History of Dodge City
Today, as we drive down the streets of Dodge City and visit historic landmarks, we wonder what it was really like in days gone by.
Francisco Coronado and his conquistadors, in their search for Cibola - the Seven Cities of Gold - crossed the Arkansas (pronounced ar-KAN-sus around here) River on St. Peter’s and Paul’s Day in 1541 and celebrated mass on the “highest of the hills.” This natural crossing, used by buffalo, Indians, Coronado’s expedition, and later, wagon trains, is in Ford County between Fort Dodge and the city of Ford. Today, a 38-foot concrete cross in a ten-acre park commemorates this crossing. The marker, erected by the Ford County Historical Society, stands on a hill now almost a mile north of the riverbed, a result of the Arkansas’ meanderings over the centuries.
Flags of Five Nations
The area of Dodge City that lies north of the river and west of the 100th meridian was included in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Five flags, those of Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, and the United States, have flown over the area south of the river that remained Spanish territory.
Explorers and Traders
Zebulon M. Pike traversed this area in 1806 and was followed in 1821 by trader William Becknell and others from Missouri, eager to deal with residents and merchants of Santa Fe. From 1821 to 1880, the Santa Fe Trail was a major commerce route stretching from Missouri trailheads to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Although unused in this area after the arrival of the Atchinson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in 1872, wagon ruts from the Santa Fe Trail can still be seen nine miles west of Dodge City.
Protecters of the Plains
Fort Dodge was established in 1865 to protect wagon trains on the Santa Fe Trail and to furnish supplies for soldiers fighting the Indian wars on the Plains. The first buildings were dugouts, tents and sod houses which were used until stone buildings could be finished. During these early days millions of buffalo roamed the Plains. When a new tanning process was discovered in Germany for turning buffalo hides into usable leather, an English company ordered 500 hides from a Fort Leavenworth dealer. A Pennsylvania tanner ordered 2,000hides at $3.50 each. The boom was on and hunters flooded the plains. A good hunter could make more than $100 a day.
From Buffalos to Cattle
The Santa Fe Railroad reached this area in September of 1872 and Dodge City was founded, just five miles west of Fort Dodge, to supply the needs of the buffalo hunters and soldiers with stores, hotels restaurants and
entertainment. It was named Buffalo City but the name was denied by the Post Office Department because Kansas already had a town by that name. The town founders then chose Dodge City after Fort Dodge and Col. Richard I. Dodge, commander at the fort and a charter member of the Dodge City Town Company. Through the years, Dodge has had many titles: Buffalo Capital of the World, Cowboy Capital, Queen of the Cowtowns, Wickedest Little City in America, Beautiful Bibuluous Babylon of the Frontier, and others. Dodge City was the buffalo capital for five years until mass slaughter destroyed the huge herds and left the prairie littered with decaying carcasses. As buffalo hunters departed the cattle drives from Texas began. They used the Western Trail and the Chisholm Trail from south Texas to Dodge City, where the Texas trade was welcomed eagerly. On the trail, the hardy Longhorns grazed for food and spaced themselves by instinct as they moved along about 12 miles a day. A steer could be driven from Texas to Dodge for about 75¢.
Cowboys in Town
The 15 or 20 men hired for the drive were each paid $30 to $45 per month, so by the time they reached Dodge City, $90 or more jingled in their pockets and they were ready to spend it on a good time! The first herd reached Dodge in 1875 and the drives increased until the number of cattle reached500,000 for one year. From 1875 to 1886, more than 5,00,000 cattle were driven up from Texas to Dodge City.
During those wild and wooly days, Dodge was home to such top lawmen and gunfighters as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Bill Tilghman, Ben Thompson, Luke Short and the Masterson brothers: Bat, Ed and Jim. The shootings were never as many or as frequent as depicted in Hollywood, but they received more publicity in the east-coast newspapers because they happened in Dodge City.
Two Front Streets
The town these early men knew was laid out with two Front Streets, one on each side of the railroad tracks. The city passed an ordinance that guns could not be worn or carried north of the “deadline” which was the railroad tracks. The south side, where “anything went” was wide open.In 1876, the population was 1,200 and 19 businesses were licensed to sell liquor.
A Texas Influence
During those first years, the population varied according to the season, swelling during the summer with the influx of the cowboys, buyers, gamblers and prostitutes. Business houses, dance halls and saloons catered to the Texas trade. Saloon keepers renamed their places Nueces, Alamo and Lone Star and served brandies, liqueurs and the latest mixed drinks. Ice was usually available, so even beer could be served cold. Some saloons advertised anchovies and Russian caviar on their cold lunch menus.