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.

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