Border Towns of the American West

By Randall Parrish in 1907

Driving Cattle

Driving Cattle.

Cow-Towns the Nuclei of Permanent Settlements

The pushing forward of railways into the wilds of the Plains caused a rapid advance of settlement where, formerly, the sustenance of life had been impossible. At the end of the unfinished line, as it progressed westward, there was always a mushroom town built of shacks and tents, among which saloons and brothels were prominent, the streets generally littered with discarded tin cans, and, at night, swarming with a heterogeneous population. Here lived the surveyors, the graders, the track-layers, and the train men, and about them clustered swarms of parasites desirous of living off their wages through the glittering allurements of sin.

Some of these temporary halting places became towns and cities of importance in later years, and one or two held the honor of forming the end of the Long Trail in the closing era of the cattle trade. Still, they passed into absolute oblivion more often as the road advanced, their very names forgotten.

Yet every eight or ten miles along the gleaming rails, there was left the nucleus of settlement, sometimes a mere water tank, with its attendant section house, planted like a guard in the grim desert; again, some such desolate spot would arrive at the dignity of a cow-town, a shipping place for the cattle of neighboring ranges. Under the stimulus of this passing trade, the place would flourish and expand; shacks would spread out over the prairie into the semblance of a straggling village; general stores would appear along the main street, usually facing the track, rude, barn-like structures; saloons, gambling-dens, and dance halls would be strewn thickly in between the few legitimate business houses, while cattle pens straggled along the road in evidence of the town’s real mission. During the height of the cattle trade, after the moving westward of the Long Trail, these places became centers for a wide extent of trade and led a wild, riotous, and prosperous life.

The Cowboys’ Idea of Enjoyment 

Painting the town red

Painting the town red.

To thousands of cowboys riding the sun-browned plains of Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, and Indian Territory, isolated for weary months of incessant toil in the saddle and at the home ranch, such squalid settlements, when finally reached once or twice a year, afforded their sole glimpse of the wider world. Here, to their minds, was life, and no sooner was their bunch of cattle safely penned for shipment than they turned themselves loose, seeking all the enjoyment to be found. They were like children attracted by tinsel and tawdry glitter, and all that was offered them was of the lowest. The vices of the border were few and coarse, but the cowboy off-duty was eager to sample these. He found plenty of teachers ready to assist so long as he parted freely with his coin. Every man stood for himself alone in those days and in that land; he was what he proved himself to be by the rude code of the border. There were no artificial distinctions or social barriers; it was a world governed by physical force, dominated by unrestrained passions. The West asked no questions of any man; all that had been, in other days, east of the Missouri River, was blotted out. Here, he stood eye to eye with his fellows, and no voice challenged him.

Character of the Frontier People

Emerson Hough writes:

“Virtue was almost unknown in the cow-town of the ‘front’ in the early days. Vice of the flaunting sort was the neighbor of every man. The church might be tolerated; the saloon and dance hall were considered necessities. Never in the wildest days of the wildest mining camps has there been a more dissolute or more desperate class of population than that which at times hung upon the edge of the cattle trail or of the cattle range and battened upon its earnings. The chapters of the tale of riotous crime that might be told would fill many books and would make reading vivid enough, though hardly of a sort to the purpose here. ..

Strangely, the records of those days are the ones that should be chosen by the public to be held as the measure of the American cowboy. Those days were brief, and they are long since gone. The American cowboy has atoned for them by a quarter of a century of faithful labor, and it is time the atonement was written for him in the people’s minds by the side of the record of his sins.”

Picturesqueness of the Cow-Towns

Vintage Abilene, Kansas

Vintage Abilene, Kansas.

While they lasted, these little cow-towns were full of color, excitement, and picturesqueness. Never again can their like be seen. The environment was dull, desolate, and forlorn; all that was worthy of the eye, the thought, was the pulsing human element. All about was the barrenness of Great Plains, stretching unrelieved to the horizon, while here in the middle of the grim picture clustered the rude, unpainted houses, the shacks, the grimy tents flapping in the never-ceasing wind, the ugly red station, the rough cow-pens filled with lowing cattle, the huge, ungainly stores, with false fronts decorated by amateur wielders of the paint-brush, and the more ornate dens of vice.

The pendulum of life was ever swinging here: if the day was dull, the night made up for it in clamor; if a week passed listlessly, the next was crowded, full of riot and spending. It all hung on the coming and going of those reckless riders of the range. When the dust rose above the trail, the sleeping parasites awoke in eager anticipation and set their traps for the victims riding so gaily to their fate.

Mixed Society of the Cow-Towns

Soiled Dove

Soiled Dove.

How does the vivid memory of it all come back, intensified rather than faded by the years? Society was mixed, no man cared who his neighbor was, no man ventured to question. Of women worthy of the name, there were few, — the station keeper’s wife, perhaps, with one or two others, — yet the night saw flitting female forms in plenty, and the lights of the saloons displayed powdered cheeks and painted eyebrows. It was a strange, restless, commingled population enough — cowboys, half-breeds, desperadoes, gamblers, saloon keepers, merchants (generally Jewish), petty officials, and drunkards by profession. The town was an eddy that caught odd bits of driftwood, such as only the frontier ever knew.

Queer characters were everywhere, wrecks of dissipation, derelicts of the East, seeking nothing save oblivion. Life was cheap amid such chaos, and all the dignity of the law vested itself in the town marshal or the sheriff.

He ruled not through any terror of courts behind him but by sheer force of personality and an acknowledged ability to ” drop ” his man. The position was no sinecure, and he who held it successfully needed to be a man of nerve.

Early and often, he was put to the test, and any failure to “make good” was his official death knell. Those who “won out” through such trials of endurance were, with hardly an exception, of the same stripe—cool, quiet, courageous fellows, just, patient, and fair in their treatment of offenders, but quick as a steel trap and as unyielding in the fight as a bulldog.

The first requisite for any man who would prosper in a cow town was undoubtedly “sand.” From that moment, anyone permitting himself to be “run over” was an object of contempt, and sooner or later, every new arrival was put to the test and labeled accordingly. If he “made good,” his future career in that community was a much easier road to travel. Every border town in those days was certain to contain its bully or ” bad man.” He was generally a surly desperado, possibly a coward at heart, but generally, a surly desperado, possibly a coward at heart, but malicious and quarrelsome when in liquor. Not infrequently, two or more of this interesting class partnered together in search of trouble. Their special game was “tenderfeet,” or new arrivals, for the old hands were not so easily dealt with. Yet the man who minded his own business and kept his mouth shut was seldom interfered with. The majority of the gun fights so prevalent in those days occurred between men who were hunting for trouble, and only occasionally was there a killing in which the victim was any loss to the community.

The Druggist and the Cow-Puncher

A stranger soon learned that every man who sported a “gun” and swaggered about with profane oaths on his lips was not necessarily courageous, and the first feeling of awe often changed to one of contempt. The average ” bad man ” always sought an advantage; ” quick on the draw,” unscrupulous, generally provoking the quarrel, he took few chances of injury. Yet it was not always easy to distinguish the true from the false. In a cow town, every citizen sported his gun, and there was only one recognized method of settling a difficulty. The individual must defend his own rights, and the man who won respect was the fellow who demonstrated himself as being “square,” who was never out hunting trouble but who always met it promptly when it came. Anecdotes of those strenuous days are numerous; the pages of writers upon Western history days are numerous; the pages of writers upon Western history and romance teem with them, and facile pens have thus made commonplace bar-room roughs into frontier heroes.

The Larger Cattle-Towns

Dodge City, Kansas 1876

Dodge City, Kansas 1876.

The larger cattle towns, those chosen from time to time during its western migration as a terminus for the Long Trail, were merely greater and more cosmopolitan representatives of this same life. While the small cow town attracted the reckless riders of the neighboring ranges, the more extensive one drew to itself from out the wide distance the entire floating population of the border. Here met the cattle-men of the West and their legions of riders, the long drive ended, and their pockets bulging with money they were eager to spend. From Nebraska and Texas, the Territory, and even New Mexico and Colorado, they came in, driving before them vast herds of dusty, tired cattle and already intoxicated with dreams of joys awaiting them.

And the joys were there, the dispensers ready for the carnival. From dawn to dawn, the tireless search for pleasure continued. The bagnios and dance halls were ablaze; the bar rooms were crowded with hilarious or quarrelsome humanity; the gaming tables were excited. Men swaggered along the streets looking for trouble and finding it; cowboys rode into open saloon doors and drank in the saddle; troops frenzied with liquor spurred recklessly along the streets, firing into the air or into the crowd as their whim led them; bands played popular airs on balconies, and “barkers” added their honeyed invitations to the din. It was a saturnalia of vice, a babel of sound, a glimpse of inferno. Every man was his own law, and the gun was the arbiter of destiny. The town marshal, or the sheriff, with a few cool-headed deputies, moved here and there amid the chaos, patient, tireless, undaunted, seeking merely to exercise some slight restraint. Never again can such sights be beheld; even now, there may be those who will doubt the truth of the picture.

Their Riotousness

Yet town after town passed through this experience before the Long Trail finally disappeared from history. Abilene, Newton, Wichita, Ellsworth, Great Bend, and Dodge City, each in turn, welcomed and entertained the riotous crew. Out of the mystery of the Great Plains, they came, ripe for mischief, in search after excitement, and the thousands of providers flocked to give them a greeting. Those were the great days of the range, days when money was as water, and the cowman reigned as king; no wonder the towns that entertained him were lively, and everything “went” at the end of the drive. He paid for his fun; let him shoot out the saloon lights and demolish the bar — double the value would be given when he sobered up and remembered. When men would order a hundred dollars worth of ham and eggs or bathe in champagne, the ordinary methods of the effete East were not to be ordinary methods of the effete East were not to be considered. The cattle country had its own standards and its own vices. The men who made it were a race unto themselves, and those of another generation are not fitted to judge them. They were good and bad; nobility was no stranger along the border, and a friend there was a friend to death. Good manhood was always assured of respect, and true womanhood was revered. Ours the failure if out of the chaos, the brutality of this primitive society, we fail to discern the real character of those who dominated it.

Hough’s Pen-Picture of the Cow-Town

I like to dwell on Hough’s appreciative picture of his last glimpse of the typical cow-town:

“It is high and glaring noon in the little town, but it still sleeps. Some of the men have not yet thrown off their blankets in their cabins. Few persons are moving along one long, straggling street, and those are not hastily. Far out on the plain is a trail of dust winding along, where a big ranch wagon is coming in. Upon the opposite side of the town, a second and more rapid trail tells where a buckboard is coming, drawn by a pair of trotting ponies. At the end of the street, just coming up from the arroyo, is the figure of a horseman — a tall, slim young man — who sits straight up on his trotting pony, his gloved hand held high. Daintily, his bright kerchief was lopping up and down a bit at his neck as he sat on the jogging horse, his big hat pushed back a little over his forehead. All these low buildings, not one of them above a single story, are the color of the earth. They hold to the earth, therefore, as though they belonged there. This rider is also in his garb, the color of the earth, and he fits into this scene perfectly. He also belongs there, this strong, erect, and self-sufficient figure. The environment has produced its man.”

Randall Parrish, 1907. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated April 2024.

About the Author: Randall Parrish wrote Adventures and Tragedies on the Overland Trail as a chapter of his book The Great Plains: The Romance of Western American Exploration, Warfare, and Settlement, 1527-1870, published by A.C. McClurg & Co. in Chicago, 1907. Parrish also wrote several other books, including When Wilderness Was King, My Lady of the North, Historic Illinois, and others.

Coloring History by Legends of America

Coloring History by Legends of America

Also See other tales by Randall Parrish:

Adventures and Tragedies on the Overland Trail

Beginning of Settlement in the American West

Frontier Scouts and Guides

Mushroom Towns of the American West

The Reign Of The Prairie Schooner

Struggle For Possession of the West – The First Emigrants