Dodge City and the Birth of the Wild West, by Robert R. Dykstra and Jo Ann Manfra, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 2017, $22.95
Some folks may want to get out of Dodge, but most Wild West readers can’t get into Dodge enough. As iconic Old West towns go, Dodge City, Kansas, is rivaled only by Deadwood, Dakota Territory, and Tombstone, Arizona Territory. Another 2017 book, Tom Clavin’s Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and the Wickedest Town in the American West, is entertaining as all get-out, but as reviewer Johnny D. Boggs noted in the June 2017 Wild West, Clavin “cites a few incidents other historians have questioned if not completely debunked.” Robert Dykstra and Jo Ann Manfra have also produced an engaging book about the real Dodge, and their careful research indicates the community likely deserved its wicked reputation only during its first year of existence. That finding won’t startle anyone familiar with Dykstra’s classic history The Cattle Towns, in which he wrote, “The Kansas cattle trading center, or ‘cattle town,’ of the 1870s and 1880s has up to now belonged more to the imagination than to history.”
Dodge City was a notorious frontier town for some 15 years, flourishing as a prominent cattle-trading center for the last decade of that era after serving as a transshipment point for buffalo hides. “Garnished by 14 years of publicized violence and disorder, real and imagined, the Dodge City of old gave birth to, and remains, a cultural metaphor grounded in a reality all its own,” the authors write in their introduction, titled “Getting’ Outta Dodge.” They note the Dodge metaphor dates from the Vietnam War era, thanks to young servicemen who grew up watching depictions of the wild and woolly town in such TV offerings as The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and, especially, Gunsmoke. Getting out of Dodge probably made the most sense when the first settlers were just getting into it, as gun violence was rife during the settlement’s first 12 months. Between August 1872 and August 1873 (as listed in an appendix) Dodge recorded 18 homicide victims. The next recorded murder, however, didn’t occur until Jan. 14, 1876, and after that no one bit the dust until April 9, 1878, when Jack Wagner shot down Dodge City Marshal Ed Masterson and was in turn mortally wounded by Ed’s brother, Bat. That was indeed dramatic frontier violence, as were the later shootings of George Hoy, Dora Hand, Levi Richardson and Thomas Nixon, but only 18 homicides are listed in the last 14 years of Dodge’s so-called “wicked days.”
So, who is to blame for Dodge’s deadly, uncivilized reputation? Well, the bad start on Front Street didn’t help, and neither did the media. Wildly exaggerated (if not wholly fake) news abounded in national publications then, too. Among the worst offenders was hard-drinking local attorney turned national correspondent Harry Gryden, whom the authors say “pioneered Dodge City’s collaboration with its own notoriety.” Present-day readers often assume every man in Dodge carried a firearm, rowdy cowboys routinely cut loose, and saloons fueled the flames. Well, the cowboys and saloons were certainly there, but as the authors point out, “By early 1874 Ford County’s commissioners began the process of effectively banning both concealed and openly carried handguns in town.” Regardless of one’s stance in the ongoing debate over gun control, one thing seems certain—dodging bullets in late 1870s Dodge didn’t happen as often as we might have thought.