Moral culture in emerging communities

Preston Jones writes on “moral culture in Gold Rush towns” in the 19th century:

People respond to expectations. A professor who allows students to submit late papers is likely to receive late papers, even from students who ordinarily complete their work on time.

Perhaps something similar is true in moral life. When I was in the Navy, I noticed that many sailors were perfectly decent in some ports, while in other ports the same men did things they would never admit to back home. The difference was expectations. In ports where almost anything was acceptable, almost anything happened, and the consequences were degrading for all.

This came to mind as I read the diaries and memoirs of women who went to gold rush communities in Alaska and the Canadian Yukon in the late nineteenth century. Mary Hitchcock was a curious New Yorker; Elizabeth Robins an actress and writer. Martha Black arrived pregnant and estranged from her husband; Anna DeGraf was a seamstress.

Gold rush lore evinces images of restless, grizzled miners and thriving saloons. Certainly, boom towns like Skagway (Alaska) and Dawson (Yukon) had their wild sides. Anna DeGraf saw “gold fever, greed, and lawlessness,” and she notes that she was harassed a few times by drunken men. Yet her story is mainly about cooperation and kindness. The same is true of the other women’s memoirs and diaries. Each of them ended up in situations where they would have been almost powerless against one man, let alone many. Yet their writings say little of vulnerability, even in areas beyond the reach of police.

For all of the experiences of oppression and subjugation that undoubtedly took place to some degree in frontier communities, Jones offers insights into the ways in which moral culture can be fruitfully developed in frontier communities. These aren’t earth-shattering insights, but they’re important ones if we’re trying to “get things right” in fostering a healthier culture. And relevant for our future lunar and Mars colonies.