Since Dodge City was founded 150 years ago, the Kansas cowtown is still the reigning queen of the West.

Seven years after it was founded in 1872, Dodge City was a booming cattle and railroad town. All Images Courtesy True West Archives Unless Otherwise Noted.


“Queen of the Cowtowns” was the moniker historian Stanley Vestal bestowed on Dodge City, and the name stuck. The prairie town was certainly the most famous and longest lasting of the wild Kansas cattle towns that terminated the Chisholm and Western trails. Up from Texas came literally millions of long-horned cattle destined for the Kansas railheads and shipment east. They would feed a rapidly growing industrial nation. Infamous in its own day as a frontier Gomorrah, Dodge City has lived on in popular culture as the toughest of all the Western boomtowns, thanks to books—by popular writers including Vestal, Stuart Lake, Odie Faulk and Tom Clavin—but especially because of film and television (even outshining its pop culture rivals Tombstone and Deadwood).

The town was founded in the summer of 1872 by Col. Richard Dodge, along with several Army colleagues and post-sutler Robert Wright, on 87 acres of Ford County prairie near Fort Dodge in southwestern Kansas in hopes of capturing business traffic connected to the westward-building Santa Fe Railroad. With the arrival of the railroad the astute founders saw an opportunity to seize a portion of the lucrative Texas cattle trade. 


When Col. Richard Dodge and associates founded Dodge City in 1872, the townsite was a rough-hewed buffalo hide village on the banks of the Arkansas River in southwestern Kansas.


The rising political power of the grangers (organized farmers) had closed the eastern cattle towns—Abilene, Ellsworth, Wichita—to the Texas drovers. The farmers were outraged by the Texans trampling their fences and grazing their herds in their fields, and they were disgusted with the saloons, brothels, gambling houses and gunfights that marked the arrival of the herds at the end of the seasonal drives. They were especially nervous about Texas tick fever that was deadly to their cows, even though the sturdy longhorns were immune to it. Dodge and Wright, unconcerned by such trifles, sent riders south to urge the cattlemen to take a cutoff from the Chisholm Trail on the Cimarron River that led northwest to Dodge City. 

It was the buffalo hide trade that first nourished the new town (200,000 hides shipped east in 1872 alone), but the spikes quickly played out. Wolf pelts, other furs and buffalo bones all sustained the local economy until the first herds arrived in 1876. The town was soon booming with Wright operating its largest general store. Wright proved as able a politician as a businessman as he continually persuaded the state legislature to keep the tick quarantine line to the east of Dodge. During the cattle season the town overflowed with rowdy drovers, gamblers, prostitutes, con artists and a colorful cast of frontier characters including Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday, Luke Short and Ben Thompson. By the 1880s over half a million Texas cattle were annually being shipped eastward from the Dodge City stockyards. (Imagine the aroma.) Eventually the lure of the rich prairie soil (heavily fertilized by all those cows) brought in the inevitable farmers who demanded that the quarantine line be moved westward. When they finally succeeded in 1885, the golden days of Dodge City came to an end. 


After helping to found Dodge City, Bob Wright opened Wright, Beverley & Company, which quickly became the town’s leading general store. “Ranch Supplies, Fine Groceries, and Family Provisions—Clothing in Suits Nobby and Modest, Stetson’s Hats, in all the Latest Styles and Colors,” declared a newspaper ad for the store. Wright died in 1915, two years after publishing his memoir Dodge City, the Cowboy Capital.


Dodge City was eventually rescued from sleepy obscurity by some talented Western writers as well as a string of Western movies in which the likes of William S. Hart, Errol Flynn, Wild Bill Elliot, George Montgomery, Joel McCrea, James Stewart and Kevin Costner cleaned up the West’s most lawless town. It was television, however, that firmly cemented Dodge City’s place as the quintessential frontier town. On September 6, 1955, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp starring Hugh O’Brian premiered on ABC as television’s first “adult” Western. Four nights later, Gunsmoke, starring James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon, premiered on CBS. 

Gunsmoke was based on a popular CBS radio program created by John Meston and Norman Macdonnell that aired from 1952 until 1961 (with William Conrad as Dillon). Dodge City, the most lawless town in the West, quickly had a surplus of stalwart TV lawmen to keep order (and they were joined in 1958 by Gene Barry in Bat Masterson on NBC, although the show was not set in Dodge). The shows were wildly popular and generated a host of toy guns, costumes, comics, children’s books and play sets. The Wyatt Earp program, which aired until 1961, eventually left Dodge for Tombstone, but Gunsmoke ran for 20 seasons as Marshal Dillon continually told a host of unsavory characters to “get out of Dodge.” That phrase eventually entered the American lexicon to mean to get away to avoid trouble. Thanks to Gunsmoke, which ended its 480-episode run in 1975, Dodge City’s crown as the “Queen of the Cowtowns” rested firmly in place.


In one of the most celebrated photographs in Western history, the “Dodge City Peace Commission” posed for Charles Conklin’s camera on June 10, 1883. The men had all come to Dodge in answer to Luke Short’s call for assistance when local authorities attempted to shut down his Long Branch Saloon. This show of firepower led to a quick, bloodless victory for Short and his partner William Harris in the so-called Dodge City War. An engraving of the image was reproduced in the National Police Gazette on July 21, 1883. Back (l. to r.): William Harris, Luke Short, Bat Masterson, William Petillon. Front (l. to r.): Charlie Bassett, Wyatt Earp, Frank McLean, Neil Brown.


Paul Andrew Hutton is Distinguished Professor of history at the University of New Mexico. He is the author or editor of a dozen books, including the award-winning Phil Sheridan and His Army and The Apache Wars. He is currently writing a history of the American frontier movement, The Undiscovered Country, to be published by Dutton/Random House.


Dodge City was a big-budget Technicolor Western directed by Michael Curtiz. Errol Flynn, in his first Western film, must tame Dodge City as well as his costar, the beautiful Olivia de Havilland. The film was so successful they made two more Westerns for Warner Brothers—Santa Fe Trail and They Died with Their Boots On. Courtesy Warner Brothers


Wild Bill Hickok (William S. Hart, center) is greeted by Bat Masterson (Jack Gardner, shaking hands) and Wyatt Earp (Bert Lindley, fourth from left) upon his arrival in Dodge City in a scene from the 1923 Paramount silent film Wild Bill Hickok. This was the first film to depict Masterson and Earp. Hart knew both men. Courtesy Paramount Pictures


James Arness was recommended for the role of Matt Dillon by John Wayne, who also introduced the first episode of Gunsmoke. In the show Arness walked with a slight limp because of wounds suffered at Anzio in 1944. (He received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.) Courtesy CBS Television


Dodge City was so clearly identified with lawlessness that it was often featured in the title of films that had little or nothing to do with the real town, such as these two Columbia Pictures Westerns: Dodge City Trail (1936) and King of Dodge City (1941). Posters Courtesy Columbia Pictures


Former marine drill instructor Hugh O’Brian (whose actual name was Hugh Charles Krampe) became an instant star in the role of Wyatt Earp upon the September 6, 1955, premiere of ABC’s The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. Courtesy ABC Television


Baby boomer tots quickly fell under the spell of Hugh O’Brian and hurriedly replaced their Davy Crockett coonskin caps and flintlock rifle replicas with flat-topped Wyatt Earp cowboy hats and toy Buntline Specials. Comic book companies Marvel and Atlas, pictured here, rushed Wyatt Earp titles into print. Dell owned the rights to the official Hugh O’Brian comics, but the artwork in the other comic book series mimicked the square jaw and fancy duds of the TV hero. Courtesy Paul Andrew Hutton Collection


This tourist brochure from the 1950s touted the newly constructed replicas of old Front Street (with the cornerstone laid by Hugh O’Brian) and Boot Hill (featured in the opening sequence during the first seasons of Gunsmoke). The two TV shows led to a tourist boom for Dodge City. Courtesy Paul Andrew Hutton Collection

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