metaphor for the “Wild West.” In fact, after 1873, there wasn’t a single violent death in Dodge City for two years. And “from early 1876 through 1886,” the magazine writes, “the known body count averaged less than two violent deaths per year.”
But the lawless and violent depiction of Dodge City continued in the media. By the time the 1900s rolled around, “the dangers of Dodge became a permanent commodity—a cultural production that was retailed to a primary market of tourists, and wholesaled to readers and viewers.”
When video cameras came along, the entertainment value only went up. And by the time “Gunsmoke” came around in the 1950s, the Dodge City reputation was so familiar that the show turned it on its head. Instead of a lawless town filled with criminals, the show depicts Dodge City as a place filled with good people.
The phrase “get out of Dodge” was more often than not meant for the intruding criminals. As opposed to a warning for the townspeople themselves.