Wild & Woolly Cowtowns

By the National Livestock Historical Association in 1904

Cattle Ranch in the Old West by the Detroit Publishing Co., 1912.

Cattle Ranch in the Old West by the Detroit Publishing Co., 1912.

For about 15 years, beginning in 1868, the history of the range-cattle industry was made lurid in places by the notorious “wild and woolly cowtowns.” These came into existence, one after another, each flourishing for a few years, on the lines of several of the pioneer western railroads as these iron trails advanced farther and farther into the range country, the worst being those that were made shipping points for the great trail-herds coming from the South.

Cattle car by Jack Delano, 1943.

Cattle car by Jack Delano, 1943.

Without railroads, such towns were impossible. Some became capitals of disorder, vice, lawlessness, and crime not surpassed in evil by the worst mining camps ever developed in the Rocky Mountains. Each was much like the others at the zenith of its renown for wickedness. While these towns primarily were appendages of the pioneer railroads, they were engrafted upon the cattle business of the West. Therefore their swift careers became part of the history of the industry. They afforded havens for many of the desperadoes, professional “bad men,” and scoundrels by whom the West was overrun for some years after the Civil War.

Furthermore, the dissipated and reckless element in the ranks of the cowboys, which needed only the excitement of intoxication to make it dangerous, stood at the highest it ever attained among them in the first half of the cowtown period. These towns, even at the height of their notoriety, were small. Counting out the transient class, most of which would go to larger towns to “winter,” the worst of these cowtowns had a population of only about 500. But during the “cattle season,” which opened late in the spring and continued into the autumn, the influx of buyers, speculators, drovers, cowboys, street hawkers, desperadoes, and gamblers would raise the number of those present in and around the town more than ten-fold.

The State of Kansas was called home to many of these cowtowns due to its location. Abilene was one of her first and excelled all others in wildness and woolliness. The town established itself as the standard by which every other was measured and found more or less wanting. By the time that town had gone to the halfway point in its career, the limit in variety and possibility in uproarious “frontier wickedness” appeared to be reached, so it seemed that if more were wanted, it could be had only in the form of greater quantity. Afterward, many cowboys would reminisce about those days and the towns that followed, often saying: “Yes, that was a hard town; but it wasn’t as bad as Abilene.”

Abilene, Kansas in all it's glory

Abilene, Kansas, in all its glory

As a market and railroad shipping point for cattle, Abilene was the conception of Joseph G. McCoy, who was one of three brothers who were extensive buyers and shippers of cattle in SpringfieldIllinois. His brothers were financially interested in the undertaking, but Joseph became their general manager. When McCoy set his enterprise on foot, the Union Pacific Railroad had been completed through Nebraska. The Kansas Pacific Railroad, the first one to advance into Kansas, had pushed the western end of its track into the northern-central part of that State. But from Kansas southward clear to the gulf, there were no railways except a few local lines in the eastern part of the Texas coastal region. The only practicable northern outlets for Texas cattle were the trails that led into southeastern Kansas and southwestern Missouri, where the Texas drovers had been having trouble with “hold-ups,” as well as with honest settlers who were afraid of having Texas fever introduced into their country. Of the circumstances and the very praiseworthy motives that induced him to extend a helping hand to the Texas trail cattlemen and to remedy some of the discouraging conditions under which they labored, which also resulted in lifting Abilene from the deepest obscurity to the lofty pinnacle of fame.

McCoy, writing in the third person, said in his Sketches of the Cattle Trade of the West and Southwest:

Joseph G. McCoy

Joseph G. McCoy

After prospecting the western half of the completed part of the Kansas Pacific Railroad, Joseph McCoy selected Abilene as the place destined to become the renowned metropolis of wildness, wickedness, and woolliness, an important cattle market, during a few fleeting years. The place was a mere hamlet on the railroad that had not yet risen to the importance of even a box-car station. McCoy built shipping yards and other facilities for his business, put a good three-story hotel well on the way toward completion during the summer of 1867, and was ready for cattle early in September. That year, the trade was limited to herds from Texas that were belated in reaching Kansas and intercepted by “drummers” who had been sent South to apprise drovers of the new cattle market and shipping point. Some merchants and a greater number of less desirable folks joined fortunes with Abilene that autumn, but the town remained relatively decent until the following spring.

Abilene having been extensively advertised throughout Texas during the winter of 1867-68, the promise of a large number of cattle, cattle drovers and their assistants, and cattle-buyers, coming to the place during the following summer and autumn induced flocks of human birds of prey early to alight there and to put themselves in readiness to feed upon their expected victims. In most accounts of Abilene during its lawlessness, the burden of its wickedness is thrown upon its cowboy visitors. While part of the disorder that made the town infamous unquestionably was due to men from their ranks, as great, and probably more significant, part, directly or indirectly, was made by the horde of desperadoes, thieves, swindlers, confidence men, gamblers, bunco artists, courtesans, and other human dregs that helped in making the place pandemonium for about four years. Saloons, dance halls, gambling holes, and dives of every other evil sort, in great plenty, appeared in 1868 and increased in number during each of the next three years. The town’s character was stamped by murder, debauchery, drunkenness, uproar, robbery, swindling, gambling, and all lesser evils. The most noise was made by drink-crazed cowboys, who staggered about or rode up and down yelling, screaming, whooping, and firing their revolvers into the air or at some human target passing by. Still, meanwhile, the horde of outlaws, swindlers, and outcasts was doing more actual harm.

Vintage Abilene, Kansas

Vintage Abilene, Kansas

In 1868 Abilene had “got good and ready” to receive its crown as “the wickedest and most God-forsaken place on this continent” — a distinction that was freely conceded to it in 1869. Its cattle trade in 1869 was not far from five times as great as it had been in the previous year, and its wickedness easily was five times greater. Indeed, there seemed to be no limit to the extent or the variety of forms of its evils. The town’s burying ground back on a hill to the north that overlooked the riotous hot-bed of crime and folly received in that year frequent additions to its silent population; more than one unlucky cowboy reaching the end of his life trail in a hole in the ground on that hill in the last year of the 1860s.

Up to the autumn of that year, no effort had been made to control the disorder and check the brazen lawlessness; everything and everybody is permitted to go ahead in the free and unlimited coinage of uproar, vice, and crime. While Abilene was the county seat of Dickinson County, the organization of the Sheriff’s office was weak and indifferent. In the opinion of all of the shady class of citizens, Abilene was “having a boom” that must be encouraged to keep on booming. But early in September 1869, just two years from its beginning as a cowtown, the place was incorporated and a form of local government organized; the conditions had become intolerable to the citizens who had a permanent stake in the town. The Board of Trustees, of which founder Joseph McCoy was a  member, promptly enacted various ordinances. The more important were those intended to promote order and punish the lawless. But by the time this was done, the season was so nearly closed that active government was not attempted that year. In the spring of 1870, the Board of Trustees, the chairman of which T. C. Henry was clothed with powers and charged with duties corresponding to the Mayor, prepared for an active campaign. The resident population of the place did not exceed 500, yet the Board licensed 32 saloons. Closing hours were to be enforced, the more brazen the dives and their inmates were to be pushed out and back from centers, and the more flagrant crimes were punished. Gambling and minor vices were to be disregarded, for at best, barely more than a semblance of decency was hoped for. Such laws as were tentatively ventured required, of course, executive enforcement. Therefore, the office of Town Marshal was created, the ordinances were published, and notice was proclaimed that law and order should govern Abilene. Carrying firearms within the town limits was forbidden, bulletin boards on which was conspicuously lettered notice that Abilene was to be reduced to peace footing were erected on the roads entering the town, and tidings of the proposed revolution in favor of law and order were heralded to the Gulf of Mexico.

Loading cattle into a cattle car

Loading cattle into a cattle car

Creating the office of Town Marshal had been easy enough, but to find a man who could fill it and stay in it was an entirely different proposition. Man after man, some of whom were as brave as any others that walked the earth, tried it and, after a few days’ experience, gave up the job, the lawless element over-awing them and driving them off the streets. Instead of the conditions being improved by the attempts at government, they grew worse rapidly, disdain for the law and its officers loudly and boastingly was expressed, and all of the town officers were threatened with death if they persisted in their efforts to better the state of affairs; these menaces were coming from the criminal element that infested the town.

The increasing insolence was exhibited in various ways, one of which, rather ludicrous, is worthy of mention here. The fire-arms ordinance had been printed in placard form, and copies had been posted everywhere about the town. At the outset, the crowds viewed these with awe and curiosity, but their significance and purpose gradually were comprehended. Then some of them contemptuously were destroyed by the “toughs” of the town, but the cowboys, animated by different feelings, made targets of them. As they rode around whooping and howling, they took shots at these proclamations that forbade anyone from carrying firearms within the town’s limits. Within a short time, nearly every remaining outdoor placard had been so plentifully punctured and punctuated by bullets that not even the ordinance authors could make heads or tails of what the posted copies had originally announced.

The Town Trustees bargained for the building of a stone prison in the central part of the town, but when the walls were nearly up, a party of cowboys made a raid into town and tore them down, but under the protection of strong guard, the workmen rebuilt the walls and finished the prison.

Painting the Town Red

“Painting The Town Red” – A wood engraving by R.F. Zogbaum, in Harper’s Weekly, October 16, 1886.

Its first occupant was a young black cook for a trail-herd outfit camped eight miles out of town. He had come in and steamed up some. He had begun firing his revolver when the man who was Marshal that day managed by some unaccountable good luck to arrest him and throw him into the new “calaboose” without being interfered with by the people who were “running the town.” The man’s outfit soon learned of the whereabouts of the cook and, in body, rode into town to rescue the person upon whom their daily meals depended. After driving the marshal into hiding, the jail door was burst open, and the cook is rescued. Then the band, pretending to have been outraged by the imprisonment of the cook, ordered all of the business houses to close, in some instances enforcing the mandate by the mounted invasion of the premises. Then the party, after thoroughly “shooting up” the town, returned to camp unharmed with the precious cook.

But, this experience with the first prisoner in the new jail was soon forgotten in the festival of disorder. Fresh Town Marshals of local origin continued to be tried, only to throw up their hands and resign. One who served on the second or third day is regarded as a veteran in the hopeless cause of law and order. Finally, the “Mayor” appealed to the Chief of Police of St. Louis, Missouri, to send him two men competent to manage the town. In a few days, they appeared with credentials that seemed to make it plain that the powers of evil in Abilene were now to be suppressed. But upon the day of their arrival, which had become known in advance, every device and form of lawless deviltry that hundreds could conceive of reckless minds was turned loose. The St. Louis peace-makers were so amazed and astounded by the magnitude of the job to which they had been called that they took the first return train for home without having been either “sworn” into or out of office — one day’s view of the situation has been quite enough for them. It now became evident that Abilene either must-have for its Town Marshal, the kind of man that was unknown and untried or give up to the domination of lawless forces.

Thomas J. "Bear River" Smith was shot down in the line of duty while serving as Abilene's marshal.

Thomas J. “Bear River” Smith was shot down in the line of duty while serving as Abilene’s marshal.

At this critical period, there appeared upon the scene Thomas J. Smith, Marshal of Abilene, a hero who became personally known to hundreds of cattlemen and cowboys in 1870 and who was their ideal of a man who, without comprehension, could instill the true meaning of the word “fear.” Smith had applied for the position a few days after the office of Town Marshal had been created. Still, while physically he was giant in strength, his quiet ways, soft and low voice, and utter lack of anything like bravado had led the “Mayor” to conclude that such a man could not be Marshal of Abilene. Therefore Smith, who had come to Abilene from the Kansas Pacific Railroad town of Kit Carson, Colorado, to obtain the appointment, had gone away disappointed. But after the hasty retreat of the St. Louis delegation, the Mayor of Abilene, who was at his wits’ ends, thought that as a last resort, he would give the quiet, low-voiced man, whom he had “turned down” earlier in the season, a trial, and therefore telegraphed to Smith to come.

Within six months after he was appointed Marshal, Smith was killed outside of the town while discharging his duty. He was buried at Abilene with every manifestation of profound grief among the citizens, all business being suspended upon his funeral day. In 1904, the people of Abilene resolved to place a monument at his grave — a great granite boulder that suggests the character of the man whose memory it perpetuates.

The principal speaker upon that occasion was Mr. T.C. Henry, Abilene’s first Mayor. Concerning the employment as Marshal of the man to whose memory the monument had been raised, of his methods in making it plain that he intended to be Marshal in fact, as well as in name, of his triumph over the powers of evil, and the circumstances of his death, Mr. Henry said:

“It was on Saturday morning late in May 1870 that Smith reappeared at my office. I related to him briefly the story of our troubles and intimated that he would better first look over the situation, for he might not care to undertake the job. He smiled rather grimly but, without a word, proceeded on my hint. “It was nearly sundown when I saw Smith coming back. I stood bareheaded in my office doorway as he approached. He declined to come in but remained standing outside with his hat removed. I inquired what he thought. He said he believed he could handle the town.

T.C. Henry, Abilene, Kansas' First Mayor

T.C. Henry, Abilene, Kansas’ First Mayor

‘What plans do you propose to accomplish that?’ I asked, anxious to get his ideas and to ‘size him up.’ He replied that firearms must be given up, that whiskey and pistols were a combination beyond control. ‘As well contend,’ he said, ‘with frenzied maniac as with an armed and drunken cowboy.’ His logic was well-grounded, but the images of the obliterated ordinance placards that had been used for targets were equally impressed; besides, my recent study of cowboy nature and training had matured convictions in my mind respecting the inherent difficulty of determining whether a cowboy and his gun were separable elements, even under normal conditions. But I mastered my rising skepticism and inquired if he thought he could enforce that ordinance.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I think can.’

‘When do you want to begin?’ I asked.

‘As well at once,’ he quietly replied.

“Then I recited the oath of office to him as we stood there alone. How well I recall the scene at that moment! I was about a foot above the ground, facing northwesterly. The bright gleams of the setting sun an athwart Smith’s square right shoulder struck me in the face. As he raised his hand for the oath in response to my own, the blinking glimmer of the rays made me lift my other hand to shield my eyes as I peered searchingly into his own. If I could but picture vividly, like kineograph [a flip-book with a series of pictures], the full perspective spread before my vision then what priceless treasure for your archives it would be! Silently he moved off, and I watched him, with misgivings, disappear downtown, a third of a mile away.

“Almost immediately, he encountered Big Hank, cowboy desperado, who had made himself particularly obnoxious to former marshals and had been loudest in his boasts that no one could disarm him. Wearing a belted revolver, he approached Smith and tauntingly asked him if he were the man who proposed to run the town. Smith said that he had been employed as Marshal and should try to maintain order and enforce the law.

‘What are you going to do about that gun ordinance?’ asked Hank.

‘See that it is obeyed,’ replied Smith, and then he quickly added, ‘I must trouble you to hand me yours.’

“With a coarse oath, this was refused. Characteristically cool, Smith again made the demand and again met with profanity and abuse. Instantly he sprang forward and landed a terrific blow that placed Big Hank out of action. The Marshal took away the pistol and ordered its owner at once to leave for camp, a command heeded with crest-fallen speed. “Before midnight, the news of this encounter had been heralded over a radius of many miles throughout the country. The unique punishment administered was wholly new to cowboy warfare, and every phase of the combat was debated. In camp, out on a branch of Chapman Creek, a wager was laid by a big, burly brute that he could go to town and defy to surrender of his gun. Promptly the next morning, a Sunday, Wyoming Frank was on hand to fulfill his boast; Smith was rather late in appearing. Impatient and drinking, the desperado began boasting that the Marshal had probably heard that he was in town, and he ‘reckoned that he had lighted out.’ Finally, Smith came quietly down the middle of the street, as was his wont, and presently confronted the advancing bully. As Big Hank had done the evening before, Wyoming Frank began ‘chaffing’ insolently, with the idea of involving Smith in the quarrel as an excuse or resisting the demand he knew would be made. By divining his purpose, Smith guardedly requested the surrender of the purposely displayed gun. Of course, this was refused, but somewhat daunted by the peculiar, steely glint of Smith’s eyes, the bully began backing as Smith advanced quietly, calling for his gun. Frank steadily retired, maneuvering for time and space to draw his pistol and thus have the drop on Smith. But he was backed by the latter’s close reach. Finally, they backed into a large saloon, where the crowd that had been attracted gathered and surrounded them. In the center, Frank came to stand, facing Smith. Frank exploded an insulting oath and vile epithet to his courteous but firm demand. Quick as a flash, Smith vaulted and sent his antagonist prone to the floor and, with the unbelted pistol, vigorously belabored the big brute with a terrific double blow. Then, standing him, Smith said: ‘I give you five minutes to get out of this town, and don’t you ever let me set eyes on you again.’ The latent demon in Smith blazed defiance to every spectator.

Old Abilene Town, Kansas by Kathy Alexander

Old Abilene Town, Kansas by Kathy Alexander

“For an instant, all stood dazed and speechless, whereupon the saloon proprietor stepped from behind the bar and said to Smith: ‘That was the nerviest act I ever saw. You did your duty, and that coward got what he deserved. Here is my gun, reckon I’ll not need it as long as you are marshal of this town.’ That was the signal. Everyone pushed forward proffering Smith pistols and overwhelming him with a profusion of compliments, expressions of admiration, and so forth. He quietly thanked them and said: ‘Hand your guns to the bartender to keep until you want to get out of camp.’ From that moment, Torn Smith was master. The cowboys, as a tribute to his marvelous nerve and gentlemanly self-command, became his allied and loyal friends. No guns thereafter were openly worn on the streets of Abilene while Smith was Marshal; nor was he ever again openly affronted. Of course, there were drunkenness and quarreling; dens of iniquity flourished; murders occurred; but his tact, courage, and good judgment were always adequate to minimize consequences and without resistance. Smith became alike popular with merchants, citizens, cowboys, gamblers, and saloon-keepers. In a short time, he ruled Abilene practically without oversight.

“But there was another element in Abilene with which Smith had to deal — the ‘bad man’ desperadoes. At one time a gang of them planned to get him into a house, to put out the lights, and then to shoot him. They did get him into the house, and the lights were put out, but no sooner had the shooting begun than Smith, too, opened fire. The battle ended in about a minute after 30 shots had been fired, but Smith was unhurt. That was the only provocation that ever led him to lose his temper to my knowledge, and he surely did so at that time. He came to my office the next day and swore he would kill at sight the man whom he knew was the leader in the conspiracy. But, as it turned out, that man was not again seen in Abilene. Smith had in him the making of a veritable devil when aroused, but he was such a master of himself that it required extreme provocation to arouse him.

“One bright morning early in November Smith rode up to my office on Silverheels, his beautiful dappled gray, and asked permission to go into the country to aid his deputy in arresting man named McConnell. A short time before, McConnell had shot and killed a neighbor in a quarrel over some crop damage done by the latter’s cattle. He said McConnell was reputed to be a desperate character; besides, the deputy did not know the way out there, 12 miles across the prairie. I suggested that he look around the town, see who was in from the camps, and if the prospects seemed favorable for a quiet day we would run the chances. He acted on my suggestions, and half an hour later reported that he would take the risk. With a tip of his hat and a smile, he rode away — fated to be his last ride. He took over the writ from the deputy, and his attempt to serve it ended in the tragedy that closed the career of that generous soul, that brave and dauntless officer. He was shot dead. The mission which cost him his life was prompted by motives of friendship for the deputy. The impulse to share where danger lurked led to his own sacrifice. Unswerving loyalty to his friends and fearless devotion to duty, twin characteristics throughout his life, unhappily made for his martyrdom.

Thomas J. Smith was born in New York city about the year 1840. His parents were Irish by birth. His Celtic origin showed in his physiognomy and build. In temperament, character, and bearing, he was thoroughly American. He was nearly five feet eleven inches in height, weighed 170 pounds, was broad-shouldered, erect, athletic, and physically superb. Of fair complexion, auburn hair, a light mustache, and gray eyes with bluish tint — his most expressive features when aroused. His manners were gentle, unobtrusive, and simple; his dress unpretentious, and sensible; his voice low-toned and evenly modulated; his language plain and direct.

Thomas Smith's grave in Abilene, Kansas

Thomas Smith’s grave in Abilene, Kansas

“Smith was fairly well educated; reared Catholic; clean of speech — I never heard him utter a profane word nor employ a vulgar phrase. He never gambled, drank, nor was in the least otherwise dissolute. He was singularly and perhaps significantly reticent as to his early life. I cannot learn that he ever mentioned his family, nor was it ever known if he had any living relatives. He had been well-bred, and good blood coursed in his veins. Some sorrow,  or tragedy, mayhap early drove him from home and friends out alone into the far West. It is nearly authenticated that he was a victim in the Mountain Meadow Massacre and left for dead. Certainly, little later, he was in western Utah and Nevada.”

The bronze tablet affixed to the granite boulder monument that stands at Smith’s grave bears the following inscription:

Thomas J. Smith
Marshal of Abilene, 1870
Died a Martyr to Duty on November 2, 1870.
Fearless Hero of Frontier Days, Who, in Cowboy Chaos, Established the Supremacy of Law

James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok

James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok

Smith’s successor as Marshal of Abilene was James B. Hickok, otherwise “Wild Bill,” the noted western scout and gunfighter. He wore his hair long and dressed immaculately in the frontier bravado style. His entire “get up” was befitted by the self-conscious posing he practiced habitually. His manner and expression were repugnant to his betters and invited resentment and attack from the general class of men with whom he had to deal in law enforcement as Marshal. The temperaments and methods of the two men were radically different. The moral element was at the bottom of Tom Smith’s fine courage, and instinctively he trusted in it. He did not depend upon the expert handling of firearms in discharging his duties, and it is said that while he was Marshal of Abilene, he never fired a shot at a lawbreaker except upon one occasion — that of the conspiracy to kill him. It is further said that in the presence of danger, his thoughts never seemed to turn to weapons; his mere manner being enough to quell the worst man among the host of bad ones in Abilene in 1870. Wild Bill’s bravery and bearing were of a far lower type. While he was not afraid of anybody, he never forgot that he was well-armed and could shoot quicker and straighter than any man with whom he was likely to have trouble. His wonderful expertness with the revolver had given him nearly a score of victims, whose scalps, figuratively speaking, he carried at his belt in Indian fashion, and he was not unduly modest in encouraging public notice of the sanguinary [bloody] record he had made.

Wild Bill’s administration was a failure. The number of cattle driven to Abilene in 1871 was far greater than in any previous year, and a carnival of crime, disorder, and shame prevailed to an extent exceeding the worst known before. While personal encounters with the dead-shot Marshal were avoided as much as possible, the defiance of law and decency was general, brazen, and flagrant, and the town’s history in that year was a story of vice, crime, and blood.

These conditions caused public sentiment among the substantial citizens of the town and among the farming population of the county as well to crystallize into a determined purpose to resist the continuation of the cattle traffic at Abilene. In the town, life and property were at the mercy of violence and disorder. During the shipping season, the county, for miles in every direction, had been overrun by the hordes of cattle coming in from the South and by those that had been held to await the market. Early in 1872, the “Farmers’ Protective Association of Dickinson County” was formed by the town and the area’s people. In February of that year, under the auspices of this organization, there was sent a circular to Texas and other parts of the Southern range country that bore the names of a large number of influential citizens, which read as follows:

“We, the undersigned, members of the Farmers’ Protective Association, and officers and citizens of Dickinson County, Kansas, most respectfully request all who have contemplated driving Texas cattle to Abilene the coming season to seek some other point for shipment, as the inhabitants of Dickinson will no longer submit to the evils of the trade.”

This abruptly ended the cattle-trail trade at Abilene, for not another herd from the South entered Dickinson County. This, of course, caused the town to be abandoned by everybody and everything that had depended upon the cattle trade. But after a few years of painful quietness, the wildest and woolliest town that was ever heard of began to recover and became a prosperous community again.

Kansas Pacific Railroad

Kansas Pacific Railroad

And, what of Joseph McCoy, the founder of Abilene as a cowtown? Unfortunately, he had over-reached himself in his cattle speculations during the prosperous year of 1870 and “went broke.” In his “Sketches,” he says his troubles were started by the Kansas Pacific Railroad’s repudiation of its contracts with him and that when it became known that he was slipping downhill financially, everybody contributed a shove to send him further below. He left Abilene in 1871 and subordinately engaged in the cattle business in southern Kansas.

Abilene would probably have lost its southern cattle trade within a few years anyway, for at the time its people banished the business from their town, the Kansas Pacific road that had been completed through to Denver in the summer of 1870 had established several shipping points west of Abilene for southern cattle bound for Eastern markets. Furthermore, railroads already had made their way into southeastern and southern Kansas and were intercepting the north-bound trail herds. Baxter Springs had become railroad cowtown with woolly accessories, but as most of the Texas herds now were passing north on trails farther to the west, the place had not become a very important center. In that section of Kansas, Coffeyville also had become a railroad cowtown of the Baxter Springs grade and of about the same degree of roughness. Both these places, in consequence of their proximity to the Indian Territory border, had been infested by tough elements and continued to be long after they had ceased to figure much as shipping points for Southern cattle.

Newton, Kansas 1872

Newton, Kansas 1872

The Atchison, Topeka Santa Fe Railroad was completed from Topeka to Emporia, Kansas, in the summer of 1870, and its construction farther west was in very active progress. By the spring of 1871, the road had reached the town of Newton, which became a cattle market and shipping point that year. Life in Newton soon became greatly animated. Its general disorder was of the Abilene type, but in extent or magnitude, it fell far short of that of the famous pioneer of wild and woolly cowtowns. However, a record was made thereof eleven men having been shot and killed in one night. Many outlaws and desperadoes that infested the Kansas-Indian Territory border tried life in Newton for a while. Most of the crimes and outrages were committed by these and others like them. But Newton’s prominence in this unhallowed respect did not last long. By the spring of 1872, the Santa Fe road had been opened to Great Bend, Kansas on the Arkansas River, and a branch south from Newton to Wichita had been completed. Most of Newton’s business in handling range cattle were then transferred to these new shipping points, of which Wichita became the more important — nearly 80,000 head of cattle being shipped from it during the first season; and the flocks of harpies abandoned Newton for these newer scenes of activity.

This human riff-raff started in Wichita on the Abilene line as soon as the railroad was opened. No one complained of a lack of spectacular effects or undue regard for conventionalities in Wichita during the first season. But, by the opening of the second season, the town had begun to grow so fast and in a very substantial way that imitations of Abilene could not and would not be tolerated by the class of citizens who were making a solid place of it. So, the town, then of somewhere near 2,000 people, soon settled down to what was considered steady gait and never after changed it.

Front Street and Boot Hill Museum, Dodge City, Kansas

Front Street and Boot Hill Museum, Dodge City, Kansas

Construction of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad westward had progressed rapidly, and its tracks reached the east line of Colorado in December 1872. This had resulted in the rising of a fireworks cowtown of the first rank in southwestern Kansas — the famous and infamous Dodge City, in which for several years life was “enlivened” by about everything implied by the term “wild and woolly.” The place now is a quiet railroad town of about 2,000 inhabitants, but in the 1870s, its fame as a lawless cowtown was second only to that which Abilene had previously attained. While, on the whole, it was not equal to Abilene in general spectacular effects, it became, in some respects, even worse. There were probably more homicides —  many of them of the most cold-blooded character — in Dodge City than in any of the cowtowns.

Dodge City was laid out on rather broad lines and was ambitious and confident of becoming a metropolis. During its career as cowtown, about three out of every four of its “business establishments” consisted of “saloons with annexes for dancing, of gambling dens, and of still shadier “resorts” and dives. As the cattle trade upon which it depended was mostly of Texas origin, the “Lone Star” shined everywhere in Dodge City. There was general pandering to the Lone Star sentiment. Lone stars abounded in all sizes and hues. Saloons, cheap-clothing shops, “hotels,” dance houses, and various other outfits bore the Lone Star trademark. When the place was at its worst, the spirit and atmosphere of coiled and utter vileness that hung over it disclosed the passion, the crime, and the depravity that made it infernal. Through the day during the shipping season, the streets were thronged, and the saloons and dance houses were clamorous with profanity, ribald songs, shouts, yells, and half-drunken laughter. At night there was all there that had been through the day and much more, and the iniquity of the place then stood out at its worst. An inflamed and quivering fierceness crept into the busy music in the turbulent dance houses, the clamor and brawling in the saloons became increasingly uproarious, groups of whooping, drunken men kept up fusillade in the streets as they shuffled from one “resort” to another. A cluster of men around an object upon the ground or an unusual bustle at the entrance to one of the saloons or other dives signified to the onlooker that somebody had “passed in his checks.”

Granada, Colorado Depot

Granada, Colorado Depot

After the Santa Fe road had entered Colorado, the station of Granada was made a cattle shipping point and developed some of the usual cowtown features. But, it soon gave way to West Las Animas, near the confluence of the Purgatoire and Arkansas Rivers in Colorado. By the way, the cowboys had changed the name of the lesser of these streams to “Picketwire,” which was easier for the English-speaking tongue to manage. West Las Animas became a shipping center for the stockmen of southeastern Colorado and New Mexico, and, as befitted its name, it developed into a place of great animation.

With the disorder, violence, and crime that made West Las Animas notorious for a few years, the clashing of race prejudice had much to do with it. Among the stockmen of southern Colorado and New Mexico, there were many Mexicans. When American and Mexican cowboys were on “tear” at the same time, which was not an uncommon occurrence, the possibilities for trouble were large and numerous. However, as a genuinely wild and woolly cowtown, West Las Animas never got higher than about the third grade. On the Kansas Pacific Railroad in eastern Colorado, the town of Kit Carson was a worse place than West Las Animas, though now it is a mere shadow of its former self. It was not a cattle trail town in the true sense of the term, but about the time that West Las Animas became one a station on the Kansas Pacific Company, to get a share of the Las Animas business, built a cheap connecting branch about 50-60 miles in length between the two towns. This made Kit Carson a junction point, and independently it made itself an ugly and vicious place for a few years. The cattle traffic over the branch road did not last a great while, and upon its decay, the branch was stripped of its rails and abandoned and Kit Carson soon afterward sunk into obscurity.

Hays, Kansas train

Hays, Kansas train

Hays City, Kansas, on the Kansas Pacific Railroad, about 150 miles east of the Colorado line, was also one of the noted “bad” towns of the West. Some trail cattle from the South were driven there for shipment eastward before the construction of the more southerly Santa Fe Railroad had intercepted the trade. However, Hays City was a cow-and-railroad combination of nearly 2,000 inhabitants, but most could hardly be called citizens. About a hundred gambling dens flourished there, saloons were next to innumerable, and all the other appendages of such places were in great plenty while shooting affrays, often of fatal termination, were daily and nightly occurrences. Wild Bill Hickok was Marshal of Hays City before he went to Abilene to take charge of that town, and in about a year added, while in the discharge of his duties, a half-dozen or so to the number of men he had sent out of the world with his incredibly ready revolver. No cowtowns comparable with Abilene or Dodge City were ever developed in the northern parts of the range-cattle country. However, there were several “cities” in that direction in which daily life was not stagnated form of existence. Among these were Cheyenne and Laramie City in Wyoming. However, their reputations for wildness in these good old times primarily were due to conditions having no relation to the cattle business.

Cheyenne, Wyoming, was a railroad center and the rendezvous of a swarm of land pirates and other ruffians. While its business was large, the cattle trade formed only a part of and therefore was not wholly responsible for the town’s character. But the place had, nevertheless, ample facilities for entertaining visitors who had trailed in from the ranges, as many poor fellows learned to his undoing. Laramie was nearer to the real thing, measured by the Abilene standard or by Dodge City. Still, as it was the headquarters for an important part of the Union Pacific Railroad’s operative administration, it was not altogether cowtown. While it was rough and tough enough, much of its fame over the country, especially in the East, as a “bad” place was due to the whimsical exaggerations of “Bill” Nye in his newspaper, the Laramie Boomerang. In the main, however, Laramie depended for its support upon the business of the stockmen, being the outlet for a large region of range country.

Miles City, Montana, attained modified distinction in the cowtown line, having held forth most of the usual cowtown “attractions for several years.” But its sphere of influence was local in extent. Furthermore, garishness was not quite so effective upon the general run of the northern range men as upon those of the South, who made pilgrimages to the old wool-bearing cattle towns of Kansas; for it is to be remembered that the cattlemen, including the cowboys, of the far-Northern ranges, as a class were more conservative in many ways than were those of the central and of the southern parts of the range country.

President Roosevelt, writing in the middle 1880s, referred to Miles City as “a true cow town,” but he did not mean the kind of cowtown with which we have been dealing here, not such as the all-wool-and-more-than-a-yard-wide Abilene, or Dodge City, of the earlier period. Indeed, neither of these in the days of its cowtown “glory” would have stood for any such tame diversions as horse races. Of his impressions of Miles City and of the people he saw there in the middle 1880s, Mr. Roosevelt, in his “Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail,” said:

Miles City, Montana in 1881

Miles City, Montana, in 1881

“A true ‘cowtown’ is worth seeing — such a one as Miles City, for instance, especially at the time of the annual meeting of the great Montana Stock-raisers’ Association. Then the whole place is full to overflowing, the importance of the meeting and the fun of the attendant frolics, especially the horse races, drawing from the surrounding ranch country many hundreds of men of every degree, from the rich stock-owner with his millions to the ordinary cowboy who works for forty dollars month. It would be impossible to imagine a more typically American assemblage. Although there are always many foreigners, usually English, Irish, and German, they have become completely Americanized. It would be difficult to gather a finer body of men, despite their numerous shortcomings.”

Texas, the great patron of the whopping old cowtowns of Kansas, had nothing like them herself. The Missouri, Kansas, Texas Railroad, the first line to Texas from the North, was completed into the northeastern part of that State at the beginning of 1873. By the autumn of that year, it and its connections afforded a straightforward route to Chicago. Gainesville and Fort Worth soon became important cattle shipping points, but they were not characterized by vice, lawlessness, and crime; the same may be said of several other Texas towns that later became prominent in the cattle shipping trade. Of course, these towns were not free from disorder, but what they had of it was incidental and not dominant.

In after-times, when the great western and northwestern range regions of Texas became occupied, some of the hamlets and little towns that were widely scattered over the vast expanse of country, and served merely local constituencies, were, in proportion to their small size, the scenes of much dissipation and many sudden deaths. Tascosa, Texas, where the Fort Worth and Denver City Railroad crossed the Canadian River, was an unusually illustrious example of this type of range cowtown; a type, however, that was common in the 1880s in most parts of the range country from the Mexican border to the Canadian boundary. Tascosa provided itself with a graveyard on the swell in the prairie nearby, and the character of the town was reflected in what was asserted as fact, that graves for more than 50 men had been dug there before the first was made for one who had not died with his boots on. Hence, the prairie swell was appropriately called “Boot Hill,” as it is known today.

Cattle Trail

Cattle Trail

Boot Hill! We may smile at the humorous grimness of the name. Still, after doing so, we should think of the tragedies for which it stands and hear in mind that, while the town of village dimensions has its graveyard that was “started” in this manner, each of the “wild and woolly” cowtowns that have been recalled on these pages had its more populous Boot Hill. Nor were all the tenants of these various Boot Hills “bad” men. The moldering bones of many poor cowboys whose only “badness” was his recklessness amid scenes that were so different from those of his life on the great lonely range and on the trail, lie in these Boot Hills; of brave and generous men who would, as most of them had done, willingly have risked their lives for the sake of their comrades without ever a thought of heroics. Along with these tenants of the Boot Hills, rest what is left of many other poor fellows whose lives were snuffed out by brawlers and professional “bad men” who were without provocation for adding to the crimes that already had blackened and outlawed them.

But, the wild and woolly railroad cowtown long has been extinct, and the tiny hamlets and villages of the range country have mended their manners greatly. While the former was the offspring of railroads, it was the further extension of railroads that deprived them of their “glory.” It caused them to become orderly, sober-minded, and substantial communities. Almost every station on every railroad traversing the western cattle country became a shipping point for its neighborhood. So the business that had been concentrated at these primitive centers was widely distributed.

As to the villages and hamlets, it is not to be understood that they have taken on a Puritanic character, but they have, to a marked degree, been changed by the influence of the more exacting and more business-like methods that have prevailed in the range cattle industry during the last decades of the 19th century. They contain a general store, usually that of some sedate “mercantile company,” or perhaps two or three of these, the post office, a hotel bearing a pretentious name that inspires hopes destined soon to be cast down; and, invariably, several “places” in which the inner man may be spiritually refreshed. But, they are far away from the wild and woolly of old times.

In the memories of veteran cattlemen who recalled, from personal observation, the scenes, tragedies, and incidents of life in such places as Abilene and Dodge City when these were their worst as railroad cowtowns, the time has never softened the hideousness of the uproar, turmoil, vice, and crime that were in command; nor could these men place themselves in sympathy with any attempt of the story maker to veil the horrible conditions in an atmosphere of romance.


Cowboy & Old West T-Shirts exclusively from Legends of America

Cowboy & Old West T-Shirts exclusively from Legends of America

Prepared by the National Live Stock Historical Association, 1904. Compiled and edited by Kathy  Alexander/Legends of America, updated December 2022.

About the Article: The content of this article was excerpted from the Prose and Poetry of the Live Stock Industry of the United States, Volume 1, authored and prepared by the National Live Stock Historical Association; 1905, Franklin Hudson Publishing Company, Kansas City, Missouri.

Also See:

Cowboy Photo Gallery

Cowboys, Trail Blazers, & Stagecoach Drivers

Kansas Cowtowns – Violent Places on the American Frontier

The Men That Tamed the Cowtowns