Sunday, April 14, 2013

Kansas: The Importance of Dodge City to the American Old West

Wheat fields outside Dodge City, Kansas.

Technically, Kansas is considered part of the Central United States, and its central location is the reason it was so appealing to the railroad companies, and the reason that Kansas played a vital role in the success of American business in the Old West, particularly those involved in the cattle industry. 

Boot Hill "shops" and museum, Dodge City, Kansas. 

Dodge City was a wild place in the Old West, but it was also vitally important for the distribution of goods across the country. It has an interesting and slightly complicated beginning. The first time I wrote about Dodge City I was corrected by a gentleman who worked for the museum in Dodge City for many years and provided me with a tremendous amount of detailed information. I wish I could remember his name, but that was five years ago. If you read this blog, I still remember you, sir, and thank you. 

The Early Years of Dodge City and its Importance to Commerce in the Old West

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.

The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe train station in Dodge City.

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.

Rath and Wright's Buffalo Hide Yard in 1878 showing 40,000 buffalo hides.

The bones of the buffalo were piled so high they reached the tops of the buildings. 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.

Texas Longhorn. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

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.

Texas Longhorns. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman

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.

Wyatt Earp circa 1869.

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.

Luke Short, part owner of the Long Branch Saloon. 

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.

Doc Holliday, dentist and gambler and ally for the Earps during the shootout at the OK Corral. 

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.

Hangman's Tree at Boot Hill cemetery in Dodge City, Kansas. The early episodes of Marshal Dillon always begin with Marshal Matt Dillon walking through the Boot Hill Cemetery reminiscing about the people who have lived and died in Dodge City, Kansas. 

Fans of the television series Gunsmoke are also endeared to Dodge City as the employer of their beloved fictional character, Marshal Matt Dillon.


  • Forbis, William H. The Old West: The Cowboys. Time Life Books. Canada:1974.
  • Laughead, George, et al. “Dodge City, Kansas History: Queen of the Cowtowns, The Cowboy Capital.” Ford County Historical Society Website.
  • Mallory, P.A. "The Dodge City War." Retrieved October 30, 2010.
  • "Top 10 True Western Towns of 2010." True West Magazine. Retrieved June 13, 2009.
  • Trachtman, Paul. The Old West: The Gunfighters. Time Life Books. Canada: 1974.
  • Wright, Robert. Dodge City, The Cowboy Capital. Second Edition: 1913. Web Version, Scanned for Ford County Historical Society: April, 2006.


Unknown said...

Thanks for this fascinating history lesson.

Damyanti @Daily(w)rite
Co-host, A to Z Challenge 2013

Twitter: @AprilA2Z
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Shane Joseph said...

Gunsmoke! Top of the line westerns! My favorite: Festus Haggan (Ken Kurtis). I did not realize "Festus" could really sing....vocalist for the Sons of the Pioneers and replaced Frank Sinatra as vocalist in the Tommy Dorsey Band. He was cremated and his ashes are spread over the Colorado flatlands. Thanks Darla

Darla Sue Dollman said...

I've posted on Gunsmoke and Marshal Dillon (the pre-Gunsmoke show) on my classic television blog and I was surprised by the response from friends and neighbors--so many people love that show! I liked Festus, too. It's interesting comparing his first appearance on the show--he helps Matt track down a family member--to his character when he joined the cast as a regular. He was much more comfortable with the role when he joined the cast.

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...