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Kansas Cowtowns - Violent Places on the American Frontier

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On the Trail

On the cattle Trail.



Cattle Trails:


The Cattle Trails

Cattle Trails of the Prairies

The Chisholm Trail - Herding the Cattle

The Goodnight-Loving Trail

Great Western Trail

The Shawnee Trail - Driving Longhorns to Missouri




Primary Cowtowns:




Dodge City




Secondary Cowtowns:


Baxter Springs




Great Bend

Hays City


Junction City






The Men That Tamed the Cowtowns

Wild & Woolly Cowtowns







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 -- some five million head -- roaming the ranches of the Lone Star State. With no railroads to ship them to market, the cattle were worth only $3 to $4 a head. In the meantime, there was a pent-up demand for beef in the northern and eastern states where the going rate was 10 times that amount.


Realizing the immense profits to be made, Texas cattlemen began searching for the nearest rail heads. However, this would not be as easy as it might seem. For several years, Missouri and Kansas farmers feared the Texas Longhorns coming through or entering their states due to a cattle disease called "Texas Fever". The longhorn cattle appeared to be perfectly healthy, but Midwestern cattle allowed to mix with them or to use a pasture recently vacated by the longhorns sometimes became ill and often died. It was determined that ticks were spreading the disease to the local cattle but the longhorns were immune to it.


In the spring of 1866 drovers were wrangling an estimated 200,000 to 260,000 longhorns northward along the Shawnee Trail from Texas. While many were turned back or severely delayed due to Texas Fever, some drovers diverted their herds around the hostile settlements getting their cattle to market and making large profits.


But the days of cattle blazing the Shawnee Trail were virtually over. In the first half of 1867 six states enacted laws against trailing and Texas cattlemen knew that something else would have to be done. At about this time, a young livestock dealer named Joseph G. McCoy conceived the idea of establishing a shipping depot for cattle at some point in the west and knew that the railroad companies were interested in expanding their freight operations. He soon selected Abilene, Kansas, and opened the Abilene Trail through Indian Territory from Texas. Thus began the era of the long cattle drive and Kansas cowtowns.


As the developing railheads moved westward, so did the wild and wooly frontier towns including Ellsworth, Caldwell, Wichita, and Dodge City. Secondary cattle markets in Newton, Hunnewell, Great Bend, Hays, Brookville, Coffeyville, Salina, 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.


It was here in these cow towns that many famous Old West characters gained or bolstered their reputations, men such as Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hickok, John Wesley Hardin, and dozens of others. In these wild frontier towns also occurred some of the most famous gunfights of the American West including the Dalton Gang Shoot-Out in Coffeyville, the Hide Park Gunfight in Newton, and Long Branch Saloon Shootout in Dodge City.




Kansas Cowtowns: 



Vintage Abilene, Kansas postcard.Abilene - Abilene already existed before it became a cow town. In 1857, it was established as a stagecoach stop and was officially laid out in 1860. However, it retained a sleepy existence until a livestock dealer from Illinois, named Joseph G. McCoy saw Abilene as the perfect place for a railhead from which to ship cattle from in 1867.


The city soon filled with not only cowboys, but also gamblers, outlaws, and prostitutes. By 1870, it had become so lawless, that Abilene hired its first marshal, Thomas Smith, whose first official act was to issue an order that no one would be allowed to carry firearms within the city limits without a permit. However, Smith was killed in the line of duty before the year ended. The next year, Wild Bill Hickok became the city's marshal. Abilene reigned supreme as the Queen of Kansas cowtowns until new railheads in Newton, Wichita, and Ellsworth  became the favored shipping points in 1872. During its four year reign, over 3 million head of cattle were driven up the Chisholm Trail and shipped from Abilene More ...



Baxter Springs - The first Kansas cowtown to develop was Baxter Springs, in the corner of southeast Kansas. In 1865, after the war was over, a town was laid out on 80 acres by Captain M. Mann and J. J. Barnes and soon thereafter Baxter Springs became an outlet for the Texas cattle trade. As Missouri became off-limits for Texas cattle due to quarantines, Baxter Springs welcomed them to Kansas. The community built stockyards with corrals capable of holding 20,000 cattle and provided range land with plenty of grass and water. Though the town took on all the appearances of prosperity, it also inherited a reputation for being one of the wildest cowtowns in the West. Baxter Springs remained cattle outlet through the 1870s as the herds were driven up the Old Shawnee Trail. More ...




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