Kansas: Dodge City Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This cattle boomtown of the American West is remembered today primarily for its lawlessness, but it was an important cattle trading center until 1885.

Site Office

Dodge City Convention and Visitors’ Bureau

P.O. Box 1474

Dodge City, KS 67801

ph.: (316) 225-8186

Web site: www.dodgecity.org

A Wild West boomtown if ever there was one, Dodge City has become an indelible part of the mythos of the American West. The city that inspired the phrase “time to get out of Dodge” is located on the Arkansas River in southwestern central Kansas, approximately five miles from Fort Dodge, the U.S. Army post from which the city took its name. Dubbed the “Cow Capital of the World,” Dodge City’s heyday as one of the most important–and notorious–outposts along the cattle trail from Texas to the northern states lasted a mere thirteen years, from the city’s founding in 1872 to the passage of legislation in 1885 that forbade the driving of Texas cattle through the state of Kansas.

Dodge City is still the seat of government in Ford County, but the ways of the residents have changed with the times. Numerous buildings and sites of historical importance have been carefully preserved or restored, and all are readily accessible to visitors intent on learning more about the “Queen of Cowtowns” and its role in the building of the American frontier.

Early History

Responding to the needs of settlers putting down roots throughout the West, the U.S. Army had begun in the early 1800’s to build a series of forts across the country wherever there was a need to protect settlers from hazards such as roaming thieves or Native Americans hostile to the westward expansion of the United States. In 1865 Major General Grenville M. Dodge established Fort Dodge on the banks of the Arkansas River in order to protect the commerce of settlers following the Santa Fe Trail along the Arkansas River to the west. American settlers began to use the Santa Fe Trail in 1821, but the ford across the the river had been used by Spanish conquistador Francisco Vásquez de Coronado as early as 1541 during his search for the Seven Cities of Cíbola.

Where there were soldiers, there was a market, and soon after the establishment of Fort Dodge, a small tent city appeared five miles upriver to sell liquor and other amenities not usually provided by the government to the soldiers stationed at the fort. This camp, which is all it was, was originally named Buffalo City as it soon became an important center for the slaughter of buffalo, which were valued for their hides.

Buffalo City’s status changed rapidly with the coming of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad in 1872. Fueled by a direct line to the outside world, the tiny camp changed its name to Dodge City and soon became the largest cattle market in the world. It also became famous for its vices, and it is this side of the city’s history that has endured the most.

The cowboy of legend was born on the prairies of Texas shortly after the U.S. Civil War. Prior to the war, Texas had been the primary producer of livestock in the newly settled West. Several hundred thousand head of Spanish cattle originally transplanted to the state during its days as a province of Mexico multiplied rapidly in the temperate climate of Texas, and the state’s thin prairie grass, called “buffalo grass,” provided a perfect diet to sustain the herds.

After the Civil War

The coming of the Civil War in 1861 put a temporary halt to the Texans’ steady but profitable business. Access to northern markets was cut off and the southern economy was in steep decline. Cattle continued to multiply despite the fact that sales dropped precipitously, and many a rancher found himself stuck with thousands of head but virtually no market in which to sell them. Ranchers who should have been wealthy were known as “cattle poor” and did their best to make do with small sales until the war was over.

The end of the war, in 1865, not only put an end to the ranchers’ frustrations but also made them wealthier than they had ever been before. The years of slow sales and constant breeding had swollen the state’s herds to an estimated three to six million head of cattle, and in 1865 preparations were made to drive hundreds of thousands of cattle northward as soon as possible. The cattle were herded to the northeastern portion of the state, and the first major drive began in the summer of 1866.

Fully 270,000 head of cattle were driven northward that summer, beginning a way of life that would eventually become one of the cornerstones of U.S. history. Cowboys were hired to herd the cattle off the open ranges and into fenced-off ranches to be branded with the distinctive logo of their new owners before being driven north. The Texas longhorn cattle of the day bore little resemblance to the domesticated cows of today, for they were much larger and more sleek and possessed fearsome horns that sometimes reached six feet from tip to tip. They were also public property, free for the taking to whoever rounded them up first.

Initially, cattle were driven north to the railroad stations of Missouri to be sold to dealers who would then transfer them onto cattle cars for shipment to the major markets of the North and East. Trails taken to the stations varied widely, as the practice of driving cattle north was a new one and the terrain, for the purposes of moving thousands of cattle, was relatively unknown.

The Great Cattle Trails

Trails soon developed along the route. Given such names as the Chisholm Trail and the Southern Texas Trail, these preferred routes were all characterized by plentiful grasses, relatively flat land, and something approaching safety, although cattle driving was never a safe occupation. The Texas longhorns were not like the placid cows of modern ranching, and stampedes were common. Hostile Native Americans regularly attacked cattle drovers, and wandering thieves and highwaymen, leftovers from the guerrilla units that operated on both sides during the Civil War, levied stupendously high fees–akin to protection money–upon any drover unlucky enough to cross their paths. It was nearly impossible to avoid these brigands, as herds of several thousand cattle were notoriously difficult to hide.

Problems with easterly routes through the Ozark Mountains, which brought cattle to train stations in Missouri in battered and bruised condition, necessitated the development of a route that would take cattle straight north from Texas into Kansas. In 1867 construction began on the Kansas Pacific Railroad, destined to stretch westward across Kansas from its starting point at Kansas City. At this point, the era of the cowtown began.

“Cowtowns”

The first of the new cowtowns was Abilene, Kansas. Situated approximately 165 miles southwest of Kansas City, Abilene was a sleepy town of few inhabitants before the railroad came. Shortly thereafter, it became the first of the “wickedest little cities in America.”

In 1867, its first year as a cattle market, 36,000 head were shipped from Abilene. By 1868, this figure had climbed to 75,000 head, and by 1869 the number had leapt to 160,000. By 1870 the new business was in full swing, with more than 300,000 head being transported from Abilene.

In 1871, 600,000 cattle were driven to Abilene to be sold. The bubble on the boom market had burst, however, and fully half of the massive herd had to be driven west for the winter, unsold, in order to graze. The harshness of the winter of 1871-1872 killed thousands of cattle, and the business went into a slump. This was by no means the end of the cattle business, however, but rather a warning to overzealous Texas ranchers too eager to flood the market at any cost. The business rebounded by 1872, but Abilene’s prestige did not, and new cowtowns grew up to take its place.

The next new cowtown was Ellsworth, Kansas, located forty miles farther west along the Kansas Pacific route. It, too, became a “wicked little city,” as did newcomers Newton and Wichita, both situated along the new Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad line, which claimed an ever-larger share of the business due to its more southerly location.

The Railroads and Dodge City

Eventually the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe came to Dodge City, and Dodge quickly grew into the most famous of the cowtowns and the largest cattle market in the world. When the railroad arrived in 1872, only 2,000 cattle were driven to Dodge, although the buffalo hide industry took advantage of the railroad, and business boomed for a few more years until the buffalo had nearly been exterminated. In 1876, 322,000 head of cattle were driven to Dodge and nearby Ellis, with the vast majority going to Dodge. From 1876 to 1885 the number of cattle shipped from Dodge City each year fluctuated from a low of approximately 60,000 to a high of about 300,000, while some cattle were simply penned in Dodge temporarily on their way to markets in Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming. All told, more than seven million cattle were marketed at Dodge during the 1870’s and 1880’s. Everybody came to Dodge.

Dodge was distinguished from its cowtown forebears primarily by the nature of its people. While earlier cowtowns had mostly been tiny villages prior to the coming of the railroad, Dodge, when it was still known as Buffalo City, already had been well known for its vices for several years. While the other cowtowns had indeed become “wicked cities,” the nature of their wickedness was transitional, because everybody knew that the railroad would someday push farther south and that the boomtown atmosphere would pass soon enough. The coming of the railroad may have enhanced Dodge City’s less-than-perfect image, but it did not create it.

Rapid Growth

Dodge went from tent city to real city in a matter of weeks. The main street, called Front Street, was built on either side of the railroad tracks. Consisting primarily of one-story frame buildings, Front Street was obviously built in haste: few of the buildings were situated squarely on their owner’s property, and many proprietors were forced to buy expensive easements. Cattle pens for holding newly arrived longhorns were built in the flatlands surrounding the city. The city in its heyday never had more than twelve hundred full-time residents, although the population during the busy season was usually several times as many, and in the beginning the nearest law enforcement was in Hays City, seventy-five miles away.

The only legitimate business in Dodge was cattle, and even it had its share of ruffians and shysters. Big-money hustlers from the North turned wheeling and dealing into a fine art, and the lack of credible law enforcement allowed questionable transactions to flourish. The cattle business did, however, provide the money that supported the city’s other economic activities, which consisted primarily of drinking, gambling, and prostitution. Dance halls, brothels, and saloons formed the bulk of commercial buildings in the city, and with thousands of dollars trading hands in Dodge on a daily basis, the business of vice boomed, attracting almost as many ne’er-do-wells and assorted criminals as the cattle business did cowboys. It was said that only in Dodge could a man break all ten of the commandments in one day, die with his boots on, and be buried in the famous Boot Hill Cemetery.

Center of Booze and Vice

In 1876, the year in which Dodge became the undisputed leader in the cattle trade, nineteen establishments were licensed to sell liquor in the city, or one tavern for every sixty-one permanent residents. While this number of taverns may have been acceptable during the summer season, when the city was filled with transient cowboys and cattle dealers, it was absurdly high during the slow periods when the establishments had to depend upon the full-time residents for business. These slow periods resulted in fierce competition among the liquor-selling establishments, often forcing them to drastically reduce their prices. This cheap liquor also attracted an unsavory element to Dodge.

The only liquor-selling establishment in Dodge that could claim any amount of respectability was the Long Branch Saloon, named after a famous resort on the Atlantic Coast. Prosperous cattle dealers, buffalo hunters, and railroad tycoons were the standard clientele of the Long Branch Saloon, which, like most of the city’s other taverns, was located on Front Street. Other notable, if not as posh, saloons included the Junction Saloon, Muller and Straeter’s Old House Saloon, Varieties Dance Hall, Beatty and Kelly’s Alhambra Saloon, Gambling Hall and Restaurant, A. B. Webster’s Alamo, the Opera House Saloon, and the Green Front.

Most of these establishments were not simply taverns but also dance halls offering entertainment in addition to liquor. They were also purveyors of prostitution. Prostitutes were the most effective way for the saloons to attract trail-weary cowboys, who usually had seen no women for months.

Prostitution and dancing were about the only lines of work open to women in Dodge City. Women who came to Dodge to be entertainers often wound up doubling as prostitutes, and vice versa. The most famous of these Dodge City women was Fannie Keenan, known as the Queen of the Fairy Belles. Keenan was the most popular of the dance hall women, and it was rumored that she had been a grand opera singer prior to making the trip to Dodge.

Keenan had acquired her legendary status not only through her performing but also through her good works in a town where good works were rare. She regularly played the role of nurse to sick or wounded cowboys who had nobody else to turn to and was known to buy tickets home for unfortunate strangers who lost their money through gambling. Keenan was killed in 1878 by a visiting Texan named James W. “Spike” Kennedy following an altercation between Kennedy and then-mayor of the city, James H. “Dog” Kelley, owner of the Alhambra Saloon.

Gambling was Dodge City’s other major activity, and one that made a great deal of money for the owners of the gambling houses. Gambling was considered somewhat more respectable than drinking or prostitution. Even legendary lawman Bat Masterson, who served as sheriff of Ford County from 1877 to 1879, said gambling “was not only the principal and best-paying industry of the town, but was also reckoned among the most respectable.” Professional gamblers were held in high esteem in Dodge City, and opportunities to win large sums of money from just-paid visiting cowboys eager for some excitement were readily available. Gambling was practiced in virtually every saloon in the town, and the laxity of law enforcement practically invited pickup poker games to be played anywhere and everywhere.

The intensity supplied by the visiting cowboys and cattle dealers combined with the sheer lawlessness of the town resulted in the early deaths of a large number of people. As the town grew and death became more frequent, bodies came to be buried on Boot Hill, near the bank of the Arkansas River. Although existing records regarding the death rate in Dodge City are, at best, sketchy and incomplete, it is known that at least twenty-five people were killed in 1872, when Dodge had a population of about five hundred. This is a murder rate of five for every hundred residents. Today, a murder rate of thirty for every hundred thousand residents is considered high, even in the most crime-ridden cities.

Boot Hill

Boot Hill got its name from the fact that most of the people interred in it were buried with their boots on. There was no marble on the plains to use for headstones, and wood to make caskets had to be shipped in from elsewhere at great expense. Furthermore, because so many of those killed were just passing through and had no friends or relatives to see to a proper burial, most of the dead were buried just as they were found. If they were wrapped in a saddle blanket, their burial arrangements were considered luxurious.

Despite its long-lasting fame, Boot Hill was used for burial for only about six years. In 1879 the city’s leaders decided to build a new schoolhouse on Boot Hill, proving that the city was not all bad, so the bodies were moved to a potter’s field next to the new Prairie Grove Cemetery northeast of the city. Because graves on Boot Hill were dug haphazardly and were so poorly marked, if at all, it is possible that some bodies remain there today.

Famous Visitors

Dodge City’s notoriety both as an important center of commerce and as an outpost of rampant vice attracted a steady stream of famous people during its heyday. Some of the notable visitors included General George Armstrong Custer, General William Tecumseh Sherman, General Nelson A. Miles, General Philip Sheridan, Senator John J. Ingalls, and Kansas governor Thomas Carney, although Carney did not visit until after he was out of office. Even President Rutherford B. Hayes stopped in Dodge, but he refused to leave his presidential train car during the brief stop, apparently not wishing for it to be known that he had voluntarily consorted with the citizens of such a place as Dodge.

Several of the West’s most legendary lawmen devoted portions of their careers to trying to clean up Dodge. Their efforts were, for the most part, unsuccessful, but without their presence, the carnage likely would have been even worse. Bat Masterson originally came to Dodge City in 1873 as an Indian scout and buffalo hunter. In 1875 he moved on to Sweetwater, Texas, where in 1876 he killed a man and a dance-hall hostess in an argument, then returned to Dodge City. It was at this time that he became Ford County sheriff. In 1879 he was elevated to the position of U.S. deputy marshal. Probably only in Dodge could a man with Masterson’s record become a lawman. Wyatt Earp, who was destined to play a major role in western history as a participant in the gunfight at OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881, was also a Dodge City lawman, serving as a police officer from 1876 to 1877 and as assistant marshal in 1878-1879. Gunfighter John “Doc” Holliday, who fought alongside Earp at the OK Corral, ran a dental office in Dodge in 1878-1879, when he and Earp first met.

Decline

Dodge City’s salad days could not last forever, and the beginning of the end came in 1885 when the governor of Kansas issued a proclamation forbidding all “through” Texas cattle–that is, cattle driven directly from southern Texas without a winter stopover–to enter the state of Kansas. The reason for this legislation was the splenic fever, commonly called the “Spanish fever,” a malady long known to the cowboys but accepted as part of doing business. The fever was brought north from Texas by ticks attached to the big longhorns. At the time, no one realized the ticks were the means of transmission, but it was known that Texas longhorns, who were immune to the disease, somehow spread it to local cattle upon their arrival. During Dodge City’s boom, many people had come to the area to establish ranches in the fertile prairies of Ford County and raise cattle indigenous to Kansas. Their cattle were susceptible to the fever, and when, in 1884, the splenic fever spread among the stockyards of Kansas City, St. Louis, and Chicago, Kansas ranchers demanded that their government put a stop to the cattle drives. The last cattle drive from Texas to Dodge City took place in 1885, although the city remained an important shipping point for local ranchers for many years afterward.

With the slow death of the city’s economic mainstay, the rest of the economy also suffered. The state of Kansas had passed a dry law forbidding alcholic beverages as early as 1880, but the law had been completely ignored in Dodge until the city passed its own dry law in 1887. Even with the new law, the last liquor-selling establishment in Dodge did not close until 1903. The sale of cigarettes, cigars, tobacco, opium, and narcotics was outlawed in 1896. Dodge continued to be an important horse market after the cattle days, and the city, as a whole, remained economically viable and did not become a ghost town, as had so many of the earlier boom towns.

Today the Boot Hill Museum houses many of the relics of Dodge City’s colorful past, including a re-creation of Front Street, most of which burned in 1885. The visitors’ center is housed in a replica of the original Great Western Hotel. The original Fort Dodge Jail, which stood at the military post during the heyday, has been moved to the city. The 1878 Hardesty House still stands as a typical example of the homes lived in by prosperous cattle dealers. Several original structures from Fort Dodge can also be seen at the Kansas Soldiers’ Home five miles east of Dodge City. Parts of the old Santa Fe Trail, founded in 1821, can still be seen in the prairie west of Dodge City.

For Further Information
  • Ford County Historical Society. Dodge City and Ford County, Kansas, 1870-1920: Pioneer Histories and Stories. Dodge City, Kans.: Author, 1996.
  • Rich, Everett, ed. The History of Kansas: Selected Commentaries on Past Times. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1960. A collection of essays and reflections on the history of Kansas, some written by modern historians, others culled from the writings of people who actually lived during the era. The essay entitled “Cattle Trails of the Prairies,” by Charles M. Harger, is particularly illuminating.
  • Vestal, Stanley. Queen of Cowtowns: Dodge City, the Wickedest Little City in America, 1872 to 1886. New York: Harper, 1952. Undoubtedly the most comprehensive overview of the pivotal years of Dodge City’s history. The book is long on fanciful recollection but is replete with hard facts supplied by Vestal, a Rhodes Scholar and western historian from the University of Oklahoma.
  • Whittemore, Margaret. Historic Kansas: A Centenary Sketchbook. Manhattan, Kans.: Plint Hills, 1974. Contains brief chapters on several aspects of the state’s history, showcasing Dodge in context with the rest of Kansas history.
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