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Pale Horse Revelations #49 - Ellsworth: "The Wickedest Cattletown in Kansas"


Hello readers and welcome back to Pale Horse Revelations. where we explore significant people, places, and events 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.

We've spent the last few weeks focused on significant people of the Old West, so I thought it might be time to switch things up a bit. This week we'll turn our attention to an infamous place - the Cowtown of Ellsworth, Kansas.

Like other infamous cowtowns, such as Abilene and Dodge City, Ellsworth, Kansas predates the cattle boom that made it famous. The Smoky Hills region of Kansas was home to several Native American tribes, most notably the Cheyenne. When the Santa Fe and Smoky Hills Trails were routed through the area, the native tribes took exception and began raiding the wagon trains and stagecoaches that passed through the territory. Fort Ellsworth was soon constructed to provide protection against these attacks.

The town of Ellsworth sprang up shortly thereafter roughly four miles northwest of the military post. First surveyed in 1867 the town took its name from the nearby fort, although the outpost was renamed Fort Harker later that same year. By July of that year the railroad reached Fort Harker, bringing with it all manner of frontier type. The streets of Ellsworth soon overflowed as the population rapidly grew to an excess of 2,000 people.

Within three months of being founded, Ellsworth saw the construction of several houses, three grocery stores, a hardware store, a dry goods store, a bootmaker, and, of course, several saloons. But soon the streets were flowing with more than excess people. In late 1867 the nearby Smoky Hills River overflowed its banks, leaving Ellsworth standing in four feet of water. At the same time Fort Harker experienced a cholera outbreak. It did not take long for the deadly epidemic to descend on the already troubled town.

In the face of these twin tragedies many of the settlers fled in fear. Those that stayed relocated the town to higher ground in the west. Their collective determination paid off and the town soon began to thrive once again. When the railroad extended its line to Ellsworth the town quickly became the prime location for the cattlemen of Texas to drive their herds to. From 1871 to 1875 Ellsworth dominated all other cattletowns.

With the cattle came unruly cowboys looking to cut loose after the long trail ride up from Texas. And, of course, with the cowboys came all those looking to make a profit off of them. Among them were gamblers, gunfighters, and "painted ladies."

Anticipating the cattle boom, several Ellsworth businessmen worked together to bring the Drover's Cottage, once owned by Joseph McCoy to Ellsworth in 1872. This massive structure could house 175 guests, stable fifty carriages, and 100 horses. Other businesses soon sprang up, all looking to profit from the cowboys.

As with other Kansas cowtowns it didn't take long for Ellsworth to gain a reputation as a dangerous and violent place. The town supported numerous saloons, brothels, and gambling halls and prostitution ran rampant. Shootouts between drunken cowboys were commonplace. In time, Ellsworth's bad reputation would exceed that of all other Kansas cowtowns, including Dodge City and Abilene. It was commonly said, "'Abilene, the first, Dodge City, the last, but Ellsworth the wickedest"'.

In the early days two outlaws known only as Craig and Johnson terrorized the town. They frequently bullied people in the community and committed armed robbery in broad daylight. They're depravity grew even more brazen after town marshal Will Semans was shot and killed while trying to disarm a rowdy cowboy. Finally deciding that they had had enough, the townsfolk formed a vigilance committee that captured and hung both men.

Ellsworth experienced its peak year in 1873 with nearly 220,000 head of cattle driven through town. Not surprisingly, this same year saw an increase in violence and lawlessness. On August 15, 1873, a dispute broke out between renowned gambler and gunfighter Ben Thompson and a man named John Sterling over a game of cards. New City Marshal, "Happy Jack" Morco sided with Sterling. Thompson and his brother Billy took exception and challenged the two men to meet them on the street.

Instead of Morco, the county sheriff, a popular man by the name of Chauncey Whitney stepped out to meet the Thompson brothers. Whitney soon talked the men down and convinced them to join him for a drink. But as they three men made their way to the saloon Morco came running down the street with both guns ablaze. Ben was able to whirl and get a shot off at Morco but missed. Billy, who was drunk at the time, attempted to do the same, but stumbled, discharged his shotgun, and mortally wounded Sheriff Whitney.

Ben Thompson and group of fellow Texans held off the town while Billy Thompson escaped. Ben was later arrested but never tried. He soon left town to take the job of City Marshall of Austin, Texas. Billy Thompson would eventually return to Ellsworth, stand trial, and be acquitted in the death of Sheriff Whitney. Apparently, prior to dying from his wounds Whitney had told bystanders that his shooting had been an accident.

This incident sparked increased chaos in the already chaotic town. City Marshall Morco was fired and replaced by Ed Crawford. Just two days later Crawford pistol whipped a Texas cowboy to death. Once again, the citizens of Ellsworth took to the streets as vigilantes. This time they issued "affidavits" to Texans warning them to get out of town "or else." Both former Marshall Morco and sitting Marshall Crawford were gunned down in the street on different occasions. Ironically, Morco was killed by J. Charles Brown, who would later become City Marshall himself.

As it turned out the only thing that could bring an end to the wickedness in Ellsworth was the railroad. The railroad continued its westward expansion and eventually Ellsworth was replaced as the premier cattle drive destination. In 1875 the Kansas Pacific Railroad closed the shipping pens down for good. By the late 1870s the crime rate had decreased dramatically, but the economy suffered as result of the lost cattle trade.

Today, Ellsworth boasts a population of just over 3,000 people (as of the 2020 census). It serves as the County Seat of Ellsworth County. It is also home to the Kansas State Ellsworth Correctional Facility.

Well, I fear we've come 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 on the "Contact the Author" page of this website 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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