When people think of nineteenth-century Great Plains towns such as Dodge City, Kansas, Ogallala, Nebraska, and Deadwood, South Dakota, they often conjure up images of frontier violence. One image that comes to mind is of Marshal Matt Dillon, with six-shooters drawn, facing an unruly cowboy on a dusty street in Dodge City. Someone else might imagine a pair of luckless horse thieves being dispatched by vigilantes in Ogallala. Still another image might be of the cowardly assassination of Wild Bill Hickok by Jack McCall in Deadwood's Saloon #10. Whatever the image, the overall picture is of a Great Plains frontier where violence and disorder ruled the day. No other region of the United States is given this distinction more than the Great Plains.
Why do people perceive the American Great Plains as violent? Nobody pictures the Canadian Plains in the same manner. Instead of gunfighters, highwaymen, and vigilantes, images of the North-West Mounted Police, with their connotations of law and order, define the Canadian Plains. The American Great Plains, however, were never as violent as popular culture assumes. Since the publication of Robert Dykstra's The Cattle Towns (1968), scholars have begun, although not without protest, to chip away at the myth of a violent Great Plains. Dodge City, as Dykstra points out, witnessed an average of only 1.5 homicides per year during its ten years as a cattle-trading center; it was hardly a town plagued by lethal violence. Ogallala, Nebraska, the "cowboy capital" of the Cornhusker State and often described as the "Gomorrah of the trail," recorded only six killings during its ten years (1875–84) as an end-of-the-trail cattle town.
The driving force behind the creation of a violent Great Plains has been the media: nineteenth- century newspapers, dime novels, and popular histories and twentieth-century television Westerns and Hollywood. Without the nineteenth-century media and dime novelists, the names of Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, and Bat Masterson would not be the cultural icons they are today. In 1867 Harper's New Monthly Magazine published an article on James Butler Hickok, better known as Wild Bill, and his Great Plains exploits. This widely read article exaggerated Wild Bill's prowess with a gun and the number of men he had killed. He quickly became a frontier hero and a popular subject of dime novelists who pushed the number of Hickok killings higher with each new publication; by the time of his death in 1876 he was credited with more than 100 killings. Thereafter, Hickok became a frontier icon, and the Kansas towns where he lived and worked–Hays, Abilene, and Deadwood–became ingrained in popular culture as places where lethal violence ruled.
Perhaps the most lethal of the Great Plains towns, at least in popular culture, was Dodge City. Founded in 1872 and for more than ten years an end-of-the-trail cattle town, Dodge City became a favorite of eastern journalists. In 1878 the National Police Gazette published a story about a Dodge City shooting that introduced Wyatt Earp to the American public. In 1883 news reports about the "Dodge City War" (a nonlethal conflict) were picked up by the Associated Press, sparking nationwide commentary on western lawlessness and confirming in the public mind that Dodge City was in fact the "Sodom of the West." During the twentieth century books such as Stuart N. Lake's Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal (1931) and popular television Westerns such as Gunsmoke kept Dodge City at the forefront of frontier iconography.
To be fair, the Great Plains did experience its share of violence during the first few decades after the Civil War. The federal government fought wars against the Comanches and Kiowas on the Southern Plains and the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne on the Northern Plains. Wild Bill Hickok, Bat Masterson, and Wyatt Earp patrolled the Kansas cow towns as armed lawmen. Gunmen, lawmen, and innocent bystanders were gunned down on the streets and in the saloons of Dodge City, Ogallala, and Deadwood. And vigilantes hanged and shot victims in every Great Plains state and territory. The problem is that such violent incidents were episodic rather than epidemic and should not be used to define an entire region. The nineteenth-century Plains were probably far less violent than the contemporary South or eastern urban centers such as New York City.
Despite the relatively undramatic historical reality of violence in the Great Plains the public will always believe the myth. Hollywood will continue to make movies about the wild and violent West, popular writers will still produce fictional accounts of gunfighters and lawmen, and untrained historians will continue to define the region through the eyes of Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok, and Wyatt Earp.
Great Plains communities also keep the idea of a violent Great Plains alive and kicking through tourism. While driving across the Great Plains travelers can visit dozens of Boot Hill cemeteries, including those in Ogallala and Dodge City. Abilene, Kansas, offers the Wild Bill Rodeo. In Deadwood, South Dakota, tourists can compete in quick-draw contests at the annual Wild Bill Days or take a tour of Mount Moriah Cemetery, where Hickok is buried next to Calamity Jane. At Dodge City visitors can stay overnight at the Boot Hill Bed and Breakfast while enjoying the annual Dodge City Days. It's hard to blame writers, producers, and Great Plains towns for perpetuating the image of frontier violence. After all, Clint Eastwood will always sell more tickets at the box office as a mysterious gunslinger than as a Plains sodbuster. It's good entertainment, and the public wants their myths and heroes to be left alone.
Mark R. Ellis University of Nebraska at Kearney
Dykstra, Robert R. The Cattle Towns. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968.
Stansbery, Karyn. "The Law at the End of the Trail: Ogallala, 1873–1887." Nebraska History 79 (1998): 2–13.
Udall, Stewart, Robert R. Dykstra, Michael A. Bellesiles, Paula Mitchell Marks, and Gregory Nobles. "How the West Got Wild: American Media and Frontier Violence." Western Historical Quarterly 31 (2000): 277–95.