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Pale Horse Revelations #21: Dodge City - Queen of the Cowtowns

Hello readers and welcome back to Pale Horse Revelations. This week’s entry will continue the recently established trend of focusing on a significant person, place, or event in Old West history. While I make no promises, don't be surprised if some of these places, people, or events find their way into future Pale Rider adventures.

This week we turn our attention to a place that is, arguably, the most well-known of all Old West settings: Dodge City, Kansas. While best known as a cowtown, Dodge City actually proceeded the cattle boom. It was established in 1872 just prior to the arrival of the Santa Fe Railroad. In the early years buffalo bones and hides were the backbone of the town's economy. Dodge also served as a rendezvous point for soldiers from nearby Fort Dodge.

In three short years everything would change; by 1875 the city's reputation as the preeminent cowtown was firmly established. This transformation was aided by an act of the 1876 legislature that moved the quarantine line west. The quarantine line was established at the outset of the cattle boom at the behest of concerned farmers in Kansas. It was motivated by the fact that Texas Longhorn cattle carried a tick that could spread Texas Cattle Fever to other breeds of cattle. The quarantine prohibited Texas Longhorn cattle from the heavily settled eastern portions of the state. As farmers began to settle in central Kansas the state legislature faced growing pressure to shift the quarantine line further west. In 1876 the legislature succumbed to the pressure. This act effectively eliminated Abilene, Wichita, and other prominent cowtowns from the cattle trade, and paved the way for Dodge's ascendancy.

A new trail, known as The Great Western Cattle Trail (also called the Western Trail), was soon established. It branched off from the Chisholm Trail and led straight to Dodge City. Thousands of cattle passed through the town between 1876 and 1885, peaking in 1883 and 1884. Dodge City became a boomtown practically overnight.

With the boom came the well-earned reputation as a rough and tumble town. Cowboys came to town eager to let off steam after a long ride up the trail. They came searching for guns, gambling, liquor, and women. Dodge was all too willing to comply with the usual assortment of saloons, gambling halls, and brothels. Among the most famous (or infamous) of these were the Long Branch Saloon and China Doll brothel. Local businesses continued to supply liquor despite the growing temperance movement. Even the passing of temperance legislation did little to stimy their business. As it turned out, paying the fine (nearly $5,000) year proved to be more profitable than enforcing the new laws.

Given the rough and tumble nature of the town, it is not surprising that some of the most well-known lawmen of the period spent time policing the streets of Dodge. While Wyatt Earp is the most well-known, he was not alone. Others included the Masterson brothers (Bat, Ed, and Jim) and Luke Short. Ed Masterson served first as a deputy marshal and then as marshal. It is a commonly (and incorrectly) held belief that Ed Masterson replaced Wyatt Earp as marshal, but he actually replaced Larry Deger. Masterson was killed while trying to disarm a drunken cowboy on April 9, 1878.

Of course, lawmen weren't the only larger than life characters to spend time in Dodge. Among the most well-known gunfighters to have passed through are Wyatt Earp's friend, John "Doc" Holliday, as well as Clay Allison, Ben Thompson, and Billy Thompson. It was at one time believed that Clay Allison was confronted by and backed down from then marshal Wyatt Earp. However, historical records and accounts have cast serious doubt on whether this ever occurred. Most telling is the fact that Earp did not make this claim until after Allison's death.

Dodge City's stint as the premiere cowtown of the west lasted only ten years, considerably longer than some such as Ellsworth and Wichita. In 1885 the state legislature again moved the quarantine line, this time all the way to the Colorado border. The act was motivated in part from pressure by Kansas farmers as they continued to move westward, and in part by new developments in agriculture that allowed the arid southwest to be irrigated and cultivated. This effectively shut down the Western Trail and ended Dodge City's reign as the "Queen of the Cowtowns." Two fires in 1885 accelerated the town's transformation by effectively wiping out the first period of commercial development and paving the way for reinvention. By 1886 the cowboys, saloon keepers, gamblers, and brothel owners had picked up and moved westward. In 1887 the city was rebuilt with more stately looking and permanent brick structures.

This brings us to the end of another edition of Pale Horse Revelations. I hope you found it to be both interesting and entertaining. As usual, I have tried to provide some interesting historical information while trying not to bog the casual reader down with too much detail. I encourage anyone interested in learning more to dig in and do a little research of their own.

As a reminder, I would love to hear your suggestions for topics to focus on in future editions of Pale Horse Revelations. If there's a particular location, person, or event that you would like to know more about, please let me know. Just fill out the Contact form found near the bottom of my home page ( and indicate your desired topic in the message box at the bottom of the form. I look forward to hearing from you all.

Please be sure to check back next week for the next installment of Pale Horse Revelations and thank you for your continued interest and support.

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