Kansas Cowtowns – Violent Places on the American Frontier

 

Kansas Cowtowns:

 

Vintage Abilene, Kansas

Vintage Abilene, Kansas

Abilene – Abilene already existed before it became a cow town. In 1857, it was established as a stagecoach stop and was officially laid out in 1860. However, it retained a sleepy existence until a livestock dealer from Illinois, named Joseph G. McCoy saw Abilene as the perfect place for a railhead from which to ship cattle from in 1867. The city soon filled with not only cowboys, but also gamblers, outlaws, and prostitutes. By 1870, it had become so lawless, that Abilene hired its first marshal, Thomas Smith, whose first official act was to issue an order that no one would be allowed to carry firearms within the city limits without a permit. However, Smith was killed in the line of duty before the year ended. The next year, Wild Bill Hickok became the city’s marshal. Abilene reigned supreme as the Queen of Kansas cowtowns until new railheads in Newton, Wichita, and Ellsworth  became the favored shipping points in 1872. During its four year reign, over 3 million head of cattle were driven up the Chisholm Trail and shipped from Abilene.  More …

Baxter Springs – The first Kansas cowtown to develop was Baxter Springs, in the corner of southeast Kansas. In 1865, after the war was over, a town was laid out on 80 acres by Captain M. Mann and J. J. Barnes and soon thereafter Baxter Springs became an outlet for the Texas cattle trade. As Missouri became off-limits for Texas cattle due to quarantines, Baxter Springs welcomed them to Kansas. The community built stockyards with corrals capable of holding 20,000 cattle and provided range land with plenty of grass and water. Though the town took on all the appearances of prosperity, it also inherited a reputation for being one of the wildest cowtowns in the West. Baxter Springs remained cattle outlet through the 1870’s as the herds were driven up the Old Shawnee Trail. More …

Brookville –  When the Kansas Pacific Railroad arrived in 1870, the town served briefly as a cattle shipping area. It soon boasted 800 people, a bank, a newspaper, telegraph and express offices, and a post office, as well as a few other businesses. Today, Brookville is a virtual ghost town with just about 200 people and no open businesses. More …

Caldwell, Kansas 1880s

Caldwell, Kansas 1880s

Caldwell Challenging Dodge City for the cattle market in the 1880’s, Caldwell was known as the “Border Queen,” for her location near the Oklahoma border. Situated along the  Chisholm Trail, Caldwell catered to the many cowboys who passed by with their large cattle herds on their way to Abilene and Wichita even before the town became a shipping point itself. However, in 1879, the Santa Fe Railroad extended its line to <style=”margin-top: 0; margin-bottom: 0″> Caldwell, and the town found itself in the middle of the cattle trade. In no time, it sprouted saloons, gambling dens, and brothels, providing 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. More …

Coffeyville – As early  as 1803 the present site of Coffeyville was occupied by the Black Dog band of Osage Indians who roamed this part of Kansas and northern Oklahma, hunting buffalo. The site was first settled by white men in 1869 when Colonel James A. Coffey established an Indian Trading Post. News of the trading post spread quickly through the tribes living southward in Indian Territory and the business thrived. Soon a number of settlers came to the area and the new town that formed around the trading post was called Coffeyville, in the Colonel’s honor. More …

Dodge City, Kansas about 1875

Dodge City, Kansas about 1875

Dodge City – The wickedest and most well-known of the Kansas cowtowns, Dodge City got its start before the cattle trade as a stop along the Santa Fe Trail and served as a civilian community to nearby Fort Dodge. Later it developed into a buffalo hunting town. In September, 1872 the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad arrived in Dodge City, which would initiate a tremendous growth for many years. When quarantine laws closed Wichita to the cattle trade, Dodge City emerged as the “Queen of the Cowtowns.” From 1875 – 1885, more than 75,000 head of cattle were shipped annually. Many thousands more were driven through Dodge to stock northern ranges or to be shipped from other railheads.  More …

Ellis – Primarily a railroad town in its early days, Ellis was laid out by the Kansas Pacific Railroad in 1873, though a post office had already been established in 1870. The first business was a merchandise store started by Thomas Daily. The town became a secondary shipping point for cattle herds in 1875, and as such, took on many of the same characteristics typical of other  Kansas  cowtowns. By 1880, the shipping trade was over. Today, the primarily agricultural town is home to about 1,800 people.

Ellsworth, Kansas Main Street, by Alexander Gardner, 1867

Ellsworth, Kansas Main Street, by Alexander Gardner, 1867

Ellsworth – Long before Ellsworth began to dominate the cattle market, it was already a turbulent place. The Smoky Hills region had long been home to the Cheyenne and other Indian tribes who roamed the area killing buffalo. However, when the Santa Fe and Smoky Hill Trails came through, they began to raid wagon trains and stagecoaches, prompting the building of nearby Fort Ellsworth, which later changed its name to Fort Harker. With the railroad extended its line to Ellsworth, the town quickly developed into a thriving cattle market, dominating other Kansas cowtowns from 1871 to 1875. With the flood of cowboys, also came gamblers, outlaws and the inevitable “unruly” women, and a bad reputation. As the era of the cattle drives passed, Ellsworth, like other cowtowns, became a solid business and farming community, today supporting about 2,000 people. More …

Great Bend – Before it became a town, the site that would become Great Bend held only a trading post on the Santa Fe Trail, which ran right through the Great Bend’s present-day Courthouse Square. The first settlers came to the area about 1870, living in rough dugouts and sod houses. The next year, the town was officially formed, soon becoming a secondary market in the cattle trade, complete with shoot outs, Texas cowboys and saloons. Afterwards, Great Bend settled down as a regional trade center. Today, it is the Barton County Seat and is home to about 15,000 people.  More …

Hays City – Hays got its start in 1867 as the southern branch of the Union Pacific Railroad worked its way west. Hays City was named after Fort Hays, which was founded in 1865. Hays, like Junction City and Great Bend, was never a major cattle market, but did receive some business due its location on the railroad line and the ready market at Fort Hays. The combination of railroad workers, freighters, buffalo hunters, and soldiers, plus occasional cowboys, made it a very rough town for a number of years, at one time sporting 37 saloons and dance halls. A number of colorful Old West characters lived in Hays, including the Custers and the 7th Cavalry, Wild Bill Hickok, and William F. Cody, who acquired his nickname of Buffalo Bill by furnishing buffalo to feed the railroad workers in Hays. Today, Hays has a population over 20,000 and is the county seat of Ellis CountyMore ….

Hunnewell – In the 1880s, Hunnewell flourished briefly as a shipping point for Texas cattle. Located on the Kansas – Oklahoma border in Sumner County, the Leavenworth, Lawrence and Galveston Railroad provided quick access to the Kansas City stockyards. Typical of cowtowns, the business district of Hunnewell reportedly consisted of one hotel, two stores, one barbershop, a couple of dance halls, and eight or nine saloons. Also typical was that violence was not uncommon and was the site of the Hunnewell Gunfight in 1884. Though the town never grew very large, it dwindled with the loss of the cattle trade. Today it only has about 80 residents.

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