Wild & Woolly Cowtowns

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 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, as Marshal, he had to deal in the enforcement of the law. 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 the discharge of his duties, and, it is said, that while he was Marshal of Abilene he never fired 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 that he could shoot quicker and straighter than could any man with whom he was likely to have trouble. His wonderful expertness with the revolver had given him nearly 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 that had been 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 history of the town 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, and during the shipping season, the county for miles in every direction had been over-run by the hordes of cattle coming in from the South and by those that had been held to await the market. Early in 1872 an organization called the “Farmers’ Protective Association of Dickinson County” was formed by the town and the people of the area, and 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 the 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 ever was heard of began to recover and became a prosperous community once 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.

It is probable that Abilene would have lost its southern cattle trade within 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. Coffeyville, in that section of Kansas, also had become 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 element 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 in 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 of the outlaws and desperadoes that infested the Kansas-Indian Territory border tried life in Newton for a while, and 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 out in Wichita on the Abilene line as soon as the railroad was opened. No one complained of lack of spectacular effects or of 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 that was implied by the term “wild and woolly.” The place now is a quiet railroad town of about 2,000 inhabitants, but in the 1870’s its fame as a lawless cowtown was second only to that which Abilene previously had attained. While, upon the whole, it was not equal to Abilene in general spectacular effects, it became, in some respects, even worse. It is probable that there were 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 as well as 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, and 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 more and more uproarious, groups of whooping, drunken men kept up fusillade in the streets as they shambled 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 of New Mexico; and, as befitted its name, 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 of New Mexico, there were many Mexicans; and 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 truly wild and woolly cowtown, West Las Animas never got higher than about the third grade. The town of Kit Carson, on the Kansas Pacific Railroad in eastern Colorado, was a worse place than West Las Animas, though now it is but 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, in order 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.

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