The Men That Tamed the Cowtowns

By Arthur Chapman in 1905

Abilene, Kansas Stockyards, 1886

Abilene, Kansas Stockyards, 1886

French chivalry never smacked more of adventure than did the little Western towns that were founded on the devious trail of the longhorn Texas steer to the Northern market during the decade following the Civil War.

Abilene, Dodge City, Ellsworth, Hays City, Newton — these and more were names that spelled romance in the early days when Kansas was the great clearing house for Western cattle, and these small but strenuous places equaled their mining rivals, Deadwood, South Dakota; Tombstone, Arizona; and Leadville, Colorado in their daily clashes of armed men. The streets of the cowtowns were thronged with the hardiest of adventurers. Paris held no more bold-eyed swaggerers and rufflers than the typical cowtown of Abilene when the brief flame of its strangely brought prosperity was at its highest.

Abilene boasted only of two or three hundred citizens, but the great cattle trail kept the streets swirling with a strange and fearsome floating population. Forty saloons were busy, and between every two saloons was a dance hall, while back of every barroom was a gambling layout. Night and day, in the long season when the great herds were moving along the trail, wrapped in their own dust-clouds, mounted cowboys were clattering up and down the streets of Abilene. Rheumatic pianos were tinkling in the dance halls, and frequently the sound of pistol shots came from the saloons and gambling places. Every man had at least one gun slapping at his hips, and every waist felt the sag of a heavy cartridge belt, pregnant with death. Mingling with the cowboys were professional gamblers, men whose false names indicated that they were “wanted ” back East, “remittance men” from England, wealthy cattle buyers from Chicago and other marketing points, and the painted women and the male riff-raff that bad scented gain as the buzzards scent their feast. This strange and motley gathering crowded the saloons such as the Alamo, the Elkhorn, the Bull’s Head, the Pearl, and other places that were operated under as picturesque names, and the revelry of the boisterous held nightly sway to the accompaniment of numerous powder-burnings.

The nights of riot in Abilene were not more picturesque than the days of intermingled toil and deviltry. The chief hotel was a flimsy structure known as the Drovers’ Cottage. During the heyday of the cattle business it was run by Colonel I. W. Gore, hail-fellow-well-met with every cattle owner and cowboy in the Lone Star state and Indian Territory, whence Abilene derived its support. The stockyards were about a quarter of a mile east of the Drovers’ Cottage, and here one could see immense herds of cattle, just off the trail, waiting their turn to be yarded and shipped East by rail. Whooping and yelling cowboys would be dodging hither and thither on their ponies, dashing into the herds and cutting out 20 or 30 cattle at a time to be weighed. Lariats were swishing, cattle were bawling and Woe to the man who entered this reek of dust and noise on foot, for the Texas steers would turn on such an unfamiliar object in an instant and cut it to ribbons with their sharp horns and hoofs.

For several years the trail poured its half-wild cattle and its picturesque men into Abilene and its rival cowtowns, and out of this devil’s pot came a brew of romance that would give the world a zestful literature for generations to come.

Thomas J. "Bear River" Smith

Thomas J. “Bear River” Smith

When the few but sturdy citizens of Abilene determined to bring some sort of order out of the riot of their town, laughter resulted. One or two local celebrities who were tendered the Marshalship, gave up their badge of authority within a short time. A St. Louis, Missouri man with a great reputation as a peace officer looked over the field and went away on the next train without talking business. But finally the office of Marshal was tendered to Thomas J. Smith of Kit Carson, Colorado, and was accepted. Smith was a broad-shouldered, mild-spoken young man who had made himself respected as Marshal of Kit Carson, which was then at the very end of the Kansas Pacific Railroad and which, like all “end towns,” was inclined to disorder. Smith had gone his fearless way among bad men of every description and had first made himself and then the law respected. But as soon as it was known along the cattle trail that Smith had been made Marshal of Abilene there was, figuratively speaking, a flinging of fringed gauntlets into the arena. Placards, calling on all visitors to Abilene to give up their guns when in the town limits were contemptuously shot to pieces, and finally conclusions with the new Marshal himself were forced. A bunch of cowboys, headed by a huge bully whose boot tops bore the lone star of Texas, congregated defiantly in front of a saloon, with revolvers aggressively displayed.

“You’ll have to give up your guns, boys,” said the new Marshal, advancing toward the leader as he spoke.

The bully, waxing profanely abusive, made that back-reaching movement which is known in the West as a “gun play,” but he had allowed Smith to come too near. Smith’s big fist shot forward, catching the cowboy full in the jaw, and sending him down like a well-roped steer. The science of the prize ring is something practically unknown to the average cowboy. Consequently, Tom Smith, who was an expert boxer, had wisely chosen a method of attack which would prove a surprise. Had he reached for his gun when the bully made his “play” there is no doubt that Smith’s Marshalship would have ended then and there and the coming of the law to the cattle county would have been long postponed. But as it was, the cowboys were so amazed at the quickness with which the blow had been struck and the corresponding suddenness with which their champion had sunk senseless to the dust, that they could only stand in openmouthed amazement when Smith completed his work by standing over the prostrate Texan and relieving him of his weapons. Nor was there any sign of protest when the new Marshal quietly informed the “boys” that they would have to deposit their weapons at a certain place and at once. The weapons were quietly surrendered, to be called for when the cowboys departed, and that day and night, for the first time in its wild career, the cowtown of Abilene was filled with men who were weaponless. The law had spoken through brave Tom Smith, and the reign of the “bad man” in the West was no longer undisputed.

For eleven months Tom Smith “held” Abilene. He did not maintain his place without a struggle, for there were occasional bands of cowboys whose outfits had not heard the Word on the trail that Abilene’s Marshal was not to be trifled with. These boys had to be tamed — but always as Smith had tamed his first bully. When force was to be used it was Smith the trained boxer and athlete, and not Smith the gunfighter, who cut the combs of the swaggering cockerels of Cattledom.

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