Queen of the Cowtowns
The Cowboy Capital
“…in all our years together, he [Wyatt Earp] never described a gun battle to me. He considered it a great misfortune that he had lived in such a time and under such circumstances that guns had figured at all in his career.“Josephine Marcus Earp
Front Street, Dodge City, KS, 1874, with Robert Wright and Charles Rath’s General store, Chalk Beeson’s Long Branch, George M. Hoover’s liquor and cigar store, and Frederick Zimmermann’s gun and hardware store.
Dodge City history is a pure definition of the West–a historical gateway that began with Francisco Vasquez de Coronado crossing the Arkansas River in 1541, leading to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 — Dodge City is on the 100th meridian 1824 adjusted border — and the 1821 opening of the Santa Fe Trail (“Santa Fe Road”) by William Becknell, which became the great commercial route, between Franklin, Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico, until 1880. Thousands of wagons traveled the Mountain Branch of the trail which went west from Dodge City along the north bank of the Arkansas River (pronounced ‘Are-Kansas’) into Colorado. For those willing to risk the dangers of waterless sand hills, a shorter route called the Cimarron Cutoff crossed the river near Dodge City and went southwest to the Cimarron River. H.L. Sitler, the first settler of what became Dodge City, said; “If you stood on the hill above Dodge City, there was traffic as far as you could see, 24-hours a day, seven days a week on the Santa Fe Trail.”
Early view of Fort Dodge, on the Arkansas River, five miles east of the 100th meridian and Dodge City, Kansas.
In those days, safety from marauding Indians was essential. Fort Dodge, Kansas, was established in 1859, and opened in 1865 on the Santa Fe Trail near the present site of Dodge City, offering protection to wagon trains, the U.S. mail service and serving as a supply base for troops engaged in the Indian Wars. Kiowa, Cheyenne and other plains tribes inhabited the area and wild game was abundant including vast herds of buffalo (American bison). Fort Dodge was the first fort opened after the Civil War.
Just six years later in 1871, five miles west of Fort Dodge at the foot of a hill along the Santa Fe Trail on the 100th meridian as it crossed the Arkansas River, a rancher by the name of Henry L. Sitler constructed a three-room sod house, the first structure on the future site of Dodge City. Built to oversee his cattle ranch, Sitler’s home became a frequent stopping place for buffalo hunters and traders. Dodge City history starts the next year.
In June 1872, Dodge City was founded five miles west of Fort Dodge on the northwest edge of the military reservation, with the Sitler’s home as the only building. George M. Hoover had the first business–a whisky bar built out of sod and boards. It quickly became a trade center for Santa Fe Trail travelers and Buffalo hunters.
George M. Hoover’s Front Street store, 1874, Dodge City, KS. Hoover was the first merchant and the first elected mayor of Dodge City.
A group of leaders, businessmen and military men from Forts Dodge, Riley and Leavenworth, KS, completeed the formal organization of the Town Company on August 15, 1872, and began planning the development of the town site. Originally the early settlers named the little settlement Buffalo City, but another town was using that name, so it was changed to Dodge City, after Ft. Dodge, KS. (The fort was named after General Grenville Dodge.)
By September of 1872, the shiny steel rails of the brand new Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad stretched into view. And a town, Dodge City, was waiting. The railroad initiated a tremendous growth for many years. Already, south of the tracks, hastily built frame buildings and tents were housing two grocery and general merchandise stores, a dance hall, a restaurant, a barber shop, a blacksmith shop – even a saloon next to Sitler’s original sod house. The famous Front Street legend had begun. Dodge City was already setting a record for growth.
Stacks of buffalo hides towered along Front St. – filthy buffalo hunters and traders filled the town’s establishments – and the term “stinker” was coined. Train-masters would take their red caboose lanterns along when visiting the town’s “soiled doves” – and the term “red light district” came to life.
Charles Rath, famous buffalo hunter, seated on rick of 40,000 hides in Robert Wright’s Dodge City hide yard in 1878, with M.W. (Doc) Anchutz (in white shirt, back).
During those early years, Dodge City acquired its infamous stamp of lawlessness and gun-slinging. There was no local law enforcement and the military at Ft. Dodge had no jurisdiction over the town. Buffalo hunters, railroad workers, drifters and soldiers scrapped and fought, leading to the shootings where men died with their boots on. And that created a hasty need for a local burial place – Boot Hill Cemetery. It was used until 1878. For six years before Boot Hill, Dodge City had no official cemetery. Persons dying who had friends, money or standing in the community were buried in the post cemetery at Fort Dodge. Others, penniless or unknown, were buried where it was convenient to dig a hole.
Dodge City Town Company, Ford Co., Kansas. Inducements offered to actual settlers! Prospects of the town better than any other in the upper Arkansas Valley! Free Bridge across the Arkansas River! The town a little over one year old, and contains over seventy buildings! Good school, hotel, etc. AT & SF RR depot in town… Enquire of: R. M. Wright at Chas. Rath & Co. store or E. B. Kirk, Secy and Treas., Fort Dodge.Dodge City Messenger, June 25, 1874
Town founder and Dodge City Town Company president, Robert M. Wright, noted in his 1913 book, Dodge City, The Cowboy Capital: “It has already been said that Dodge City was established in 1872, upon the advent of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. Dodge was in the very heart of the buffalo country. Hardly had the railroad reached there, long before a depot could be built (they had an office in a box car), business began; and such a business! Dozens of cars a day were loaded with hides and meat, and dozens of carloads of grain, flour, and provisions arrived each day. The streets of Dodge were lined with wagons, bringing in hides and meat and getting supplies from early morning to late at night.
“Charles Rath & Company ordered from Long Brothers, of Kansas City, two hundred cases of baking-powder at one order. They went to Colonel W. F. Askew, to whom we were shipping immense quantities of hides, and said: “These men must be crazy, or else they mean two hundred boxes instead of cases.” They said there were not two hundred cases in the city. Askew wired us if we had not made a mistake. We answered, “No; double the order.” Askew was out a short time after that and saw six or eight carloads of flour stacked up in the warehouse. He said he now understood. It was to bake this flour up into bread.
“I have been to several mining camps where rich strikes had been made, but I never saw any town to equal Dodge. A good hunter would make a hundred dollars a day. Everyone had money to throw at the birds. There was no article less than a quarter–a drink was a quarter, a shave was a quarter, a paper of pins a quarter, and needles the same. In fact, that was the smallest change. Governor St. John was in Dodge once, when he was notified that a terrible cyclone had visited a little town close to the Kansas line, in Nebraska. In two hours I raised one thousand dollars, which he wired them. Our first calaboose in Dodge City was a well fifteen feet deep, into which the drunkards were let down and allowed to remain until they were sober. Sometimes there were several in it at once. It served the purpose well for a time. “Of course everyone has heard of wicked Dodge; but a great deal has been said and written about it that is not true. Its good side has never been told, and I cannot give it space here. Many reckless, bad men came to Dodge and many brave men. These had to be met by officers equally brave and reckless. As the old saying goes, “You must fight the devil with fire.” The officers gave them the south side of the railroad-track, but the north side must be kept respectable, and it was. There never was any such thing as shooting at plug hats. On the contrary, every stranger that came to Dodge City and behaved himself was treated with politeness; but woe be unto the man who came seeking a fight. He was soon accommodated in any way, shape, or form that he wished.
“Often have I seen chivalry extended to ladies on the streets, from these rough men, that would have done credit to the knights of old. When some man a little drunk, and perhaps unintentionally, would jostle a lady in a crowd, he was soon brought to his senses by being knocked down by one of his companions, who remarked, “Never let me see you insult a lady again.” In fact, the chivalry of Dodge toward the fair sex and strangers was proverbial. Never in the history of Dodge was a stranger mistreated, but, on the contrary, the utmost courtesy was always and under all circumstances extended to him, and never was there a frontier town whose liberality exceeded that of Dodge. But, while women, children, and strangers were never, anywhere, treated with more courtesy and respect; while such things as shooting up plug hats and making strangers dance is all bosh and moonshine, and one attempting such would have been promptly called down; let me tell you one thing-none of Dodge’s well-known residents would have been so rash as to dare to wear a plug hat through the streets, or put on any “dog”, such as wearing a swallow tailor evening dress, or any such thing. “
Dodge City was the buffalo capital until mass slaughter destroyed the huge herds and left the prairie littered with decaying carcasses. An estimated 1,500,000 buffalo hides were shipped from Dodge in the years 1872-1878. For years farmers, during hard times, gathered the buffalo bones and sold them for six to eight dollars a ton. The bones were used in the manufacture of china and fertilizer. By 1875 the buffalo were gone as a source of revenue, but the longhorn cattle of Texas drove the dollars into town. For ten more years, over five million head of cattle were driven up the western branch of the Chisholm Trail – the Great Western Trail or Texas Trail – to Dodge City.
Law and order came riding into town with such respectable law officers as W. B. ‘Bat’ Masterson, Ed Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Bill Tilghman, H. B. ‘Ham’ Bell and Charlie Bassett. Out of these personalities evolved the famous fictional character of Gunsmokes’ Marshal Matt Dillon. The town these early men knew was laid out with two “Front Streets,” one on either side of the railroad tracks — although the name was orginally “Main Street” for the one north of the tracks.
Original photograph of the ‘Dodge City Peace Commission’ in June 1883. Front, l-r; Chas. E. Basset, Wyatt S. Earp, Frank McLain, and Neil Brown. Back, l-r; W. H. Harris, Luke Short, W. B. Bat Masterson, and W. F. Petillon. This is the version with Petillon beside Masterson.
The city passed an ordinance that guns could not be worn or carried north of the “deadline” which was the railroad tracks. The south side where “anything went” was wide open. In 1877 the population was 1,200 and nineteen businesses were licensed to sell liquor.
During those first years the population varied according to the season, swelling during the summer with the influx of cowboys, cattle buyers, gamblers and prostitutes. Business houses, dance halls and saloons catered to the Texas trade. Saloon keepers renamed their places, Alamo and Lone Star and served brandies, liqueurs and the latest mixed drinks. Ice usually was available so even beer could be served cold. Some saloons advertised anchovies and Russian caviar on their cold menus. Gambling ranged from a game of five-cent “Chuck-aluck” to thousand dollar poker pots. Many saloons offered some type of musical entertainment – a piano player, a singer, or as in Chalk Beeson’s Long Branch, a five-piece orchestra.
Long Branch saloon interior, Front Street, Dodge City, circa 1878.
Beeson also organized and led the famous Cow Boy Band (sic) that entertained all over the west at cattlemen’s conventions, concerts, dances and in Washington, D.C. at the inauguration of President Harrison.
Fort Dodge, Kansas was closed in 1882 and due to a January 1886 blizzard, the cattle drives ended. An illustrious period of history was over but the legend lives on in Dodge City’s historic preservation of its romantic and internationally famous Old West frontier history.
As the nineteenth century ended, the bragging of the western pioneers furnished an abundance of materials for dime novels, nickelodeons, Hollywood films, radio and television. Stuart Lakes’s Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, published in 1931 remains the most famous book on that era. Even today, 100,000 tourists relive the legend each year by visiting the Boot Hill Museum and historic Front Street reconstruction. “If the history of the West has been a mother lode of entertainment riches, Dodge City has been its touchstone.”
Robert Wright adds, in Dodge City, the Cowboy Capital: “What made Dodge City so famous was that it was the last of the towns of the last big frontier of the United States. When this was settled, the frontier was gone, it was the passing of the frontier with the passing of the buffalo, and the Indian question was settled forever.
Here congregated people from the east, people from the south, people from the north, and people from the west. People of all sorts, sizes, conditions, and nationalities; people of all color, good, bad, and indifferent, congregated here, because it was the big door to so vast a frontier. Some came to Dodge City out of curiosity; others strictly for business; the stock man came because it was a great cattle market…; the cowboy came because it was his duty as well as delight, and here he drew wages and spent them; the hunter came because it was the very heart of the greatest game country on earth; the freighter came because it was one of the greatest overland freight depots in the United States, and he hauled material and supplies for nearly four hundred miles, supplying three military posts, and all the frontier for that far south and west; last but not least, the gambler and the bad man came because of the wealth and excitement, for obscene birds will always gather around a carcass.”
(Ford County Historical Society, Inc., Dodge City, KS; Nancy Jo Trauer; the Kansas Heritage Center, Dodge City, KS; and George Laughead, authors. Photographs and page: FCHS, all rights reserved. Copyright 2002-2019.)