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The Men That Tamed the Cowtowns

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By Arthur Chapman in 1905

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Abilene, Kansas stockyards, 1886French chivalry never smacked more of adventure than did the little Western towns that were founded on the devious trail of the longhorn Texas steer to the Northern market during the decade following the Civil War.

Abilene, Dodge City, Ellsworth, Hays City, Newton -- these and more were names that spelled romance in the early days when Kansas was the great clearing house for Western cattle, and these small but strenuous places equaled their mining rivals, Deadwood, South Dakota; Tombstone, Arizona; and Leadville, Colorado in their daily clashes of armed men. The streets of the cowtowns were thronged with the hardiest of adventurers. Paris held no more bold-eyed swaggerers and rufflers than the typical cowtown of Abilene when the brief flame of its strangely brought prosperity was at its highest.

Abilene boasted only of two or three hundred citizens, but the great cattle trail kept the streets swirling with a strange and fearsome floating population. Forty saloons were busy, and between every two saloons was a dance hall, while back of every barroom was a gambling layout. Night and day, in the long season when the great herds were moving along the trail, wrapped in their own dust-clouds, mounted cowboys were clattering up and down the streets of Abilene. Rheumatic pianos were tinkling in the dance halls, and frequently the sound of pistol shots came from the saloons and gambling places. Every man had at least one gun slapping at his hips, and every waist felt the sag of a heavy cartridge belt, pregnant with death. Mingling with the cowboys were professional gamblers, men whose false names indicated that they were “wanted ” back East, “remittance men” from England, wealthy cattle buyers from Chicago and other marketing points, and the painted women and the male riff-raff that bad scented gain as the buzzards scent their feast. This strange and motley gathering crowded the saloons such as the Alamo, the Elkhorn, the Bull's Head, the Pearl, and other places that were operated under as picturesque names, and the revelry of the boisterous held nightly sway to the accompaniment of numerous powder-burnings.

The nights of riot in Abilene were not more picturesque than the days of intermingled toil and deviltry. The chief hotel was a flimsy structure known as the Drovers' Cottage. During the heyday of the cattle business it was run by Colonel I. W. Gore, hail-fellow-well-met with every cattle owner and cowboy in the Lone Star state and Indian Territory, whence Abilene derived its support. The stockyards were about a quarter of a mile east of the Drovers’ Cottage, and here one could see immense herds of cattle, just off the trail, waiting their turn to be yarded and shipped East by rail. Whooping and yelling cowboys would be dodging hither and thither on their ponies, dashing into the herds and cutting out 20 or 30 cattle at a time to be weighed. Lariats were swishing, cattle were bawling and Woe to the man who entered this reek of dust and noise on foot, for the Texas steers would turn on such an unfamiliar object in an instant and cut it to ribbons with their sharp horns and hoofs.

For several years the trail poured its half-wild cattle and its picturesque men into Abilene and its rival cowtowns, and out of this devil’s pot came a brew of romance that would give the world a zestful literature for generations to come.

When the few but sturdy citizens of Abilene determined to bring some sort of order out of the riot of their town, laughter resulted. One or two local celebrities who were tendered the Marshalship, gave up their badge of authority within a short time. A St. Louis, Missouri man with a great reputation as a peace officer looked over the field and went away on the next train without talking business. But finally the office of Marshal was tendered to Thomas J. Smith of Kit Carson, Colorado, and was accepted. Smith was a broad-shouldered, mild-spoken young man who had made himself respected as Marshal of Kit Carson, which was then at the very end of the Kansas Pacific Railroad and which, like all “end towns,” was inclined to disorder. Smith had gone his fearless way among bad men of every description and had first made himself and then the law respected. But as soon as it was known along the cattle trail that Smith had been made Marshal of Abilene there was, figuratively speaking, a flinging of fringed gauntlets into the arena. Placards, calling on all visitors to Abilene to give up their guns when in the town limits were contemptuously shot to pieces, and finally conclusions with the new Marshal himself were forced. A bunch of cowboys, headed by a huge bully whose boot tops bore the lone star of Texas, congregated defiantly in front of a saloon, with revolvers aggressively displayed.





“You’ll have to give up your guns, boys,” said the new Marshal, advancing toward the leader as he spoke.


The bully, waxing profanely abusive, made that back-reaching movement which is known in the West as a “gun play,” but he had allowed Smith to come too near. Smith’s big fist shot forward, catching the cowboy full in the jaw, and sending him down like a well-roped steer. The science of the prize ring is something practically unknown to the average cowboy. Consequently, Tom Smith, who was an expert boxer, had wisely chosen a method of attack which would prove a surprise. Had he reached for his gun when the bully made his “play” there is no doubt that Smith’s Marshalship would have ended then and there and the coming of the law to the cattle county would have been long postponed. But as it was, the cowboys were so amazed at the quickness with which the blow had been struck and the corresponding suddenness with which their champion had sunk senseless to the dust, that they could only stand in openmouthed amazement when Smith completed his work by standing over the prostrate Texan and relieving him of his weapons. Nor was there any sign of protest when the new Marshal quietly informed the “boys” that they would have to deposit their weapons at a certain place and at once. The weapons were quietly surrendered, to be called for when the cowboys departed, and that day and night, for the first time in its wild career, the cowtown of Abilene was filled with men who were weaponless. The law had spoken through brave Tom Smith, and the reign of the “bad man” in the West was no longer undisputed.


For eleven months Tom Smith “held” Abilene. He did not maintain his place without a struggle, for there were occasional bands of cowboys whose outfits had not heard the Word on the trail that Abilene’s Marshal was not to be trifled with. These boys had to be tamed -- but always as Smith had tamed his first bully. When force was to be used it was Smith the trained boxer and athlete, and not Smith the gunfighter, who cut the combs of the swaggering cockerels of Cattledom.


Thomas J. "Bear River" Smith

Thomas J. "Bear River" Smith was shot down in the line of duty while serving as Abilene's marshal.

This image available for photographic prints and downloads HERE!



Abilene, Kansas in its glory daysIt is said that Smith used his big revolver but once during his reign as Marshal of Abilene, and that was when there was a concerted attempt to assassinate him. The gamblers of the city, who had looked on the coming of the Marshal with none too friendly eyes, had come to regard Smith as a menace to their business. The enforcement of the order regarding the surrender of firearms had taken some of the zest out of the gambling games. Many of the cowboys thought no game really exciting unless each man had a gun at his hip as well as a high card in his hand.

“You kin play cards better‘n I kin, but blanked if you kin shoot quicker,” was the challenge that led to many an interesting, if bloody sequel to Abilene’s sessions at the pasteboards.

When the interests of the gamblers suffered, retaliation was planned. Tom Smith was lured into a room where several gunfighters had been assembled. At a given signal the lights were to be shot out and Smith was to be killed. But Smith had not walked blindly into the trap. It was his big revolver that spoke first and it was the same gun that spoke last. When the atmosphere of the smoke-filled room was cleared three of the Marshal’s assailants were writhing on the floor and the rest had fled, while Smith himself stood unharmed. It is said that was the only time Tom Smith ever lost his temper. He made his way to the Mayor of Abilene, his face white with wrath and his usually gentle eyes aflame.

"They set a trap to assassinate me, Mr. Henry,” he said, “and now I’m going after them.”

And he strode out into the hushed streets of Abilene, but the ringleaders of the plot had flown and were never again seen in the sprightly cowtown.

Smith met his death owing to the cowardice of a deputy. A ranchman named McConnell had shot and killed a neighbor and had barricaded himself in his log cabin and defied the authorities. Tom Smith, with one deputy, went to the cabin and burst the door open with his mighty shoulder. McConnell had an ally named Miles, but Smith walked into the cabin, unafraid as always. Miles stepped to the door and snapped a rifle several times at Smith’s deputy, who retreated, though he could have closed with Miles and wrested the useless gun from him. A shot was heard from within the cabin, and the cowardly deputy fled, reporting at Abilene that Smith had been shot. A witness who saw what followed afterward said that Smith brought his man, McConnell, to the door of the cabin, but here, Miles had turned and struck the Marshal with his clubbed rifle, felling him to the ground. Then Miles and McConnell had dragged the Marshal a few feet from the doorway and severed his head from his body with an ax.

The murderers were captured and brought to Abilene, but, thanks to the regard for law and order which Tom Smith himself had inspired, there was no lynching. One of the prisoners was sentenced to 15  years in the penitentiary and the other to five -- surely light punishment for causing the death of the bravest and most modest of the many brave and modest Marshals of the old West!



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