The Beginnings of Dodge City

Besides this generally sensational mode of writing up the town, Dodge City was the theme of many lurid stories and sulphurous jokes which tended, no less than the write-ups, to establish her position, in the public eye, as the “Wickedest Town in America.” The following letter is from the “Washington, D. C., Evening Star,” January 1st, 1878.

“Dodge City is a wicked little town. Indeed, its character is so clearly and egregiously bad that one might conclude, were the evidence in these later times positive of its possibility, that it was marked for special Providential punishment. Here those nomads in regions remote from the restraints of moral, civil, social, and law enforcing life, the Texas cattle drovers, from the very tendencies of their situation the embodiment of waywardness and wantonness, end the journey with their herds, and here they loiter and dissipate, sometimes for months, and share the boughten dalliances of fallen women. Truly, the more demonstrative portion of humanity at Dodge City gives now no hopeful sign of moral improvement, no bright prospect of human exaltation; but with Dodge City itself, it will not always be as now. The hamlet of today, like Wichita and Newton farther east in the state, will antagonize with a nobler trait, at some future day, its present outlandish condition. The denizen of little Dodge City declares, with a great deal of confidence, that the region around about the place is good for nothing for agricultural purposes. He says the seasons are too dry, that the country is good for nothing but for grazing, and that all they raise around Dodge City is cattle and hell. The desire of his heart is the father of the statement. He is content with just what it is, and he wants that to remain. He wants the cattle droves and his associations and surroundings to be a presence and a heritage forever.”

Referring to this article, the Ford County Globe, of January 1, 1878, says:

Soiled Dove or Prostitute

Soiled Dove or Prostitute

“We think this correspondent had a sour stomach when he portrayed the wickedness of our city. But we must expect it unless we ourselves try to improve the present condition of things. There is not a more peaceful, well-regulated, and orderly community in the western country;” and then, as the office boy entered to say that somebody wanted to see him, he took his bowie knife between his teeth, put a Colt’s new pattern six-shooter on his desk in front of him, and then said: “Jim, get out another coffin, a plain one this time, and let the critter come in.”

About thirty miles from Dodge the train stopped at a little station, and a cowboy got on, very drunk, and fully equipped in chaps, spurs, six-shooter, and quirt. The conductor, John Bender, asked him his fare and destination. He replied, “I want to go to hell!” Bender said, “All right; give me a dollar and get off at Dodge.”

Thus Dodge City’s evil reputation became established, whether deserved or undeserved. People living at a distance and having no way of knowing where truth ended and falsehood began, naturally gave credence to all reports they saw published, until, in places remote, the very name of Dodge became a synonym for all that was wild, reckless, and violent. Strangers, approaching the town for the first time, did so with dread, entered it with fear and trembling, or passed through it with a sigh of relief as its last roof was left behind. Tales of the fate of tenderfeet in the border city struck terror to the soul of many a newcomer in the community, and the dangers apprehended by these new arrivals on the dreaded scene, were limited only by the amount of courage, credulity, and imagination they possessed.  To illustrate, a young man, going west with a party of movers, wrote a card to his father back east, just before reaching Dodge City, not mailing it till after passing through. Here is what he wrote while anticipating the entrance into the dreaded town:

“In Camp Fifteen Miles from Dodge, May 7, 1877. Dear Father: As I’ve a little time I’ll drop you a card, so you can see we are all well and headed west. Have laid over here to wait for a larger crowd so as to be perfectly safe going through Dodge. There are nine teams now and will be three more in the morning, so we will be safe anyway. There are a good many coming back from Colorado but that don’t discourage us any. That is no sign we can’t do well. Everything goes on as nice as clock work among ourselves; not a word as yet and no hard feelings. – Herbert.”

In somewhat sarcastic comment upon this postal card, the Dodge City Times, of May 19, 1877, says:

“The card was evidently written while awaiting reinforcements to assist in making a charge through our city, but not mailed until they had run the gauntlet and halted to take a breath at a safe distance on the west side. To the father and friends who are no doubt anxiously waiting to know if our blood-thirsty denizens exterminated the caravan, we can say that they escaped us without a serious loss of life.”

What made Dodge City so famous was that it was the last of the towns of the last big frontier of the United States. When this was settled, the frontier was gone, it was the passing of the frontier with the passing of the buffalo, and the Indian question was settled forever.

Here congregated people from the east, people from the south, people from the north, and people from the west. People of all sorts, sizes, conditions, and nationalities; people of all color, good, bad, and indifferent, congregated here, because it was the big door to so vast a frontier. Some came to Dodge City out of curiosity; others strictly for business; the stock man came because it was a great cattle market, and here, on the Arkansas River, was the place appointed for the cattle going north to be classed and passed on, for bargains to be closed, and new contracts made for next year; the cowboy came because it was his duty as well as delight, and here he drew wages and spent them; the hunter came because it was the very heart of the greatest game country on earth; the freighter came because it was one of the greatest overland freight depots in the United States, and he hauled material and supplies for nearly four hundred miles, supplying three military posts, and all the frontier for that far south and west; last but not least, the gambler and the bad man came because of the wealth and excitement, for obscene birds will always gather around a carcass.

Money was plentiful and spent lavishly, and here let me say, there are different classes of men who are producers or money-makers, and misers, up to a certain amount. There were numbers of people, to my certain knowledge, who would carefully save up from two hundred to five hundred dollars, and then come to Dodge City and turn it loose, never letting up until every dollar was gone. There were others whose ambition was higher.

They would save up from five hundred to two thousand dollars, come to Dodge City and spend it all. ‘ There were still others who would reach out to five thousand dollars and upwards, come to Dodge, and away it would all go, and, strange to say, these men went back to their different avocations perfectly satisfied. They had started out for a good time and had had it, and went back contented. Indeed, one man started with twenty thousand dollars for New York, struck Dodge City, spent the most of his twenty thousand, and went back to begin over again.

He said: “Oh, well, I did start to have a good time in New York, but I tell you, you can make New York anywhere if you only have the money and the luxuries and attractions are there.” And these all could be had for the price, in Dodge City. There were women, dance halls, music, saloons and restaurants, equipped with every luxury, while gambling in every conceivable form, and every gambling device known at that time was in full blast.

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