Dodge City, Kansas: History of an Old West Cattle Town

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Dodge City maintains part of its downtown as a tourist attraction.

The evolution of Dodge City from a few sod houses to a railroad depot and booming cow town was a natural one considering its prime location on the Santa Fe Trail.

In 1871, cattle rancher Henry J. Sitler built a sod house near the Santa Fe Trail and the Arkansas River at a location that he hoped would help him properly manage his cattle operation. Sitler’s home became a regular stopping point for many travelers along the Santa Fe Trail near Fort Dodge. A year later, in 1872, Colonel Richard Irving Dodge, former Aide-De-Camp to General Sherman in the American Civil War, was asked to assist the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in building a station on the Arkansas River near the home of Henry Sitler. Henry Sitler most likely never imagined that his tiny sod house would eventually become the seed for the legendary Dodge City!

Dodge City and the American Buffalo

Due to its prime location, Dodge City was quickly packed with buffalo hunters and freighters almost overnight. According to the Ford County Historical Society, 1,500,000 buffalo hides were shipped from Dodge City between 1872 and 1878 during the years when the buffalo were nearly brought to extinction. When every last bone and hide of buffalo was finally collected and carted away from Dodge City, the wild American frontier was considered lost forever. Dodge City was considered one of the last frontier towns in America.

Birth of a Cattle Town

During the 1870s, the cattle industry was also struggling with Texas Fever, or Splenic Fever, a devastating disease that wiped out entire herds of cattle. The cause of Texas Fever was later discovered to be a protozoan transmitted by ticks and carried into Kansas cattle on the Texas Longhorn. The Texas Longhorn cattle would contract the disease at a young age and build an immunity, though they continued to act as a carrier. To protect other cattle, a quarantine line was drawn in Kansas and the Texas Longhorns were not allowed to cross, but parts of Kansas still accepted the Texas cattle. The Chisholm Trail was expanded for this purpose and a branch called the Western Trail led straight into Dodge City. According to the Ford County Historical Society, nearly five million head of cattle were driven up to Dodge City in a ten year period. At this point in time, Dodge City was vital to the success of the American cattle industry.

Gamblers, Gangsters, Saloons and Soiled Doves

Along with the cattle came the cowboys, whiskey, gamblers, soiled doves and brothels. According to Paul Trachtman, author of The Old West: The Gunfighters, Dodge City quickly acquired the reputation as one of the wickedest cities in America. The famous Masterson brothers and close friend, Wyatt Earp, were believed by the townspeople to be in complete control of the town. Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp served as sheriff’s deputies and Jim Masterson was the town marshal. In the 1880s, members of an “anti-gang” faction attempted to oust the Mastersons from their law enforcement positions. The mayor of the city, Alonzo B. Webster, who was also a saloon owner, fired Jim Masterson then posted a series of moral ordinances greatly restricting business activities in the town.

The Dodge City War

A friend of the Mastersons, Luke Short, owned part of the Long Branch Saloon and Mayor Webster had Short’s prostitutes arrested in an attempt to close the Long Branch down. Short was run out of town and called on his gunfighter friends for assistance. Within days, famous gunmen from around the country were gathering in and around Dodge City preparing for a showdown. According to The Gunfighters, Short had an eclectic collection of friends, including such famous men as Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday, and Wyatt Earp, as well as some less-famous characters, such as Dynamite Sam, and Dark Alley Jim. Intimidated by this roster of gunfighters, the local sheriff repeatedly begged the governor of Kansas, George Washington Glick, for assistance. Glick, sensing a battle on the horizon, sent Tom Moonlight, the state’s Adjutant General, to negotiate. Eventually, Mayor Webster, realizing he was grossly outnumbered, agreed to allow Luke Short to return to his saloon.

Texas Fever Brings an End to an Era

Most of the townspeople realized that as long as there was cattle in Dodge City there would also be cowboys with money to spend, and gamblers, saloons, and soiled doves. Texas Fever brought an end to this situation in 1885 when the quarantine line was extended throughout Kansas and Dodge City was cut off from the Texas cattle industry. The saloons, brothels and professional gamblers lost their sources of income. With the loss of the Texas cattle business, Dodge City settled back into a typical small, Kansas town.

Legacy of Dodge City

Dodge City is still an important part of the cattle industry as it is home to Cargill Meat Solutions, one of the largest beef processing plants in the United States. Dodge City continues to attract tourists and residents for many reasons, including its fascinating western history. In 2009, American Cowboy Magazine named Dodge City one of the top 20 towns to live in the American West due to its active Western lifestyle and True West Magazine named Dodge City one of the Top 10 True Western Towns. Fans of the television series Gunsmoke are also endeared to Dodge City as the employer of their beloved fictional character, Marshal Matt Dillon.

Resources:

  1. Forbis, William H. The Old West: The Cowboys. Time Life Books. Canada: 1974.
  2. Laughead, George, et al. “Dodge City, Kansas History: Queen of the Cowtowns, The Cowboy Capital.” Ford County Historical Society Website.
  3. Mallory, P.A. “The Dodge City War.” Historynet.com.
  4. “Top 10 True Western Towns of 2010.” True West Magazine.
  5. Trachtman, Paul. The Old West: The Gunfighters. Time Life Books. Canada: 1974.
  6. Wright, Robert. Dodge City, The Cowboy Capital. Second Edition: 1913. Web Version, Scanned for Ford County Historical Society: April, 2006.