Reviewed by B.B. Swan
By Tom S. Coke
Heritage Books, Westminister, Md., 2005
As far as Kansas cow towns go, most people think of Dodge City first, followed by Abilene and Wichita. Caldwell is usually an afterthought, if anyone outside of southern Kansas even thinks about it at all. But think again. Tom S. Coke makes a pretty good case in this 214-page work that Caldwell was the "quintessential cow town." Located along the Chisholm Trail and within shooting distance of the Cherokee Outlet in wild and crazy Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), Caldwell attracted trail drivers from 1871 to 1885 — a longer period of time than the other steer communities. "Abilene only had a couple of good cattle years before losing the trade" writes Coke in his introduction. "The same held for Wichita, Ellsworth, and Newton. Dodge City lasted a little longer, but cowboys didn’t visit the place till the middle ’70s after the buffalo business ended." The author does admit, however, that Caldwell was not really at the top of the cow game until after the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe came to town in 1880.
In the 1870s, Texas Longhorns mostly trampled through Caldwell on their way to Wichita or Abilene, because Caldwell did not have a railroad to ship cattle to market in the East. Caldwell had its share of homesteaders, farmers and honest businessmen, but it also drew plenty of hard cases. Indian Territory, only two miles to the south, served as a refuge for horse thieves and murderers, and Coke says that "Indian threats were constant from the time Caldwell began." Vigilantes and lawmen had their hands full in the early years, and Coke details some of the bloodshed. On June 16, 1880, the first cattle were loaded on the new railroad for shipment east, but the increased business brought new turmoil for city lawmen. Among the intriguing — and not always proper — lawmen who operated in Caldwell were George W. Flatt, B.P. "Bat" Carr and Henry Newton Brown (who had the courtesy to go to Medicine Lodge to rob a bank).
No cow town could live forever, of course. By 1885 cattle shipments were a third of what they were the year before. Bad weather, crop-growing homesteaders, the closing of the range and competition from Texas railroads were all factors in the decline. But the old days would not be forgotten. "No town experienced more cowboys coming and going than did Caldwell" concludes Coke. His book is a good, quick read, if not always rip-snorting. The book probably won’t convince anyone that Dodge City (or even Wichita) should be knocked off its cow-town pedestal, but the Wichita-born author does a good job of reminding us that Caldwell has more than its share of rollicking old trail tales to tell.