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Kansas Cowtowns

Cattle Drive Up the Chisholm Trail

During the Civil War, Texas cattle were no longer allowed to be shipped northward, effectively cutting off the income and much of the economy of the Confederate state of Texas. When the war was finally over, this policy had led to a large abundance of Texas cattle, as well as a pent-up demand for beef in the northern states. Texas cattle ranchers were only too happy to meet the demand.

Immediately following the war, a number of Kansas cowtowns began to spring up along the developing railheads. Beginning in Baxter Springs, and expanding westward along with the railroad to Abilene, Ellsworth, Caldwell, Wichita, and Dodge City, these cities all developed a reputation as wild and wooly frontier towns. Secondary cattle markets in Newton, Hunnewell, Great Bend, Hays, Brookville, Coffeyville, and Junction City also achieved periods of brief success as cowtowns.

Meeting the demands of the many cowboys coming off the Chisholm Trail, dance halls and saloons, which almost always featured gambling, were fixtures in these Kansas cowtowns. Brothels and prostitution were another business that excelled with the high percentage of men arriving and very few women to accommodate them. The towns grew quickly, often levying taxes on the vices provided to the cowboys – liquor, gambling and prostitution. They also quickly grew reputations that were described as "wicked, decadent, evil, and lawless."

Between the years of 1865 and 1885, hundreds of thousands of Texas Longhorns were driven to these shipping points. However, by the mid-1880's, a number of events ended the cattle drive era in Kansas. Most prominently was the arrival of the railroad into Texas, but also factoring in, were quarantine laws and homesteaders that closed of much of the open range. But the cattle business in Kansas did not end. By 1890, the state ranked third in the nation in cattle production. As to the cowtowns themselves, most moved into a quieter existence becoming peaceable agricultural communities.

Abilene, Wickedest & Wildest Town In The West, is one of the most famous names of the early West - the first cattle boom town. The wife of T.F. Hersey, the founder, incidentally, took the town's name Abilene, from Luke 3:1 meaning city of the plains. Abilene was founded as a small log cabin hamlet and stagecoach stop in 1857, and was a crude little frontier village of only about 300 population when it was "discovered" by the cattle traders and the railroad that was pushing west. It grew almost overnight into a booming city of 3,000, with several hotels, the largest stockyards west of Kansas City, more than a dozen saloons, gaudy "night clubs", gambling houses and thriving mercantile businesses. Joseph G. McCoy's stockyards set Abilene on its way to becoming a booming cowtown located at the end of the historic Chisholm Trail. It was the end of the famous Texas Cattle Trail and the western terminus of the railroad in the days of the big overland cattle drives. Its famous Texas Street was the Broadway of the Plains.

In five years, from 1867-72, nearly three million head of cattle were driven up the Chisholm Trail from Texas to Abilene, and shipped to eastern markets via the Kansas Pacific (now UP) railroad. Just as Joseph G. McCoy had planned, the 1870 beef trade that the visionary entrepreneur had invited up from Texas was prospering his stockyard business at Abilene. Arriving herds were staged in McCoy's feedlots until they were ready to be shipped to Kansas City slaughterhouses. But out-of-state cowboys bringing the bovine to Abilene became very disruptive to the city.

Beginning back in 1867, the hard-bitten drovers from Texas had regularly escorted cantankerous longhorns to be loaded into east-bound cattle cars; and immediately afterward the weary cowpunchers would invigorate the economy of the accommodating Kansas town with a wild splurge of pleasure-seeking. While some merchants enticed the rambunctious visitors to waste their latest earnings on local attractions, the city had gone through two years of terror generated by shooting and shouting ruffians invading from distant localities. Exhibiting a defiant brashness, the alien cowboys openly taunted the administrators of local city government. For a while the gun was the only law. Abilene's reputation spread far and wide as the roughest, toughest, wildest town in the west.

Abilene's mayor, Theodore C. Henry, was desperately seeking someone with enough moxie to last as an effective peace officer. The will and determination of successive applicants quickly eroded in the face of adversity manufactured by rascals from the Lone Star State. Tom Smith had travelled eastward from Colorado to apply for the law enforcement job, but Mayor Henry was not sufficiently impressed with this 170 lb. red-headed fellow of Irish descent. Even at a height of nearly 5' 11'', the physically-fit Smith just didn't appear to measure up to a situation which the mayor viewed as a gigantic challenge. By late May of 1870, Mayor Theodore Henry was still facing the pressure in Abilene. Several local volunteers had found the job of maintaining order was just too much for any of them. A pair of St. Louis policemen were hired; but they immediately gave up the very same day, climbed back onto the east-bound train, and headed for the "Mound City," as their Mississippi River hometown was nicknamed back then. The Abilene mayor decided his last resort was the fellow from Colorado who had seemed very willing to give the job a try. By telegraph, Mayor Henry sent for Tom Smith.

On Saturday, June 4, 1870, Tom "Bear River" Smith was hired as the police chief at Abilene for the monthly wage of $150. In reality, he would be the entire police force. Before coming over from Kit Carson, Colo., to establish his final residence in Kansas, service as a successful marshal up in Wyoming had followed employment laying the new Union Pacific railroad track across broad Nebraska prairies. Smith had picked up his unique nickname after battling a vigilante group during a skirmish in Wyoming. Then he served as lawman briefly in the successive railroad towns along the route. The fearless but unpretentious 40-year-old was alleged to have first worn a badge as a policeman in New York City, way back on the eastern shore of his native state.

Tom Smith immediately enforced a city ordinance prohibiting anyone from carrying guns in Abilene. His first and second challenges to the law came from the insolent "Big Hank" Hawkins and from the terrible and burly "Wyoming Frank." Neither the superior size of his antagonists nor their pistols intimidated Smith. Individually, Tom Smith quickly overpowered, disarmed, and then banished Hank and Frank from the town without having to use any weapon other than his bare hands. These unhesitating acts won admiration from many citizens and genuine respect from other outsiders gathered in Abilene.

Smith's performance made nearly everyone happy. The tough New Yorker certainly converted Mayor T. C. Henry into a true believer of his most adequate abilities and amazing courage. The resolute peace officer had quickly put the unruly climate of Abilene back in proper order, and frequently he elected to extend his jurisdiction to wherever he himself thought fitting. On Tuesday, August 9, following an exceptional triumph on a mission in pursuit of Nebraska rustlers, the dedicated "Bear River" Smith was awarded a retroactive raise in pay up to $225 a month.

On Wednesday, Nov. 2, Thomas James "Bear River" Smith was cruelly executed by two farmers, Andrew McConnell and Moses Miles, in the countryside 12 miles outside Abilene. Andrew McConnell's background is vague; he is known chiefly as the killer of Abilene Marshal Tom Smith. A native of Massachusetts, McConnell came to occupy a Kansas homestead outside Abilene. While trying to arrest McConnell, who was the larger of the pair and had recently murdered a neighbor, the brave constable suffered a severe gunshot wound. During the ensuing scuffle, Tom Smith was viciously slashed by an axe handled by Miles as the lawman futilely struggled alone against the ill-natured duo.

Earlier, Smith had recruited a local Abilene man to assist in the arrest; but for undetermined reasons, the temporary deputy named McDonald provided no help and fled from the scene while the senior officer was being overpowered. After Tom Smith's demise, the nighttime atmosphere of Abilene's south side reverted to its former raucous disorder even through the next year, when James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok assumed the office once held by Smith.

Wild Bill Hickok, a "fast draw" two-gun expert who showed the cowboys he meant business by shooting anyone who challenged him. The Alamo Saloon kept open around the clock to entertain the cowboys and was Wild Bill Hickok's unofficial headquarters. It was in front of the Alamo that he shot the gambler, Phil Coe, in a feud that later led to his own assassination. Wild Bill shot Coe with a gun in one hand and with the other hand he fired simultaneously another shot that accidentally killed one of his trusted deputies and best friend. The legend is that Coe's mother paid Texas gunmen $10,000 to track down Wild Bill and kill him in Deadwood, South Dakota.

Front Street - 1876

Dodge City history is a pure definition of the West — a historical gateway that began with Francisco Vasquez de Coronado crossing the Arkansas River in 1541, leading to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 — Dodge City is on the 100th meridian 1824 border — and the 1821 opening of the Santa Fe Trail ("Santa Fe Road") by William Becknell, which became the great commercial route, between Franklin, Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico, until 1880. Thousands of wagons traveled the Mountain Branch of the trail which went west from Dodge City along the north bank of the Arkansas River into Colorado. For those willing to risk the dangers of waterless sand hills, a shorter route called the Cimarron Cutoff crossed the river near Dodge City and went southwest to the Cimarron River. H.L. Sitler, the first settler of what became Dodge City, said; "If you stood on the hill above Dodge City, there was traffic as far as you could see, 24-hours a day, seven days a week on the Santa Fe Trail."

In those days, safety from marauding Indians was essential. Fort Dodge, Kansas, was established in 1859, and opened in 1865 on the Santa Fe Trail near the present site of Dodge City, offering protection to wagon trains, the U.S. mail service and serving as a supply base for troops engaged in the Indian Wars. Kiowa, Cheyenne and other plains tribes inhabited the area and wild game was abundant including vast herds of buffalo (American bison).

The original Long Branch Saloon, courtesy Ford County Historical Society
A tenderfoot once observed that Wyatt Earp's most vivid recollections of his days as a frontier lawman involved people who were entering, occupying or leaving saloons. Earp replied tartly, "We had no Y.M.C.A.'s."

There were good reasons why the watchful eye of the law was needed in the saloons of the West. Beyond their primary function as purveyors of drink, many of them provided facilities for gambling and for consorting with fast women - activities that frequently sparked gunplay. But the saloon was also a social club, an art gallery of sorts and a haven of relaxation and repartee. One standard joke stemmed from the ritual that called for customers to pour their own drinks from a bottle into a shot glass. If the customer spilled a single drop, the bartender was likely to inquire, "Do you want a towel?" implying that the drinker had wasted enough whiskey to take a bath in it.

Some saloons dispensed rotgut but others, notably in rich mining towns, were stocked with the finest liquors and wines, and could supply almost any mixed drink known to man. At the better establishments Buffalo Bill Cody had no trouble getting his favoriie, a Stone Fence: a shot of rye and a twist of lemon in a glass of cider.

Bartenders often were hired not just for their mixing skills but for their ability to handle rowdies. Yet beneath a stern exterior many abarkeep concealed a sentimental heart. "Don't forget to write to mother," read a sign in a Montana saloon. "She is thinking of you. We furnish paper and envelopes free, and have the best whiskey in town."

Frank Loving ("Cockeyed Frank") was the victorious participant in one of the most celebrated gunfights of Western lore. A professional gambler, he was attracted to Dodge City during the 1870's and ultimately became involved in a fatal encounter with a local rowdy named Levi Richardson. The shootout was dubbed the Long Branch Saloon Gunfight, and although there were numerous gunfights that took place in that saloon, this would be the most well known. Loving moved his operations to Las Vegas, New Mexico, and in 1882 he transferred to Trinidad, Colorado. A few days later Loving was killed by Jack Allen in a shootout in Trinidad, leaving a widow and two young children.

In June 1872, Dodge City was founded five miles west of Fort Dodge on the northwest edge of the military reservation, with the Sitler's home as the only building. It quickly became a trade center for Santa Fe Trail travelers and Buffalo hunters.

Dodge City, Kansas, sprang out of a barrel of whiskey. For 10 years it thrived on whiskey, and city politics revolved around whiskey. The "Wickedest Little City in America" became its nickname. The so-called Dodge City War of 1883 came toward the end of Dodge's whiskey era.

After Colonel Richard I. Dodge assumed command of Fort Dodge in the spring of 1872, he stopped the sale of alcohol at the fort. This order affected not only the soldiers but also the buffalo hunters and traders in western Kansas. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad was laying track toward Fort Dodge, bringing hundreds of workers. George M. Hoover, a 24-year-old Canadian, jumped on this golden opportunity. He went to eastern Kansas and brought a wagonload of whiskey back to Fort Dodge. On June 17, 1872, Hoover, destined to become the richest man in Dodge City, measured off five miles to the west and opened the first business - a whisky bar built out of sod and boards - charging 25 cents a drink.

Hoover's competition moved in quickly. By the time the tracks of the brand new Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad arrived in September 1872, several businesses had been established, some still in tents. The railroad initiated a tremendous growth for many years. Already, south of the tracks, hastily built frame buildings and tents were housing two grocery and general merchandise stores, a dance hall, a restaurant, a barber shop, a blacksmith shop - even a saloon next to Sitler's original sod house. The famous Front Street legend had begun. Dodge was already setting a record for growth. Dodge City wasn't incorporated until November 1875, and Ford County wasn't organized until 1873, so for its first year there was no law or official government in Dodge. Boot Hill, though, was firmly established.

Stacks of buffalo hides towered along Front St. - filthy buffalo hunters and traders filled the town's establishments - and the term "stinker" was coined. Train-masters would take their red caboose lanterns along when visiting the town's "soiled doves" - and the term "red light district" came to life. The city passed an ordinance that guns could not be worn or carried north of the "deadline" which was the railroad tracks. The south side where "anything went" was wide open.

Dodge immediately became a major shipping point for buffalo hunters. By 1873 some 2,000 hunters roamed western Kansas. In a three-year period, 850,000 hides were shipped east out of Dodge, 754,529 of those in 1873. That same year, 1122 million pounds of buffalo meat and 50 carloads of buffalo tongues were also shipped out.

By 1875 the buffalo was virtually gone from the area, but there was another animal waiting to take its place, the Texas Longhorn. For ten more years, over five million head were driven up the western branch of the Chisholm and Western Trails to Dodge City. The buffalo hunter was replaced by the cowboy in Dodge City. Some of the hunters stayed around, though, and went into the saloon business as owners, part-owners, bartenders or gamblers. Others became lawmen. Several did both. In 1877, with a population of less than 1,000, Dodge had 16 saloons, plus dance halls and brothels. The saloons changed ownership partners and locations so often one almost needed a scorecard to keep track of all the players.

In June 1877, Ed Masterson was appointed an assistant marshal in Dodge City. Later in the same year, his younger brother Bat Masterson was chosen as an under-sheriff, until January 1878, when he became the sheriff. On April 9, 1878, Ed Masterson was killed in a gunfight. A third Masterson brother, James was appointed to the Dodge City police force in June of 1878.

By the late 1870's Dodge City's reputation for lawlessness had spread as far as Washington, D.C. In a letter in the Washington D.C.'s Evening Star of January 1, 1878, stated, "Dodge City is a wicked little town. Indeed, its character is so clearly and egregiously bad that one might conclude, were the evidence in the later times positive of its possibility, that it was marked for special Providential punishment."

Later an editor of the Hays City Sentinel would write, after visiting Dodge City, "Dodge is the Deadwood of Kansas. Her incorporate limits are the rendezvous of all the unemployed scallawagism in seven states. Her principal business is polygamy without the sanction of religion, her code of morals is the honor of thieves, and decency she knows not." Fort Dodge was closed in 1882 and due to a January 1886 blizzard, the cattle drives ended. An illustrious period of history was over but the legend lives on in Dodge City's historic preservation of its romantic and internationally famous Old West frontier history.



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