Charles Rath, Buffalo Entrepreneur

Charles Rath

Charles Rath

Charles Rath was a frontier trader, merchant, and buffalo-hide buyer who made a name for himself in the Texas Panhandle and the Kansas Plains. He would also leave a family connection to Professional Baseball.

Rath was born in 1836 near Stuttgart, Wurttemberg, Germany. When he was 11 years old, he immigrated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with his family. The family moved to a farm near Sweetwine, Ohio a short time later.

In about 1853, Rath made his way west and joined William Bent’s trading empire in Colorado, where he worked as an independent freighter hauling supplies and trading goods across Kansas.

In 1854, his older brother Chris joined him, and four years later, they built a gristmill on Mill Creek near present-day Alma, Kansas. However, no sooner was it built than the creek flooded and washed away the mill.

Persevering, the Rath brothers continued trading and freighting and established a ranch and stage station on the military road between Fort Hays and Fort Riley, near present-day Ellinwood, Kansas.

Kiowa warrior Setangya, aka: Satank, Sitting Bear, by William S. Soule

Kiowa warrior Setangya, aka Satank, Sitting Bear, by William S. Soule.

In 1860, Charles Rath took over the trading post of George Peacock on Walnut Creek, near present-day Great Bend, after Peacock and five others were massacred by Kiowa warriors led by Satank. Rath also began to operate a sutler’s store at nearby Fort Zarah and, in November 1860, was elected constable of Peketon County (later part of Marion County.)

When Rath came west, he began establishing trading contacts with several Indian tribes, including the Southern Cheyenne, Kiowa, and northern Comanche bands. He strengthened those alliances when he married a Cheyenne woman in 1860. The couple would have one daughter in 1861.

In 1863, he partnered with several men to build a toll bridge across Walnut Creek. At about this same time, tensions between the Indians and the white settlers mounted. Even though Rath had done his best to maintain peaceful relationships with the tribes, his Walnut Creek Trading Post was raided several times. For his safety, his Cheyenne wife convinced him to divorce her.

In the late 1860s, he and his hired teamsters hauled freight for the military posts along the Santa Fe Trail and the troops and government agencies in western Indian Territory (Oklahoma). He and others also hunted game and buffalo for the railroad workers in Kansas. He also began to invest in Kansas real estate.

In 1869, he returned to his old home in Ohio, where he met Caroline Markley, whom he married on April 26, 1870. The couple would eventually have three children. Returning with her to Kansas, the couple lived briefly in Topeka, then at Osage City, where Rath established a mercantile business and continued his freighting.

In the early 1870s, Rath was one of the first men to take advantage of the growing buffalo hide trade, and in September 1872, he moved to Dodge City. He soon began hunting, freighting, and marketing the hides and formed the Rath Mercantile Company, whose yard was sometimes filled with as many as 80,000 hides at once. When Ford County was officially organized in 1873, Rath became one of its first three commissioners.

Dodge City Kansas 1875

Dodge City, circa 1875

As the buffalo diminished in Kansas, he began hunting in the Texas Panhandle and, with Robert M. Wright and James Langton, made plans to build a store and restaurant at Adobe Walls, near William Bent’s old outpost. Soon a three-room sod building was almost completed, and the store was furnished with goods. Just as it was almost complete, Rath and his men returned to Dodge City in May, leaving three men and a woman to mind the store. He was safely back in Dodge City when a combined force of some 700 Comanche, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Arapaho warriors attacked the post on June 27, 1874, in what is known as the Second Battle of Adobe Walls.

Charles Rath sitting atop buffalo hides in Dodge City, 1878.

Charles Rath sitting atop buffalo hides in Dodge City, 1878.

Continuing the buffalo hide business in Texas, he and a man named Frank E. Conrad opened a branch store and hide-yard at Fort Griffin in 1875. At about the same time, he partnered with Robert M. Wright to establish a trading post at Mobeetie, originally called Hidetown.

The following year, he partnered with two men named William McDole Lee and E. E. Reynolds and established a trading post in Stonewall County, Texas, soon referred to as Rath City.  By 1879, the hide business was over, as the buffalo had been killed. He then collected the many buffalo bones from the prairie and sold them for fertilizer. In the meantime, Rath married Caroline Markley, and the couple had a son, Robert Markley Rath, in October of 1877.

With the buffalo business completely gone, he moved from Rath City to Fort Supply in the Indian Territory, and by the early 1880s, his fortunes began to decline.

In 1885, he was divorced from his wife Caroline, back in Mobeetie, and soon married Emma Nesper, who bore him another son, Morris Charles Rath, in December of 1887. Emma left him in 1896, and later, he sold his remaining holdings and moved to Los Angeles, California, where his sister Louisa and her husband ran a dairy. He was sick with an asthmatic condition during his last years and died on July 30, 1902.

His half-blood Indian daughter from his first marriage, Cheyenne Belle, served her tribe for many years as a teacher and interpreter. His son Robert, from his second wife Caroline, became successful in the mercantile business in Kansas. Robert’s wife, Ida Ellen Rath, founded the Dodge City Writers’ Guild in 1929, and in 1961, she published a biography of her father-in-law, The Rath Trail.

As an interesting side note, Charles Rath’s other children would also lead notable lives. Craig Wright, researcher and writer of “Pages from Baseball’s Past,” tells us:

Morris Charles "Morrie" Rath with the Cincinnati Reds.

Morris Charles “Morrie” Rath with the Cincinnati Reds.

Morris had a life as famous, if not more so than his father. Morris “Morrie” Rath was a professional baseball player for 13 seasons — 5 in the major leagues — and considered one of his era’s greatest defensive second basemen. He was the regular second baseman for the 1919 NL Champions, the Cincinnati Reds. A century ago, when Ed Cicotte hit the first batter of the Reds to signal to the gamblers that the Black Sox were going ahead with the fix of the Series, that hit batter was none other than Morrie Rath.

And the family story is even more amazing than that. Charlie’s first child, Cheyenne Belle Rath, married a Hungarian named Mike Balenti, and they had a son, Mike Jr., who was a great athlete as well. He was the quarterback on the same football team as Jim Thorpe at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Mike Balenti was also a fine baseball player who was best known for his slick fielding as an infielder.

Mike was good enough to make it to the majors but did not last long before his weak bat overcame the value of his great glove work. So, Charlie Rath had both a son and a grandson who played major league baseball. And the story still gets even better!

In 1913, Morrie Rath and Mike Balenti were both in the American League and played in a handful of games against each other, and they apparently did not know they were related! The newspapers never mentioned it. Morrie and his mother appeared to know little if anything about Charlie’s family with his much earlier Cheyenne wife. (Charlie and Emma divorced when Morrie was eight years old, Emma and Morrie moved 1600 miles away, and it is doubtful Morrie ever saw Charlie again before he died when Morrie was 14.)

Because Charlie fathered Morrie so late in life — he was 51 — Morrie was roughly a quarter-century younger than the half-sister he never knew. Even though Morrie was Balenti’s uncle, Morrie was actually a year younger than his nephew!

On a final note, these two related men, who independently became exceptional ballplayers better known for their slick fielding than their hitting, had another athletic similarity. Morrie Rath also played football at Swarthmore College. What position do you think he played? Quarterback, just as his nephew did at Carlisle.

© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, with additional information from Craig Wright. Updated February 2024.

Also See:

The Plight of the Buffalo

Adobe Walls

Great Bend, Kansas

Kansas – The Sunflower  Main Page