The Beginnings of Dodge City

Robert Wright Business, 1883

I will now say something of the business of early Dodge, which has been mentioned as being tremendous. At that time we were often asked, “What sustains your city?” “Where does your trade come from?” and many such questions, which no doubt, will recur to the mind of the reader, at the present time. First and foremost of our industries was the cattle and stock trade, with its buying, selling, and shipping for the whole southwestern range, and which lasted till other railroads extended into this territory’ and cut off the trade from Dodge City.

Then there was the government freight business, with Dodge the point of supply to many military posts and their garrisons, in the surrounding wilderness.

This, alone, was heavy traffic, while local and general freighting, to ranches, inland settlements, and hunters’ camps, was an important addition to this line of business. Again, as Dodge City was the point of supply, in all general commodities, for so vast a section of country, the mercantile business promptly assumed enormous proportions.

Gathering Buffalo Bones

One of Dodge City’s great industries was the bone trade. It certainly was immense. There were great stacks of bones, piled up by the railroad track — hundreds of tons of them. It was a sight to see them. They were stacked up way above the tops of the box cars, and often there were not sufficient cars to move them. Dodge excelled in bones, like she did in buffalo hides, for there were more than ten times the number of carloads shipped out of Dodge, than out of any other town in the state, and that is saying a great deal; for there was a vast amount shipped from every little town in western Kansas.

The bones were a godsend to the early settler, for they were his main stock in trade for a long, long time; and, if it had not been for the bone industry, many poor families would have suffered for the very necessaries of life. It looked like a wise dispensation of Providence.

Many poor emigrants and settlers came to Kansas with nothing but an old wagon and a worse span of horses, a large family of helpless children, and a few dogs — nothing else. No money, no work of any kind whatever to be had, when, by gathering buffalo bones, they could make a living or get a start. Game was all killed off and starvation staring them in the face; bones were their only salvation, and this industry saved them. They gathered and piled them up in large piles, during the winter, and hauled them to Dodge at times when they had nothing else to do, when they always demanded a good price.

Charles Rath sitting atop buffalo hides in Dodge City, 1878.

Charles Rath sitting atop buffalo hides in Dodge City, 1878. Click for prints & products.

This industry kept us for many years, and gave the settler a start, making it possible for him to break the ground from which he now raises such large crops of wheat, making him rich and happy. Yes, indeed! Many of our rich farmers of today, once were poor bone pickers, but if they hear this, it don’t go. Certainly, this was a great business, as well as a godsend, coming at a time when the settlers most needed help. All this added to the wealth and prosperity of Dodge, and added to its fame.   “Buffalo bones are legal tender in Dodge City,” was the strolling paragraph in all the Kansas exchanges. As to the magnitude of the early day mercantile business of Dodge City, the writer can speak, at any length, from his own experience, as he followed that line, there, for many years. As an introduction to the subject, I’ll give a clipping from the Ford County Globe, of 1877, entitled, “Wright, Beverly & Company’s Texas Trade.” Now one of the editors, Mr. Morphy, was a bitter enemy of the writer, who was head of the firm of Wright & Beverly, because he abused the writer so maliciously and scandalously and lied so outrageously about him, when the writer was running for the legislature, that the latter whipped him on the street; for which, Morphy sued the writer for ten thousand dollars.

The jury awarded a damage of four dollars and a half for the plaintiff’s doctor bill, and they hung out, for a long time against giving anything, until the judge instructed them they must render a verdict for that amount, as Mr. Morphy had clearly proven that he had paid the doctor four dollars and a half, as a result of the whipping; so you can see, he would not give the firm any too much praise, in writing them up. He says:

“Those gentlemen do an immense business and make a specialty to cater to the immense Texas trade. The jingling spur, the carved ivory-handled Colt, or the suit of velveteen, and the many, many other Texas necessaries, you here find by the gross or cord. An upstairs room, thirty by seventy-five feet, is devoted entirely to clothing and saddlery. In their warehouses and yard, it is no uncommon thing to find from sixty to eighty thousand buffalo robes and hides. This house also does a banking business for the accommodation of its customers.

Mr. John Newton, the portly and benevolent charge de affairs of the office, will accommodate you with five dollars or five thousand dollars, as the case may be. We generally get the former amount. Mr. Samuels, who has special charge of the shooting irons and jewelry stock, will entertain you in Spanish, German, Russian, or Hebrew. The assistance of Mr. Isaacson, the clothier, is demanded for parlevous, while Bob, himself, has to be called on when the dusky and dirty ‘child of the setting sun’ insists on spitting and spouting Cheyenne and Arapaho and goes square back on the king’s English. They employed over a dozen outside men to check off the wagons that were loading, and their sales were on an average of a thousand dollars a day, Sundays not excepted, or three hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year, and several years it was over four hundred thousand dollars.”

There was no article you could mention we did not handle. Our remittances to banks in Leavenworth were frequently as high as fifty thousand dollars. This was owing to stock men depositing their whole pile with us, and drawing against it as they needed it. We have had parties leave with us endorsed, certified checks, as high as fifty thousand dollars each, to pay for cattle or close some deal for them. Strange to say, there was but little currency in circulation, and, notwithstanding the railroad agent was instructed to turn over his receipts of greenbacks, and take our check for same, we had to have shipped to us, by express, from two thousand dollars to five thousand dollars in currency every few days.

The Santa Fe railroad was another great factor in making the wealth and splendid prosperity of Dodge City. Indeed, it was the first cause of the development of Dodge City’s greatness. It was this road, you might say, that made us. It, at least, gave us a big start. Hundreds of its employees made it their home from the very beginning. Dodge was not only its terminus, for awhile, but it always has been the end of a division. The officers of the road and the people of the town have always enjoyed great harmony. They have treated us justly and kindly, favoring us whenever and in whatever way they could, and, in return and to show them gratitude, the Dodge people have worked right in with them; and never have they been at outs, or has the least thing ever arisen which would lessen the friendship between them. Even yet, (1913), the railroad company is making great improvements in buildings, grades, yardage, etc., at Dodge City.

Another great feature belonging to Dodge City, and which brought many people there at an early date, is its beautiful, health giving climate and pure air. It was, and is, a great resort for invalids afflicted with the white plague. This should be the stopping off place for all those badly afflicted with this dread disease, as the great change in altitude, from lowlands to mountains, is often to sudden. I have known many people to stop off here until they got accustomed to light air and great altitude, and then go on to the mountains, and, in time, be completely cured. Others would stop only a short time and take the consequences. Others, after a short stay here, would feel so much better they would return home, thinking they were cured, and make a grand mistake. A lovely lady, the wife of one of Missouri’s greatest lawyers, stopped off here a short time, and her health improved so wonderfully that she went back to Missouri, but we heard of her death a short time afterwards. I have known several parties who would receive so great a benefit from a short stay in Dodge, they would insist, against the wishes of their doctor and friends, on going on to the mountains, and come back, in a few weeks, in a box, or return to die among their eastern friends. You see, they did not stay in Dodge long enough to get used to the great altitude of the mountains.

Dodge City was conspicuous in the sight of newspaper men, and complimentary notices of its business men were often unique. For instance, the Walnut City Blade, says:

“The gentlemen of Dodge City are whole-souled fellows and fine business men. Although our acquaintance was limited, we can say that Sutton, Whitelaw, Winnie, Gryden, Bob Wright, Shinn, Klaine, and Frost are each a whole team with a mule colt following.”

As an instance of the splendid liberality of Dodge City in times of emergency, as already mentioned, its response to Governor St. John’s petition for the cyclone sufferers has been given. Another instance, among any number that might be given, was the conduct of Dodge City toward the yellow fever situation, in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1878. September 10th, of that year, a mass meeting was called for the purpose of alleviating the sufferers of Memphis from the terrible yellow fever scourge. The people only had a few hours’ notice of the meeting, but, in such short time, two or three hundred gathered. A few speeches were made by some of our prominent citizens, when Mr. P. L. Beaty jumped upon a stand and said: “I have been a victim of this yellow fever, and know how these people in the South suffer; here’s what talks I” at the same time throwing a ten dollar bill into the hat, amidst wildest enthusiasm. Other speeches followed, while contributions flowed into the hat in splendid style, the poor bootblack dropping in his nickel, and the rich merchant his ten dollar bill. The total amount collected was over three hundred dollars, which was promptly forwarded to the Howard Association of Memphis. Instances of charity equal to that of Dodge City are as scarce on the records as, elsewhere, the rarity of Christian charity is plentiful. Hurrah, for little Dodge! She is still bad in war, good in peace, and has a bigger heart, for her size, than any town in Kansas. A short time after this meeting, it was found that the terrible scourge of yellow fever still held Memphis in its grip; and at another mass meeting to relieve the suffering, Dodge City sent more than double the former amount.

This puts me in mind of a little priest, by the name of Father Swineberg, who was a little fellow with a big heart, with charity for all and malice toward none, no matter what the denomination. He was very highly educated, could speak fluently more than a half-dozen different languages, and visited Fort Dodge to look after his flock and minister to the wants of his people, years before Dodge City was established. It was the writer’s happy luck to be able to accommodate him several times, in driving him from one post to another, looking after the needs of the church and his ministerial duties, and, in that way, the writer and he became warm friends.

Vintage Fort Dodge, Kansas

Vintage Fort Dodge, Kansas, 1867

In the course of time, he called on me at the fort, armed with letters to the commanding officer of Fort Dodge City, and instructing said officer to give Father Swineberg all the assistance in his power. His objective point was way down in old Mexico, across the borders of that unknown region, those days, of New MexicoArizona, and old Mexico, a distance from Fort Elliott, his starting point, of over one thousand miles. It was a desert, entirely unknown, in those days, without water, wood, or habitations, or civilization of any kind. His stock of trade was splendid maps of the region he was to traverse, encased in an oil-cloth covered tin tube.

I, being familiar with the terrible dangers and privations he would have to undergo, from lack of food and water, exposure to the elements both heat and cold, as well as the terrible storms that visited that country, and some big rivers to cross, tried to persuade him to desist.

I told him it was as much as his life was worth — that he must not go. He said he had to go. I asked him, why. Shrugging his shoulders, like a Frenchman would, he said: “Because my bishop ordered me.” The commanding officer at Fort Elliott fitted out Father Swineberg and another priest, who was to be his traveling companion, with two fine horses, what grub they could conveniently carry, and blankets. They had no arms of any kind or description except knives; they said they didn’t need any. Remarkable to relate, they made the trip, accomplished their object, and came back safely. Father Swineberg told me that they enjoyed the trip. That once, when they were in one of the greatest straits and lost without food or water, they ran into a very large band of Indians, who received them kindly, and several of the band understood Spanish and some understood French. They stayed with the Indians about a week, preaching alternately in French and Spanish, which a good many of the Indians seemed to understand and enjoy and appreciate.

Now comes my yellow fever episode which reminded me of this story. When the great call was made from the South to the North, for aid and nurses to subdue the terrible scourge, Father Swineberg, with twenty-odd other priests, nobly responded, well knowing they were going to their death. Very few ever returned, and Father Swineberg was among the number that went down. His was a noble life.

There was a society known as “The Orients,” in Dodge City, with charitable work as its real object, and fun as a side line. A few disparaging remarks, made by a young blood who desired membership, subjected the individual to a “side degree,” upon which lavish hand performed all sorts of excruciating tricks, which were absurd and ridiculous. When it came to ridicule, the old-timer was not sparing in punishment.

The greatest excitement ever caused in Dodge was the advent of an Indian, one of the principal chiefs of the Cheyenne. In the winter of 1872, W. D. Lee, of the firm of Lee & Reynolds, doing a large business at Supply as freighters, government contractors, sutlers, and Indian traders combined, brought this Indian to Dodge City to show him the wonders of the railroad and impress upon him how civilization was advancing.

There happened to be several hunters in town at that time, driven in by a heavy storm and snow. No sooner did the Indian make his appearance on the street than the excitement began. Most of the hunters hated an Indian, and not a few of them had suffered more or less from their depredations.

Among the latter was one Kirk Jordan, a very desperate man, whose sister, brother-in-law, and whole family had been wiped out by the savages, and their home and its contents burned and every vestige of stock stolen. This had happened in the northwest part of the state. Jordan had sworn to kill the first Indian he saw, no matter what the consequences might be. He was a leader and a favorite with the hunters, and, together with his companions, being inflated with liquor, had no trouble in getting followers.

We ran the Indian into a drugstore and locked the doors. There was no egress from the rear, but two families occupied houses adjoining the drugstore, and someone quickly tore off one of the upright partition boards that separated the drug tore from the dwellings containing the families, and the Indian squeezed through. The board was quickly and neatly replaced, leaving no trace of its having been removed; so when the crowd of excited hunters burst into the store and could not find the Indian, they were as puzzled a lot as ever lost a trail upon open prairie.

That afternoon I thought things had quieted down, and I saddled one of Lee’s finest horses (Lee had brought up a magnificent team,) and led it around to the back door — of course the Indian had been previously instructed to mount and make for his tribe as fast as the horse would carry him; but before I rapped at the door I looked around, and from the back of the dance hall, a hundred yards distant, there were fifty buffalo guns leveled at me.

I knew those fellows had nothing against me, but I was afraid some of the guns might go off by accident, and wished right there that the ground would sink down deep enough to cover me from the range of their guns. I led the horse back to the stable as quickly and quietly as possible, feeling relieved when inside. I at once dispatched a courier to the commander at the fort, with the request that he send up a company of cavalry, but he wouldn’t do it. As soon as it got dark, Lee and I got in his carriage, loaded with buffalo-robes, had the Indian rushed out, robes piled on top of him, and went out of Dodge on the run. Wernet Captain Tupper’s troop of the Sixth United States cavalry about a mile out, coming after the chief. There were no more Indians seen in Dodge except under big escort.

The following rules were posted in one of the Dodge City hotels for the guidance of guests (some say rules were stolen from Mark Twain’s hotel).

HOTEL RULES

These are the rules and regulations of this hotel.
This house will be considered strictly intemperate.
None but the brave deserve the fare.
Persons owing bills for board will be bored for bills.
Boarders who do not wish to pay in advance are requested to advance the pay.
Borders are requested to wait on the colored cook for meals.
Sheets will be nightly changed once in six months, oftener if necessary.
Boarders are expected to pull off their boots if they can conveniently do so.
Beds with or without bedbugs.
All moneys and other valuables are to be left in charge of the proprietor. This is insisted upon, as he will be held responsible for no losses.

And now follows an early day market report:

Dodge City Markets:

(Corrected weekly by Wright, Beverly & Company)

Dodge City, Kansas, Jan. 5th, 1878.

Flour, per 100 lbs. $ 2.50 @ 4.00
Corn Meal, per 10O lbs. 2.00
Oats, per bu. .45
Corn, per bu. .56
Hides, Buffalo, per lb. .03¾ @ .04¾
Wolf .75 @ 1.25
Coyote .30 @ .5
Skunks .10 @: .50
Chickens, dressed, per lb. .10
Turkeys, per lb. 12½
Potatoes, per bu. .1.40
Apples, dried, per lb. .08 @ .10
Peaches, dried, per lb. 12½ @ 10
Bacon, per lb. 12@
Hams, per lb. .15 @ .17
Lard, per lb. .12 @ .14
Beef, per lb. .08 @ .16
Butter, per lb. .30@ @ .35
Eggs, per doz. .35
Salt, per bbl. 4.50
Coffee, per lb. .25 @ .26
Tea,per lb. .80 @ 1.26
Sugar, per lb. .12 @ .14
Coal Oil, per gal. .50
Coal, per ton 9.00 @ 10.00

I give this market report to show the difference between then, 1878, and now [1913.]

The lexicographers of today should credit Dodge City with contributions to our language, as certain significations or meanings of three words, now very much used, can be traced to our early philologists. The words are “stinker,” “stiff,” and “joint.” These words are not considered the sweetest nor most elegant in the language, by our institutions of learning nor in the realms of culture and refinement, yet they are very expressive and are warranted by sufficient use. The word “stinker”, or rather the signification in which it is used when applied to a person in a contemptuous way, originated in this way. In the early days of this country, the buffalo or bison densely populated the plains. The killing of this noble animal for the hide was a great industry, and it was nothing uncommon for the buffalo hunter to get a stand on a herd and kill scores of them in a very short time. Such occurrences were sometimes in winter, and, before the hunters could skin all the animals, the carcasses would freeze and he would be compelled to leave many frozen on the prairies. When the weather moderated and the carcasses thawed, newcomers or “tenderfeet,” as we called them, would skin them for the hides. Natural causes and decay would render such hides very inferior and almost worthless, and, as these thrifty beneficiaries of the prowess of the genuine buffalo hunter were despised by him, the name “stinker” was originated and applied to him, and the word has since supplied the vocabulary of many, when their systems were surcharged with contempt and hatred.

The word “stiff,” as applied to people in a contemptuous way, originated in Dodge City. The readers of this book will gather from this record of the early history of Dodge City, the fact that the lifeless remains of people were a common sight here, in those days, and veneration and respect for the dead was somewhat stinted, unless some tie of friendship or relationship existed with the departed. As the lifeless body of a human being soon becomes rigid, our philologists substituted the easily spoken word “stiff” for the ghostly word “corpse,” in referring to the dead in which they had no special interest, and, from this, the word received an appropriate application to such people as suggest death or worthlessness, or, in other words, “dead ones.”

A very common signification or meaning of the word “joint” is easily traced to Dodge City, and I here submit my proof. I quote from an edition of the Dodge City Times, dated June 2nd, 1877:

“Washington, D. C., May 17, ’77

Editor Dodge City Times:

I trust you will not take this, from its postmark outside, as being an appointment to a lucrative official position. Such is not the case. I write to the far West seeking information. I see, at times, in your sprightly paper, the use of the term or terms, ‘go to the joint,’ or ‘gone to the joint,’ etc. Will you please inform me what it means?

Yours, INQUIRER.”

“We are always willing to give the people of Washington City any information they may desire on matters of public interest. In order that the president and his cabinet may get a clear idea of this grave question, we will endeavor to be explicit. Gilmore, on municipal elections, page 77, says, ‘The gang got to the joint in good shape.’ This is the best authority we have. As an instance more easily understood by the average Washingtonian, suppose Hayes and Morton should get on a bender and put their jewelry in soak for booze, then it would be appropriate to say they ‘got to the joint’ by this means.

For further particulars, address, L. McGlue”

I remember well the first child born in Dodge. Early in the morning, a young doctor came into the only drugstore in Dodge, with a look of thorough disgust on his countenance, saying, “My God! I did something last night that I never thought is possible to fall to my lot, and I am so ashamed that I never will again practice in Dodge. I delivered an illegitimate child from a notorious woman, in a house of prostitution.” The druggist and I both laughed at him and told him he must not think of leaving the profession for such a little thing as that; he must keep right on and fortune would sure follow, as it was a great field for his profession, and we knew he was fully capable; and so he did, and has become one of the most prominent, as well as skillful physicians, not only of Dodge City, but the whole state of Kansas. This was in the fall of 1872. Soon after, followed the birth of Claude, son of Dr. T. L. and Sallie McCarty; and close after him, Jesse Rath was born, son of Charles and Carrie Rath, who died in infancy. So Claude McCarty can well claim the distinction of being the first legitimate child born in the town, and the eldest native.

Robert M. Wright, 1913. Compiled & edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated March, 2017.

Robert M. Wright

Robert M. Wright

Author and NotesThe Beginnings of Dodge City was written by Robert M. Wright in 1913. The article was Chapter seven of his book, Dodge City, The Cowboy Capital and the Great Southwest: In The Days Of The Wild Indian, The Buffalo, The Cowboy, Dance Halls, Gambling Halls, And Bad Men (now in the public domain.) The article is not 100% verbatim, as minor grammatical and spelling corrections have been made.

Wright came west from Maryland at the age of 16, first settling in Missouri. Later he worked as a freighter and became a trader at Fort Dodge. He then settled in Dodge City, where he was known as a farmer, stockman, merchant and politician. He served as Dodge City’s postmaster, the city’s first mayor, and later represented Ford County in the Legislature for four terms.

Also See:

Dodge City – A Wicked Little Town

Dodge City Historical Text

Fort Dodge History and Hauntings

Hell-Raising Dodge

The Long Branch Saloon

Long Branch Saloon Shootout

Populating Boot Hill

 

1 thought on “The Beginnings of Dodge City”

  1. My brother found a complete newspaper of the dodge city globe (global) I believe! 1-1-1878! Crazy the thing is in pretty good shape! Told him he should research it but never has ! Is this a legitimate paper and if any value? Thank you!

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