Wild & Woolly Cowtowns

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 either to the extent or to the variety of form of its evils, and 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 1860’s.

Up to the autumn of that year, no effort had been made to control the disorder and check the brazen lawlessness; everything and everybody being 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, and, furthermore, 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 those of the citizens who really 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 of which were those intended to promote order and punish the lawless. But by the time this had been done the season was so nearly closed that active government was not attempted in 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 those of Mayor, prepared for an active campaign. The resident population of the place did not exceed 500, yet 32 saloons were licensed by the Board. Closing hours were to be enforced, the more brazen of the dives and their inmates were to be pushed out and back from centers, and the more flagrant crimes 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, and therefore the office of Town Marshal was created, the ordinances were published, and notice was proclaimed that law and order thereafter should govern Abilene. Carrying firearms within the town limits was emphatically 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 all the way 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 a quite different proposition. Man after man, some of whom were as brave as any others that walked the earth, tried it, and after 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 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, these had been viewed by the crowds with a mixture of awe and curiosity, but gradually their significance and purpose were comprehended. Then some of them contemptuously were destroyed by “toughs” of the town; but the cowboys, animated by different feelings, made targets of them, and as they rode around whooping and howling they took shots at these proclamations that gravely forbade anyone 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 authors of the ordinance could make heads or tails of what the posted copies of it 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, steamed up some, and 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 really 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 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 with the precious cook unharmed.

But, in the festival of disorder that continued, this experience with the first prisoner in the new jail soon was forgotten. Fresh Town Marshals of local origin continued to be tried, only to throw up their hands and resign; one who served into the second or third day being regarded as a veteran in the apparently 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 their credentials that seemed to make it plain that the powers of evil in Abilene now were to be suppressed. But upon the day of their arrival, which had become known in advance, every device and form of lawless deviltry that could he conceived by hundreds 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 having been quite enough for them. It now became evident that Abilene either must have for its Town Marshal the kind of man hitherto 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, but, 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; and 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 his appointment as Marshal, Smith was killed outside of the town while in the discharge of his duty, and 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 of 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, possibly, 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.

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