Wild & Woolly Cowtowns


National Livestock Historical Association in 1904


Cattle ranch in the Old West

Cattle ranch in the Old West

During a period of 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 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.

Without railroads such towns were impossible. Some of them became capitals of disorder, vice, lawlessness, and crime that were not surpassed in evil by the worst of the mining-camps ever developed in the Rocky Mountains. Each of them, when at the zenith of its renown for wickedness, was much like all of the others. While these towns primarily were appendages of the pioneer railroads, they were engrafted upon the cattle business of the West, and 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 close of the Civil War.

Furthermore, the dissipated and reckless element in the ranks of the cowboys, that needed only the excitement of intoxication to make it dangerous, in the first half of the cowtown period stood at the highest it ever attained among them. These towns, even in the height of their notoriety, were small towns. Counting out the transient class, most of which would go to larger towns to “winter,” the worst of these cowtowns when at its worst had a real population of only about 500. But during the “cattle season,” that opened late in the spring and continued far 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 always has had a leaning toward phenomenal things, and therefore perhaps it was natural that phenomenal cowtowns should develop upon her soil, although her geographical situation affords an alternative explanation. This sort of cowtown originated in Kansas, and indeed, nearly all of the similar characteristics that came afterward were located within her borders; her first one excelling all others in wildness and woolliness. Abilene 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 half-way point in its career, the limit in variety and possibility in uproarious “frontier wickedness” appeared to be reached, and so it seemed that if more were wanted it could be had only in the form of greater quantity. In after-times when cattlemen who had known Abilene met one who had not, but who had knowledge of some other of the same stripe, and the two indulged in reminiscences, the remarks of the latter invariably would call forth some such response as — “Yes, that was hard town; but it wasn’t as bad as Abilene.”

Abilene, Kansas in all it's glory

Abilene, Kansas in all it’s glory

Abilene, as a market and railroad shipping point for cattle, was the conception of Joseph G. McCoy, who was one of three brothers who were extensive buyers and shippers of cattle in Illinois, and whose homes were at Springfield, the capital of that State. His brothers were interested with him in the undertaking financially, but he was the leading spirit in it, and became its general manager on the ground. At the time McCoy set his enterprise on foot, the Union Pacific Railroad had been completed through Nebraska, and 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 excepting few local lines in the eastern part of the Texas coast region; and 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, and that also resulted incidentally in lifting Abilene from the deepest obscurity to lofty pinnacle of fame, McCoy, writing in the third person, said in his Sketches of the Cattle Trade of the West and Southwest:

“All three of the brothers were of that sanguine, impetuous, speculative temperament; just such dispositions as always look most upon the bright side of the picture and never feel inclined to look at the dangers or hazards of venture, but take it for granted that all will end well that looks well in the beginning. If the above could have been said of the brothers collectively, it could be said with particular truthfulness of the younger one of them. Ambitious, energetic, quick to scent out and untiring to follow speculation, fully possessed with an earnest desire to do something that would alike benefit humanity as well as himself; something that, when life’s rugged battles were over, could be pointed to as an evidence that he had lived to some good purpose and that the world, or portion thereof, was benefited by his having lived. This young man conceived the idea of opening up an outlet for Texas cattle. Being impressed with knowledge of the number of cattle in Texas and the difficulties of getting them to market by the routes and means then in use, and realizing the great disparity of Texas values and northern prices of cattle, he set himself to thinking and studying to hit upon a plan whereby these great extremes would be equalized. The plan was to establish, at some accessible point, depot, or market, to which a Texas drover could bring his stock unmolested, and there, failing to find buyer, he could go upon the public highways to any market in the country he wished. In short, it was to establish market where the southern drover and northern buyer would meet upon equal footing, and both be undisturbed by mobs or swindling thieves.”

Joseph G. McCoy

Joseph G. McCoy

Poor McCoy! In his situation of hopeless bankruptcy a few years later, and when the cattle trade he founded had been literally driven away from Abilene by the people of the town and county and forbidden to return, he might well have applied to his own case the words “never honest man’s intent so cursedly miscarried.”

Joseph McCoy, after having prospected the western half of the completed part of the Kansas Pacific Railroad, selected Abilene as the germ of what was destined to become the renowned metropolis of wildness, wickedness, and woolliness, as well as an important cattle market, during a few fleeting years. The place was 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 and 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. The trade that year was limited to herds from Texas that were belated in reaching Kansas and that had been intercepted by “drummers” who had been sent South to apprise drovers of the existence of the new cattle market and shipping point. Some merchants and a greater number of less desirable folks joined fortunes with Abilene in that autumn, but the town remained fairly decent until the following spring.

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