Located just north of the Oklahoma border, the town was established in 1871 and named in honor of United States Senator Alexander T. Caldwell, of Leavenworth, Kansas. The first building was erected by Captain C. H. Stone, one of the founders of the townsite, who built a log house which was used as a store and the first post office. Stone became the fledgling city’s first postmaster. Other buildings soon followed including a hotel, other businesses, and the Red Light Saloon, which thrived with both Indian and cowboy customers.
Situated along the Chisholm Trail, the town catered to the many cowboys who passed by with their large cattle herds on their way to Abilene and Wichita. However, it remained little more than a trading post up until 1879, when it had about 260 residents.
When the Santa Fe Railroad extended its line to Caldwell, Wichita investors took notice and formed a town company in 1879, selling lots for $125. The city was incorporated and quickly promoted its opportunity as a cattle shipping point. The town grew quickly and soon boasted some 1,500 people.
As the cowboys began to drive the cattle up the Chisholm Trail to Caldwell, the town took on all of the elements of a lawless frontier settlement. These many drovers gave the town its nickname, the “Border Queen.”
As the town sprouted saloons, gambling dens, and brothels, the first town north of Indian Territory provided a place where the cowboys could go wild after months on the dusty and treacherous trail. Gunfights, showdowns, general hell-raising and hangings soon became commonplace.
During its reckless cowtown period between 1879 and 1885, Caldwell “boasted” a higher murder rate and loss of more law enforcement officers than other more famous cowtowns. During this period, violence claimed the lives of 18 city marshals, leading a Wichita editor to write, “As we go to press hell is again in session in Caldwell.”
One of the first incidents occurred at the Moreland Saloon on July 7, 1879, when Deputy Constable James Wilson and a citizen, George Flatt, cornered two cowboys named Woods and Adams, who had been firing their guns outside the saloon in celebration of being paid for a Texas cattle drive earlier in the day. The confrontation led to gunplay and when the smoke cleared, Woods and Adams were dead. In the melee, an innocent bystander by the name of Kiser was wounded. Having now made a reputation for himself, Flatt was soon made Caldwell’s first City Marshal. He gladly took credit for shooting the cowboys, but no one ever came forward to accept responsibility for wounding Mr. Kiser.
However, Flatt was not well liked by local citizens and on April 5, 1880, a new mayor was elected in Caldwell, namely one Mike Meagher. One of the first things Meagher did was discharge City Marshal George Flatt because he disapproved of Flatt’s confrontational way of law enforcement.
He then appointed William Horseman as the new marshal; Frank Hunt and Dan Jones as deputies, and James Johnson stayed on as constable. Flatt was none too happy about this event and wasted no time voicing his complaints about town.
On the evening of June 18, 1880, a drunken Flatt made his rounds in a number of Caldwell saloons, voicing his complaints to anyone who would listen. Somewhere along the line, he ran into Frank Hunt and the two argued until Hunt was finally able to persuade Flatt to go home about 1:00 o’clock in the morning. But Flatt wouldn’t make it. On his way, he was ambushed and died in the street with a bullet in the back of his skull.
Mayor Mike Meagher, and police officers William Horseman, Frank Hunt, James Johnson, and Dan Jones were soon arrested by Sumner County Sheriff, Joe Thralls for the murder. Although all of the men were bound over for trial, only William Horseman was tried. A year later he was acquitted.
But for Mike Meagher, he would get his due on December 17, 1881, in a shootout with Jim Talbot and three other men. Meagher was killed. Also killed by the gunfire was George Spears, a former policeman, who had changed to the Talbot side. The gunfight lasted long enough for a hardware store to pass guns and ammunition out to townspeople. Only one of Talbot’s men was ever convicted for the murder. Talbot was acquitted but was later killed, probably by Mike’s brother, John, who was seen following Talbot from the courthouse after his release.
By the time Caldwell was three years old, it needed its ninth marshal. Unfortunately for the City and the new marshal, a 10th would soon follow. Appointed in March 1882, George S. Brown, 28, lived to enforce the law only until the summer. On June 22, 1882, Marshal Brown was killed by cowboys Steve and Jess Green in the Red Light Saloon as Brown and a deputy answered a disturbance call. With the help of the saloon employees, the Green brothers escaped into Indian Territory, only to be caught in a gunfight with Territory lawmen in October. Steve Green and a deputy sheriff were killed and Jess Green was captured, riddled with 13 gunshot wounds. The Kansas governor gladly paid the Texas posse the $1,000 in Kansas reward money. Jess Green died in the county jail, just prior to his murder trial.
Also hired in 1882 was another Mr. Brown – one Henry Newton Brown, as Assistant Marshal. He was later promoted to City Marshal.
But, Brown had failed to tell the city council about his interesting past which included cattle rustling, riding with Billy the Kid, and a trivial murder charge during the Lincoln County War in New Mexico.
Brown hired his friend Ben Wheeler, aka: Ben Robertson and the two men “cleaned up” the tough town quickly. When Brown felled two outlaws in the streets of Caldwell in 1883, the Caldwell Post bragged that Brown was “one of the quickest men on the trigger in the Southwest.” So taken were the town citizens that they presented him with a new, engraved Winchester rifle.
What the town didn’t know; however, was that Brown had gotten into financial trouble and returned to his outlaw ways. On April 30, 1884, Brown, along with his deputy, Ben Wheeler, and two other former outlaw friends, attempted to rob a bank in Medicine Lodge, Kansas. Though they made off with no money, they shot a killed two bank employees. A posse was immediately after the would-be robbers, catching up with them right out of town.
They were taken to the Medicine Lodge jail and in no time, a mob outside formed, chanting “Hang them! Hang them!” That night, about 9:00 p.m., the mob broke into the jail and the prisoners attempted to dash for freedom. Brown fell quickly, his body riddled with bullets. Wheeler was also wounded but was dragged along with the other two, to a nearby elm tree and hanged.
Later that year, when “Buffalo Bill” Brooks, a former Newton and Dodge City lawman, turned to outlawry, he was captured by a posse with several other horse thieves near Caldwell. Hauled to jail to await trial, a lynch mob stormed the Caldwell on July 29th and lynched Brooks, along with two other horse thieves by the names of L.B. Hasbrouck and Charlie Smith.
By the next year, the cattle trade had moved farther west and Caldwell settled down to an agricultural community. During its thriving cattle days, more than a million longhorns and their guardian cowboys traveled through Caldwell.
Caldwell saw more wild days in 1893 when Congress opened the Cherokee outlet to the south for settlement. Soon, Caldwell filled with thousands of land-hungry pioneers preparing for the last great land rush in America. On September 16, 1893, 15,000 people gathered in Caldwell, awaiting the cavalry soldiers’ gunshots to start the mad rush for land.
Afterward, Caldwell continued to prosper until other towns were established in the new territory to supply the settlers’ needs. The town survived as a railroad junction and agricultural community. Today, it supports a population of about 1,300.
Though Caldwell’s days of hustle and bustle are gone, the small city continues to display its rich heritage through a number of historical markers that dot the town, at the Cherokee Strip Visitors Center & Museum at 1 North Main, its boot hill cemetery, and a number of celebrations throughout the year.