Saturday, April 1, 2017

Kansas Cow Towns, 1866 to 1886

From 1866 to 1886, cowboys pushed herds of cattle up the trails from Texas to the railheads in Kansas. Before the start of the drive, each cowboy was issued ten horses for the hard journey. As for the herd, it's said that it stretched for a mile or more along the trail. At the end of the trail was the infamous cow towns, the so-called "Sodoms of the plains".

In 1867, Joseph G. McCoy was a young cattle dealer from Illinois. He decided that Abilene would make a good railhead. Abilene was the first of the Kansas cow towns. The last big year for Abilene was in 1871 when more than 40,000 head of cattle are said to have been shipped out by rail.

Ellsworth came next to pick up the herds that Abilene was never to see again. The reason was that the Drovers Cottage was moved to Ellsworth in 1872. The Drovers Cottage was said to be able to accommodate 175 guests. And yes, its stable held 50 carriages and 100 horses. Ellsworth would dominate the market from 1871 to about 1875 all while standing up to competition from Wichita.

Elgin was a town that was established in 1869. It is located on the Kansas-Oklahoma state line and was once known as one of the largest cattle shipping cow towns in Kansas. And yes, it was where the Dalton Gang was known to hang out as well. After the cattle boom went bust, it was kept alive by oil but then that dried up and today Elgin is classified as a Kansas Ghost Town because it has a population of a little over 80 people.

Back in 1872, the Wichita and South Western Rail Road line reached Wichita, Kansas to provide a needed link with the Santa Fe Railroad. All of which would carry cattle to Eastern markets. 

By 1873, it's said that 66,000 head of cattle were shipped out of Wichita. That was twice as many head of cattle that were shipped from Ellsworth. And as for where to go and not to go in Wichita, the "Delano" district was where the gambling and drinking were located in that town. It was as bad as one could find in any cow town. Yes, it was where dance hall owner "Rowdy Joe" Lowe shot and killed his business rival who was known as "Red Beard."

From 1875 to 1876, the now famous Wyatt Earp served on the Wichita police force before moving on to Dodge City. He almost ended his own life in a freak shooting accident on Sunday, January 9th, 1876, while sitting in the back room of the Custom House saloon. what happened was that his Colt Single Action Army slipped from his holster and fell to the floor.

Unlike the modern Ruger Vaquero Single Action which has a transfer-bar-safety, the Colt Single Action Army does not even today. So when Wyatt Earp made the dumb error of leaving Colt's hammer resting on a loaded chamber, it went off when it hit the floor. That .45 caliber round could have shot Wyatt Earp in the rear but instead went through his coat and into a wall.

Of course, the prosperity of the cow towns continued only as long as the railroad provided a railhead to ship cattle. As the railroad moved farther West, towns dried up while others took their place of importance. Some towns like Newton, Kansas, only lasted one season. Junction City was located on the Kansas Pacific Railroad line, but it was just a secondary shipping point. So like Hays City and Great Bend, Junction City was really never a major cattle market town though it did receive some business.

Founded in 1872 just before the Santa Fe Railroad reached Ford County, Dodge City served primarily as a civilian community to the U.S. Army at Fort Dodge. Of course, besides the needs of the soldiers and their families at Fort Dodge, the city also catered to those selling buffalo hides. 

Stacks of buffalo hides towered along Front St. and filthy buffalo hunters and traders filled the town's establishments. Yes. that's where the term "stinker" was coined. Yes, when it comes to buffalo hunting, Dodge City was the buffalo capital. That is until the mass slaughter destroyed the huge herds, and left the prairie littered with decaying carcasses. 

All in all, it is estimated that 1,500,000 buffalo hides were shipped from Dodge City in just the years 1872 to 1878. And for years after that, farmers were said to have gathered the bleached buffalo bones and sold them for six to eight dollars a ton during hard times. The bones were used in the manufacture of fine china and plant fertilizer. 

So by 1875, buffalo were gone as a source of revenue for Dodge City. But because the railroad pushed to Dodge City, longhorn cattle from Texas were driven there. And for ten more years, believe it or not, it's estimated that over 5,000,000 head of cattle were shipped out of Dodge.

The fact is when quarantine laws closed Wichita to the cattle trade, Dodge City emerged as the "Queen of the Cowtowns."  And yes, from 1875 to 1885, it's said that more than 75,000 head of cattle were shipped each year. And besides those shipped east, there were thousands of head of cattle that were driven through Dodge City to stock northern ranges or to be shipped from other railheads.

And as for shootings, it's believed that 15 people were killed in 1872. And by early 1873, the local merchants were so concerned about the violence that they hired Billy Brook as a private lawman. When he proved ineffective, a vigilance committee was formed. The vigilantes managed to rid the town of some of the worst offenders, but soon some of the members of the vigilantes became the problem.

One example was what took place on March 13th, 1873, when saloon owner Tom Sherman ran a man out of his dance hall and shot him in the street. After shooting and seriously wounding the man, Sherman walked over to the man who was said to be writhing in pain. Sherman then asked the crowd that had formed, "I'd better shoot him again, hadn't I boys?" And with that, Sherman aimed his pistol at the man's head and pulled the trigger at point-blank range.

The violence is said to have climaxed on June 3rd of that same year when two vigilante members killed William Taylor. He just so happened was the servant of Col. Richard Dodge, the commanding officer of Fort Dodge. 

It's said that Col. Dodge was so outraged that he wired the Governor of Kansas, and almost immediately obtained permission to arrest the guilty. With that Col. Dodge sent armed troops to Dodge City the next day and arrested Bill Hicks who was later convicted. Then on June 5th, he sent troops into Dodge City again. That time it was to arrest five of the worst of the vigilantes. Yes, that included Tom Sherman. It was after that that Ford County Sheriff Charlie Bassett was appointed. 

So yes, after following a slow-moving herd of cattle along a long and dusty trail for as many as three to four months, Kansas cow towns offered cowboys a place to take a bath, buy new clothing, new boots, tack, a saddle, and even a new hat. Besides the shops and stores which made a lot of money after the drives, the cowboys would gamble, find a "soiled dove", dance, eat good food, and generally let off some steam as young men will do.

Because they liked the huge money that the cattle drives brought with them, most towns accommodated their visitors with a wide-open attitude towards their rowdy behavior. Out of this two political factions emerged in Dodge City. One faction was those who wanted a wide-open town with gambling, saloons, and prostitution. The other wanted a town of strict law and order.

There were limits though, and many of the cow towns hired enforcers to maintain a semblance of law and order. Some of these enforce took up the role of Lawmen, but that was in many cases just window dressing.

Most lawmen worked for small salaries, they made their real money by getting a percentage of the fines collected and a set price for each arrest they made. Yes, more fines and arrests meant more money in their pockets.

During a great many years of the 1800s and well into the 1900s, the County Sheriff was the top lawman and also the county tax collector. He usually got 10 percent of all of the taxes that he could collect. That was quite an incentive to collect taxes from people who didn't want to pay or who were paying too little.

Well, most towns used their City marshals the same way to collect taxes and fines from businesses that violated city ordinances. Of course, in some towns in the Old West, that led to City Marshals banning guns and extorting money from businesses, and placing fines on citizens who were innocent.

In 1882, a cowboy on a drive was paid $30.00 a month. That is the equivalent of approximately $520.00 in today's dollars. He didn't get paid until the end of the drive. After three or four months on the trail, he's hitting town with a nice sum of money coming to him. And yes, besides stores and saloons, the law wanted some of that in fines.

It's said that the town of Caldwell challenged Dodge City for the cattle market in the early 1880s. Known as "the Border Queen," nearly 100,000 head of cattle were shipped out on the Santa Fe line in 1882 and 1883. And yes, the rowdy behavior witnessed in other cow towns was the same as what took place in Caldwell during its cow town period from 1880 to 1885. Of course, Caldwell had other problems besides rowdy cowboys fresh off the trail.

On April 30th, 1884, the citizens of Caldwell were shocked to learn that their own City Marshal and his assistant were bank robbers and murderers. It was on that day that their City Marshal and his assistant and two cowboys rode to the town of Medicine Lodge to rob the bank there early that morning.

While attempting to defend his bank, the bank president was killed by the Caldwell City Marshal. Then his assistant immediately killed the cashier so there wouldn't be a witness. Then after coming to grips with the fact that their plans to rob the bank had failed, the four robbers fled as fast as they could heading back to Caldwell.

Within hours, a posse from Medicine Lodge captured the four bank robbers in a box canyon outside of town. The Medicine Lodge City Marshal was able to secure his prisoners in the town's jail, even though the citizens of Medicine Lodge were ready for a lynching.

By the evening of April 30th, 1884, everything changed when a mob overpowered the City Marshal to get to the four prisoners. The prisoners saw what was happening and actually attempted to escape when the doors to the jail were opened. Shots were fired and the Caldwell City Marshal was killed immediately. After that, the three remaining prisoners were taken to an elm tree east of town and hanged.

In the 1880s, Hunnewell, Kansas, is said to have flourished briefly as a shipping point for Texas cattle. It is located on the Kansas-Oklahoma border in Sumner County, and the Leavenworth, Lawrence, and Galveston Railroad provided easy access to the Kansas City stockyards from there. Hunnewell is said to have been very typical of cow towns in that the business district consisted of a hotel, two stores, a barbershop, two dance halls, and eight or nine saloons.

In 1884, in Dodge City, Pat Sughrue was said to work as a blacksmith when not serving as a policeman. That was the same year that he was elected Sheriff of Ford County. He was in office during the final days of the cattle era for Dodge City. 

In 1884, an epidemic of splenic fever among the Texas longhorns sent local cattle growers and eastern buyers into a panic. The governor of Kansas ordered Sheriff Sughrue to turn back herds and drovers from the Kansas border. This situation, along with low beef prices and the decrease of availability of open range due to barbed wire, is believed to have been contributing factors that led to the passing of the cattle drive era after 1885 for Kansas.

At the time, Mike Sughrue served as Deputy Sheriff of Ford County under Pat who was his twin brother. For Mike's heroic efforts in capturing a known murderer at the time, the citizens of the town of Ashland in Clark County actually elected him their City Marshal in 1885.

By the mid-1880s, many events came together to end the cattle drive era in Kansas. While Dodge City lasted much longer than most Kansas cow towns when the railroads finally stretched their tracks into Texas and the open range was being closed by barbed wire, Dodge City's days as a cow town ended.

Rail lines had reached directly into Texas, and of course more and more there was a growing demand for better-bred beef. At the same time quarantine laws were continuously closing off more and more of the open range. And as for what was left, well it was being filled with more and more homesteaders. 

Although the trail drives were over by 1886, the cattle business in Kansas did not end. By 1890, the state ranked third in the nation in cattle production. And as of 2015, Kansas still ranks third in the nation in cattle production by producing 6,000,000 head of cattle. Yes, that's 6.68% of the entire production of cattle in the United States. And friends, that ain't bad considering they started out as cow towns more concerned about shipping than producing. 

Tom Correa


  1. Thanks for the history lesson. Very interesting.

  2. It's true that Wyatt Earp's gun went off in a saloon when it fell out of his holster. He loaded his .45 pistol with all six rounds and left the hammer thong of the holster unhitched. Of course, he had forgotten to hitch the hammer thong onto the hammer of his Colt Single Action Army and for some reason as he was adjusting himself in his chair, he touched the hammer of the gun and it fell out of the holster and fired, missing Wyatt's backside by a mere 12 inches. That's why he loaded only five rounds in his .45 Colt revolver later on. If you want MY opinion, ol' Wyatt shoulda checked his gun first to see if it was loaded. If it was, he would have and should have emptied it. Or if it was already empty, he should have put the hammer thong on the hammer of the gun to safely secure it. Potato/potato. Then there WAS that one time John Wesley Hardin was captured by Texas Rangers in Pensacola, Florida and he was trying to get his .45 Colt out of his suspenders but the hammer got caught in the straps and he was overpowered. It seemed like Wes Hardin bit off more than he could chew when it came to being outnumbered. I guess today just wasn't their day to be carrying a gun. And just think of what woulda happened had either Earp or Hardin had their finger on the trigger. Woulda been a whole different story. And that, my friends, is why you should always check your guns to see if they are empty. Treat all guns as if they are loaded. And NEVER assume anything. Otherwise what happened in those Old West cow towns could happen to you. Stay safe.


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