Few towns have the reputation, or mythology, of Dodge City, Kansas. It was the “Queen of the Cow Towns,” drawing in a who’s who of Western icons such as Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp—not to mention Errol Flynn (Dodge City), Joel McCrea (The Gunfight at Dodge City) and James Arness, who played U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon for 20 seasons in the Dodge City–based CBS TV series Gunsmoke. These days, it’s hard to separate the myth from the reality.
Yet Wm. B. Shillingberg has managed to do just that in Dodge City: The Early Years, 1872–1886 (The Arthur H. Clark Company, an imprint of the University of Oklahoma Press, $49.95), focusing on the evolution of the town from frontier settlement and buffalo hunters’ mecca near Fort Dodge to freighting center on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, to Kansas’ longest-lasting and largest shipping point for Texas cattle.
Shillingberg, retired president of a probate research company, is no stranger to town histories. His previous book was Tombstone, A.T.: A History of Early Mining, Milling and Mayhem. Wild West caught up with him at home in Tucson, Ariz., to talk about Dodge City.
‘The more you dig into it, the more you realize there’s a lot more to the stories of these individuals and these places. It was intriguing, like putting a puzzle together’
What intrigued you about Dodge City?
Back in the ’50s, when you couldn’t turn on your television without coming across a Western, I got interested in the Old West when I was in the sixth grade. Of course, I didn’t know the myth from the reality—it was just entertainment. And The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, with Hugh O’Brian, came on——a big-time show, and I’ve seen episodes since, and it’s not very good, of course, but to a kid in the sixth grade it sounded pretty terrific. Of course, I had never heard of the guy, and so I did like I always did. I went down to the library and rounded up index cards, and there was Stuart Lake’s book (Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal). There was a lot on Dodge City and a lot on Tombstone. As time went by, I got so interested, I wanted to know more. The more you dig into it, the more you realize there’s a lot more to the stories of these individuals and these places. It was intriguing, like putting a puzzle together. The two towns that stood out for me are personifications of the Wild West——Tombstone and Dodge.
What’s different about researching a town versus researching a person or event?
You’ve got to use sources you wouldn’t use for other things. Property deeds. Towns depend on who owns the property, especially the commercial property. Then you find out where some of the real power is, even though politically it might be behind the scenes. You’ve got to find court records; you’ve got to find out who’s suing whom and why. You’ve got to figure out if there’s some commercial reason to sue or if there’s some political factor involved. Court cases don’t get the look-see they should.
What are the similarities between Tombstone and Dodge?
Virtually none. They share some personalities, but the economic base of both towns was entirely different, so the emphasis on what goes on is different. Dodge City is very transient. People moving in and out all the time, whether it’s the buffalo hunters, the railroad workers, the military and, later, the freighters and the cattle people; they come at a certain season, and then they’re gone. Well, Tombstone’s a mining town, so the essence of it, the people who make it work, they’re around. And, of course, in Tombstone the economy really doesn’t change. It’s a one-economy town, whereas in Dodge there are a lot of shifts in the economy that bring changes in the social fabric.
Did approach the book with any preconceived notions?
Not really. I’d read stuff earlier, years ago, when I was a young guy, Stanley Vestal (Dodge City: Queen of Cowtowns) and people like that, and I knew some of the basic chronology of some of the events. But I just said: “Let’s take a look and see what it is, and what are the people like. Who cares what the legend says? Let’s just take a look at primary sources and everything else you can dig up and see where it leads you.” That’s what’s fun anyway—the discovery of information.
How did Dodge City transform?
It started out as an unincorporated crazy place, a rendezvous for buffalo hunters. They picked it for two reasons: Fort Dodge was nearby, so if they really got carried away with themselves, they’d at least have some military protection; and second, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad was moving through the southwestern portion of Kansas, having to get to the Colorado line by New Year’s Day 1873. So the buffalo hunters knew they’d have access to the railroad for shipping hides out and having supplies sent into them: gunpowder, lead, all the accouterments of buffalo hunting. And it worked out that way for them. So that’s how the town really starts, as a buffalo hunter’s rendezvous. At that time, they hadn’t thought of cattle.
And then the buffalo business died.
Well, the buffalo got killed off, with no small help from the people of Dodge City. A lot of that led to the eruption of the Red River War. There probably wouldn’t have been a major outbreak on the southern Plains had it not been for the activities, I believe, of many of those people.
You spend a lot of time on the 1874 Battle of Adobe Walls.
I did because it always seems to be a sort of shallow explanation of the forces that brought all that about, and you get into the primary stuff, the letters from the Department of Missouri and various Army commanders, and you realize it’s not just the cut-and-dried image that you always get of the Army—kill the buffalo and the Indian, and all that. There were all kinds of views. [Fort Dodge commander Major Richard Irving] Dodge himself was really against the hunters crossing down into Indian Territory, but he was so understaffed and undermanned, there was little he could do about it. But the attitude of the military is not carved in stone, the impression you get with a lot of books. There are all kinds of views they had there, all the way up to [Philip] Sheridan. I quote this letter from Sheridan saying he thought this slaughter of the buffalo should be stopped.
Who were some of the more intriguing personalities you discovered?
Well, they’re all pretty intriguing. The most interesting thing is that most of them aren’t very nice. It’s a hard town. Bob Wright had that encounter with William Morphy, the attorney, and they got into a fight there, and Wright pistol-whipped Morphy, and while he was lying in the street, he kicked him in the head. And then there was a lawsuit. Morphy sought $3,000 in damages. Morphy won a little over $4, and one of the members of the jury was a witness for Morphy. That shows you the lackadaisical attitude.
Same with ignoring the prohibition laws for as long as they did. It was bad for business. They thought it was a silly law anyway, which, of course, it was, but it was still the law of the state of Kansas. They just ignored it. They could do that, because all those laws were predicated on county attorneys enforcing them. If a county attorney in Ford County tried to enforce that, well, he wouldn’t be county attorney anymore. Most of them were in the saloon business—the mayor, the sheriff, the county attorney, the county commissioner. The whole apparatus had very strong ties to the liquor business, because they know you can’t have a dry town and expect the Texans to keep coming there.
That’s the other myth: Cowboys ride into town and tear these towns up. You examine every example of personal violence out there, and very few involved cowboys. Most of it was the gambling crowd, and in almost every instance one or both parties were intoxicated.
Was Dodge dubbed “Queen of the Cow Towns”?
Oh, I don’t know that. That’s kind of a melodramatic thing that has been used over the years. It certainly was the biggest and most important in terms of volume. They shipped more cattle out of there and longer than any other Kansas cattle town, because they were isolated for so long. They were able to hold off encroachment by the agricultural interest for a long time. And in a way that helped bring it to a close. But there were forces down in Texas, too, that were changing—barbed wire on the trails, railroads going into Texas and finally wising up that they ought to offer lower rates and they could get the business.
What is Wyatt Earp’s legacy to Dodge City?
His legacy has more to do with the fact that he became a popular cult hero of the Wild West. These guys aren’t historical characters in the traditional sense. These guys wouldn’t have become famous if they hadn’t become part of the entertainment culture, and so that makes a difference. Wyatt had more influence on Arizona than he ever had in Kansas. He was part of Jim Kelley’s gang—“gang” in a sense of a political organization, as opposed to Bill Doolin. Bat Masterson was in it, too.
What are you working on next?
I’m just playing around with some stuff on early California. Don’t know exactly what direction it’s going to go, but I’m not going to write any more histories of towns. Towns are tough.