Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Often referred to (less respectfully) as "cow towns," cattle towns were small frontier settlements whose entrepreneurial existence depended heavily on the trade in free-range cattle. A typical cattle town lay at the junction of railroad and livestock trail. It provided facilities for the reception of herds driven up from the south, their sale, and their transportation to urban meatpackers, to midwestern cattle feeders, or to the ranchers of the Central and Northern Plains. While their principal commodity was cattle, horses destined for ranch use provided an important secondary commerce. Although Ogallala, Nebraska, was also a noted cattle town, the most famous were those of post–Civil War Kansas, each served by a trail from Texas.

The first was Abilene, organized as a market for Texas stock in 1867. It flourished until farmers overran its outlying ranges, ending its access to the trail. Ellsworth and Wichita then assumed roles as major cattle towns. From 1872 through 1875 these two–urged on by rival railroads–competed for the trade. Ultimately, rural settlement closed them both. Dodge City became a cattle town in 1876. A severe drought, temporarily retarding the advance of the agricultural frontier, extended its life as a Texas cattle market until 1885. Caldwell flourished from 1880 through 1885. Kansas finally closed its borders to direct importation of Texas cattle, ending the careers of both Dodge and Caldwell.

Local politics at the cattle towns tended to center on conflict between critics and defenders of the cattle trade. Critics consisted of two groups. Farmers feared trampled crops and the fatal effects of "Texas fever" on domestic livestock. Many townspeople opposed the saloons, professional gambling, and prostitution apparently required by cattlemen and off-duty cowboys. Businessmen invariably closed ranks against outlying farmers but tended to factionalize on moral reform. Three political positions emerged. Traditionalists fond of a lingering frontier ambience resisted all change. Moderate reformers, mainly leading business and professional men, favored ameliorative measures: multiple police officers to enforce tough gun control laws, thus ensuring that good order accompanied commercial sin; monthly tax assessments on saloonkeepers, gamblers, and prostitutes to help finance close police supervision (police salaries typically constituted a town's largest budget item); and, as far as possible, the segregation of brothels and dance houses from the main business district. Finally, there were the radical reformers, chiefly evangelicals who grew increasingly active after Kansas adopted liquor prohibition in 1880. With the saloons of Dodge and Caldwell now egregiously illegal, local opponents of all social immorality rallied under the antiliquor banner. Although women reportedly comprised the hard core of antiliquor crusaders, a male element eventually resorted to violence to achieve reform. In 1885 arsonists destroyed much of Dodge City's business district in an apparent attempt to rid it of saloons and brothels; simultaneously, a group lynched a Caldwell bootlegger as a warning to other violators of the liquor law.

But the legendary street homicide associated with the cattle towns has been very much overdrawn by novelists, screenwriters, and journalists. Between 1870 and 1885, including justifiable killings by the police, only forty-five adults died violently at the five major Kansas cattle towns, an average of 1.5 fatalities per cowboy season. Recent efforts by scholars to exaggerate this low body count through the use of criminologists' "per 100,000 population" ratio have proved statistically fallacious. Nobody died in a Hollywood-style duel. Fewer than a third of the victims returned fire; a number were not even armed. Four deaths were accidental shootings. Famous "bad men" (the term "gunfighter" had not yet been innovated) accounted for few deaths. John Wesley Hardin killed a man snoring too loudly in an adjoining hotel room; Wyatt Earp (or another policemen) killed a carousing cowboy; Bat Masterson dispatched the murderer of his brother; Wild Bill Hickok killed two men, one a security guard, by mistake. In large part, the low cattle town body count resulted from businessmen's fear of violence, which not only could escalate into property damage but could also deter the in-migration of substantial citizens and capital investment. But potential violence always presented something of a quandary for cattle town elites. Business leaders felt it necessary to suppress the disorder to which drunken and high-spirited visitors were prone but to do so without causing Texas drovers to take their business elsewhere. Only the end of cattle trading in each town resolved this dilemma.

See also IMAGES AND ICONS: Dodge City, Kansas / TRANSPORTATION: Cattle Trails.

Robert R. Dykstra Worcester, Massachusettes

Dykstra, Robert R. The Cattle Towns. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1968.

Dykstra, Robert R. "Overdosing on Dodge City." Western Historical Quarterly 27 (1996): 505– 14.

Dykstra, Robert R. "To Live and Die in Dodge City: Body Counts, Law and Order, and the Case of Kansas v. Gill." In Lethal Imagination: Violence and Brutality in American History, edited by Michael A. Bellesiles. New York: New York University Press, 1999: 210–26.

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