Western Towns too Tough to Forget

What was the wildest, wickedest, toughest, meanest, baddest, deadliest, gunfightingest town on the Western frontier? While an intriguing question, there’s no easy answer, and any answer one gives is likely to be regarded as “all wrong.” Many 19th-century communities—some nearly forgotten today—are in the running. Even naming a Top 10 of such notorious locales would leave out “worthy” candidates. One thing is certain, though: Ask people that question in 2020, and 99.9 percent of the time their answer will be Deadwood (Dakota Territory), Tombstone (Arizona Territory) or Dodge City (Kansas). That figures, as those three touristy towns are by far the ones most associated with the Wild West era (not counting such metropolises as San Francisco and Denver, which could get plenty wicked and mean in their own right).

Some historians and criminologists contend these cattle towns were not nearly as dangerous as portrayed in popular culture and, indeed, rattle off numbers to prove they were less violent than many present-day American cities

In our August cover story Wild West contributor Rod Soodalter looks beyond the Big Three to provide a compendium of other unsettling settlements. He shot for a list of 10 but ended up with 13, as he couldn’t decide which of four towns—Bannack, Virginia City, Hell Gate or Helena—rated as Montana Territory’s worst hellhole. His other tough towns (in no particular order) are Ogallala, Neb.; Tascosa, Texas; Pioche, Nev.; Bodie, Calif.; Fort Griffin, Texas; Cromwell, Okla.; Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory; Newton, Kan.; and Lincoln, New Mexico Territory. As Soodalter notes, Ogallala earned the sobriquet “Gomorrah of the Plains,” Tascosa was dubbed the “Hardest Place on the Frontier,” and in an 1881 diary an emigrant girl called Bodie the “wickedest town in the West.” Various newspapers, of course, have applied similar labels to other wayward communities, including Jerome, Ariz. (gambling, prostitution, opium dens, gunfights, but no Wyatt Earp); Julesburg, Colo. (gambling, prostitution, killings, outlaw town founder Jules Beni); Taft, Mont. (pimps, prostitutes, murderers); Ruby, Ariz. (Mexican bandits); and Canyon Diablo, Arizona Territory (gamblers, outlaws, dead lawmen, a main thoroughfare named “Hell Street”).

In Kansas the moniker “Wickedest Cow Town” was as widespread as Texas Longhorns. Most infamous among them was Dodge City, known as the “Wickedest Little City in America” (and more respectfully as “Queen of the Cow Towns”). But at various times Newton, Abilene, Ellsworth, Wichita and Hays City were considered no less wicked. Some historians and criminologists contend these cattle towns were not nearly as dangerous as portrayed in popular culture and, indeed, rattle off numbers to prove they were less violent than many present-day American cities. Still other experts insist homicide rates in cattle towns and elsewhere across the West were extraordinarily high by today’s standards. The debate continues.

No doubt, though, Kansas towns—with help from visiting Texans, of course—were plenty rowdy when the cattle herds arrived. In the late 19th century they were likely outdone in rowdiness and criminal behavior (at least per capita) by Gate City and Neutral City in the lawless land to the south. Those two badmen burgs were 5 miles apart in the Oklahoma Panhandle, known as “No-Man’s-Land” after a New York Sun reporter described it as “God’s Land, But No Man’s.” Not far away was a woebegone settlement named Old Sod Town, which longtime Wild West contributor Robert Barr Smith said was “probably the worst of No-Man’s-Land’s towns…a center for the moonshine trade…and center of operations for an outfit of horse thieves called the Chitwood Gang.” So, why is Old Sod Town so little remembered? Smith supplies the principal reason: “It’s gone now—today only the wind remains.” The same goes for more than a few other Western settlements of the 1800s. Deadwood, Tombstone and Dodge City represent only the tip of the Stetson when it comes to tough towns of the Wild West. Others were not so tough that they couldn’t die, yet they deserve to be remembered. WW 

Wild West editor Gregory Lalire’s next historical novel, Man From Montana, is due out in April 2021. His earlier novels include 2019’s Our Frontier Pastime: 1804–1815 and 2014’s Captured: From the Frontier Diary of Infant Danny Duly. His short story “Halfway to Hell” appears in the 2018 anthology The Trading Post and Other Frontier Stories.