Border Towns of the American West

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 after pleasure continued. The bagnios and dance halls were ablaze; the bar-rooms crowded with hilarious or quarrelsome humanity; the gaming-tables alive with excitement. 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 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 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 standard, as it had 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 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. In their cabins some of the men have not yet thrown off their blankets. Along the one long, straggling street there are few persons moving, and those 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 and daintily, his bright kerchief just lopping up and down a bit at his neck as he sits 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 with perfect right. He also belongs there, this strong, erect, and self-sufficient figure. The environment has produced its man.”


Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated June 2017.

About the Author: Adventures and Tragedies on the Overland Trail was written by Randall Parrish 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

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