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3 May
2016

Dodge City: The Wickedest Little City in the West

A letter in the Washington D.C.’s Evening Star of January 1, 1878, stated,

Dodge City is a wicked little town. Indeed, its character is so clearly and egregiously bad that one might conclude, were the evidence in the later times positive of its possibility, that it was marked for special Providential punishment” (quoted in Legends in America).

As a young girl growing up in Montana, I remember listening to Gunsmoke on the radio with my family. Television arrived with one channel when I was in the eighth grade, but my parents didn’t see any use for it.  Since it was one of my favorite programs, I incorporated some phrases into my repertoire like, “…get out of Dodge!” Little did I expect that I would be researching the history of Dodge City and learning many ofGunsmoke Dodge City the true stories on which Gunsmoke was based decades later.

Dodge City was known as “The Wickedest Little City in the West” from its reputation of lawlessness and gunfights. It is associated with such famous gunslingers as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Bat Masterson. In my last blog, I talked about the missing information about my grandfather between 1879 and 1891, but I had two clues that he worked cattle, perhaps as a cook, with an outfit from Dodge City. I researched and even visited this historic town as background for my writing.

Early History of Dodge City

The early history of Dodge City begins in 1872, according to William Shillingberg who wrote Dodge City: The Early Years, 1872-1886, with a saloon and a general store established a five miles West of Fort Dodge.   Following the establishment of the first businesses, the railroad arrived in short order.  Soon Dodge City became a wide-open railroad town with stacks of buffalo Street Scene Dodge Cityhides lining the street.  Over one and a half million of them were shipped out.  According to legend, the train masters took their red caboose lanterns with them to visit the prostitutes in town launching the term “red light district.

Dodge City initially had no law enforcement. The dance halls and saloons, as well as the lawless atmosphere, attracted buffalo hunters, railroad men, and soldiers after long stints on the prairie.  Inevitably, fights occurred and many a gunfighter died and was buried with his boots on in Boot Hill.  By 1876, the buffalo had been killed off, and the buffalo hunters were out of business. Longhorn cattle drove business back to Dodge City. In a ten-year period, over 5 million cattle were shipped out of Dodge City. The cowboys who came with the cattle brought, even more, lawlessness, spreading Dodge City’s reputation as far as Washington, D.C.

Controlling the Lawlessness

The wild lawlessness prompted the mayor to request such a well-known gunman as Wyatt Earp for help.  Soon Earp was joined by Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman, and Charlie Bassett as assistant deputies.  Marshal Matt Dillon in the Gunsmoke episodes was modeled aDodge City Kansas Lawmenfter these lawmen in Dodge City.

The first effort at controlling the lawlessness was an ordinance which established a “Deadline” where the railroad tracks ran through Dodge.  On the North side, in the commercial side of town, no gun toting was allowed.  However, so many were arrested for carrying their weapons, that the jails were filled.  South of the tracks, anything went.  Guns were allowed, and lawlessness and gunfights persisted in the taverns and brothels.  By 1876 the town had grown to 1200 with nineteen businesses licensed to sell liquor.

Doc Holliday, another famous gunslinger, associated with Dodge City, arrived in 1878 with a woman posing as his wife called Big Nose Kate Elder.  Although he occasionally provided professional services to town residents, he mostly drank and gambled at the Long Branch Saloon. Doc Holliday was considered one of the deadliest shooters of the West, but he followed the law while in Dodge City.

Experiencing Dodge City in My Story

The character in my story, Will, arrives in Dodge City with the cattle drive in 1878 excited to be in the famous town and wondering if he’ll meet Wyatt Earp or Bat Masterson.  After loading cattle at the railyard, Will, and his two companions, Jake and Tom head to the Long Branch Saloon where Will spots a gunslinger or bounty hunter.  Jake, the boss of the cattle drive, approaches him to find out why he is watching the crew.

Will heard Jake say, “Lookin’ for someone?  That’s my crew you’re watchin’.”  Jake jerked his thumb toward the wranglers at the billiard table.  But Will couldn’t hear the stranger’s reply.

His mouth went dry and his gut clenched worried that this gunslinger was after him.  When Jake rejoined Tom and Will at the other end of the bar, Will had moved into the shadows to be less conspicuous. He wanted to be near the back door so he could make a quick escape.

His heart raced as Jake relayed the conversation.  “He’s looking for a gambler dressed as a hayseed.  Had a gunfight and killed some upstanding citizen in Fort Worth.  Reported to have joined a cattle drive.  This tough cowboy is looking over our crew.  Looking for a ‘Will Martin’.  Wants to take him in for the money.”

As he spoke, Will held his breath but his heart was pounding.  He slowly slunk toward the back door.  Jake looked directly at Will and with a firm voice over the noise in the Tavern said, “I told him we had no Will Martin on our crew.”

Suddenly, Will felt a gun barrel in his ribs.  (From unpublished manuscript, Trust, Betrayal and Forgiveness:  A Family Story)

Did you listen or watch “Gunsmoke” when you were growing up?  Do you have images of Dodge City as wicked, lawless town?  Did you like cowboy and Western movies?  Have you heard other stories of this famous time in our history?

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