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David Fisk (Lens of
Ellsworth – Another Wicked Kansas Cowtown
Long before Ellsworth began to dominate the cattle
market, it was already a turbulent place. The Smoky Hills region had
long been home to the
Cheyenne and other
Indian tribes who roamed the
buffalo. However, when the
Santa Fe and
Smoky Hill Trails
came through, they began to raid wagon trains and stagecoaches,
prompting the building of nearby Fort Ellsworth.
As with other forts, a town soon sprang up nearby,
some four miles to the northwest of the post, just beyond the military
reserve. First surveyed in 1867, the town was called Ellsworth,
though the fort changed its name to Fort Harker
in the same year. With the railroad completed to
Fort Harker in July of 1867, the new town
quickly overflowed with frontiersmen of every kind, soon boasting more
than 2,000 people.
1867, photo by Alexander Gardner.
This image available for
photographic prints and downloads
Within the first three months, the
new town sported several houses, three grocery stores, a hardware store,
dry goods, boots, and no doubt, a number of
But for its quick growth, it also
suffered a number of near fatal blows that first year. When the
Smoky Hill River raged out of its banks it left the town standing in nearly four feet
of water. At about the same time, a cholera epidemic broke out at
Fort Harker, soon spreading to Ellsworth. Many of the city’s earlier settlers
fled in fear. Those that stayed, soon moved the town site to higher
ground to the west and the town began to prosper again.
With the nearby railroad extended
its line to Ellsworth, the town quickly developed into a thriving cattle
market, dominating other Kansas cowtowns
from 1871 to 1875. With the flood of
also came gamblers, outlaws and the inevitable "unruly” women.
anticipating the shift in the cattle trade from Abilene, moved the Drovers
Cottage, once owned by Joseph McCoy, to Ellsworth in 1872. It could
accommodate 175 guests and stable 50 carriages and 100 horses. Numerous
other businesses also sprang up, profiting immensely from the
Kansas cowtowns, Ellsworth quickly
gained a reputation as a wild and wooly place, becoming the scene of numerous killings following shootouts between drunken
In its early days, the area was besieged by a gang led by two men named
Craig and Johnson. Making frequent robberies and bullying the townspeople,
the citizens finally organized a vigilance committee and hanged the two
Smoky Hill River.
In 1873, Ellsworth geared up for the largest drives of
Longhorns to date. Expecting trouble they hired additional police officers
to control the rowdy
They would be needed when a dispute arose on August 15, 1873, between
Ben Thompson and another player named John Sterling in Nick
When City Marshal, "Happy Jack" Morco sided with the other player against
Ben Thompson, a known gunfighter,
Ben and his drunken brother
moved out into the street and called out to their opponents to meet them.
Instead of Morco, Ellsworth County Sheriff, Chauncey
Whitney stepped into the street with the Thompsons and soon convinced them
to have a drink with him at Joe Brennan's
Saloon. However, before
they could get there, marshal Morco charged down the street guns drawn.
Thompson then wheeled and fired his rifle at Marco, narrowly missing him.
Billy, on the other hand stumbled and discharged his shotgun mortally
wounding the Sheriff Whitney.
Cattle at the
Smoky Hill River near Ellsworth,
Alexander Gardner, 1867.
This image available for
photographic prints and downloads
Ben and an army of
Texans held off the town as
Ben was later arrested
by Deputy Ed Hogue but was not tried and soon left
to later become the Austin,
Billy Thompson was able to avoid authorities until 1876, when
he was returned to Ellsworth, stood trial, and was acquitted when the
jury ruled that the shooting was an accident.
After the shooting, all hell broke
loose in Ellsworth. City Marshal "Happy Jack” Morco was fired and replaced
by a man named Ed Crawford, who pistol whipped a
named Cad Pierce to death two days later. Obviously not confident in
their law officers and tired of the
vigilantes began to roam the streets issuing "affidavits” to Texans to "get out of town or
else." "Happy Jack” Morco was gunned down in the streets by J. Charles
Brown, who later become the City Marshal. Edward Crawford, was also gunned
down by a
who was thought to have been Cad Pierce’s brother-in-law.
Ellsworth maintained its wicked
reputation until the shipping pens were finally closed in 1875. In its
peak year of 1873, approximately 220,000 head of longhorn cattle
were driven through the town. During its turbulent
heydays, some of the colorful Old West
characters who found their way to Ellsworth include
George Armstrong Custer,
Wild Bill Hickok, and
One newspaper said it best: "As we go to press, hell is still in session
With the cattle trade gone, the
town then settled down into a peaceful ranching and farming community,
which continues to be its mainstay to this day. Ellsworth now has a
population of almost 3,000, largely supported by the
State Ellsworth Correctional Facility.
The area celebrates its rich
history with a number of museums and attractions, including the Hodgden
House Museum Complex on old South Main Street. Here, the spirit of
Ellsworth's Old West days continue as visitors are invited to tour the Hodgden House, built in 1873 by Perry Hodgden, one of the Ellsworth's
first settlers; the
Black Wolf school built in 1912, a stone livery built in
1887, two historic churches, a rare wooden Union Pacific Caboose,
the Terra Cotta Union Pacific Depot built 1900, and the oldest building in
Ellsworth, its 1873 Jail.
At 210 N. Douglas, the new National
Drovers Hall of Fame Museum is currently being developed in the old
Signature Insurance Building.
Here, visitors will be able to learn about the Great American cattle drives from
interactive displays in the museum.
The Fort Harker
Museum is located about five miles southeast of Ellsworth in the tiny town
Chamber of Commerce
114 ½ N.
of America, updated June, 2014.
Ellsworth, Kansas Slide Show:
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