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Historical Background

Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

Suggested Reading


Prospector, Cowhand, and Sodbuster
Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings


Location: Dickinson County.

Abilene was the first of the great Kansas cowtowns. When the Kansas Pacific Railroad reached it in 1867, a few Texans began to drive Longhorns northward over the Chisholm Trail to the Abilene railhead. Joseph G. McCoy, an Illinois cattleman who recognized the economic potential of the Texas cattle drives, built stock yards in Abilene to accommodate 3,000 cattle. He advertised the market at Abilene throughout Texas, and soon cowboys were driving thousands of cattle northward.

At Abilene, a wild town during the 1860's, the newly paid cowboys spent their money in the gambling establishments, dancehalls, and saloons. After the town incorporated in 1869 a series of sheriffs attempted to maintain law and order. The mild-mannered but courageous Tom Smith was followed by the flamboyant "Wild Bill" Hickok, one of the best known gunmen in the West and a hero of Eastern writers. In 1871, when the Santa Fe Railway extended its line from Emporia to Newton, the latter succeeded Abilene as the terminus of the Chisholm Trail.

Today Abilene is a prosperous modern town. A boulder on the post office lawn memorializes the terminus of the Chisholm Trail, over which more than 3 million head of cattle were driven in the 1860's and 1870's.

drawing of Abilene stockyard
Artist's sketch of the Abilene railhead in 1867. During that first year about 35,000 head of cattle moved eastward. Courtesy, University of Illinois Library.

Location: Ford County.

In 1871 H. L. Sitler constructed a sod house 5 miles west of Fort Dodge on the site of Dodge City, which later became "Queen of the Cowtowns." He invested in cattle, and his homestead became a stopping place for freighters and buffalo hunters. Later the same year Charles Myer built a trading post nearby and traded with the hunters. In 1872 a railroad construction company established headquarters at the site, and soon a clutter of tents and shacks constituted "Buffalo City." Later the same year a townsite was laid out and called Dodge City for the nearby fort.

After the buffalo were killed off, the cattle industry began. With in a decade after the Santa Fe Railway reached Dodge City in 1872, the town became the last of the four great cattle railheads in Kansas. Unlike Abilene, Newton, and Wichita, which were termini of the Chisholm Trail, Dodge City was on the Western, or Dodge City, Trail, which ran to Ogallala, Nebr. Texans drove vast herds of Longhorns to the Dodge City railhead. The saloons and dance-halls were the scenes of numerous brawls and shootings. Law enforcement officers such as Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, and Bill Tilghman sought to maintain law and order.

When the era of the great cattle drives ended, homesteaders took over and the economy became based on agriculture. Dodge City of today, a modern city of 12,000 population, bears little resemblance to the 19th-century town.


Location: Harvey County.

When the Santa Fe Railway extended its line from Emporia to Newton in 1871, the latter city temporarily succeeded Abilene, located on the Kansas Pacific line, as the terminus of the Chisholm Trail and grew into a cowtown overnight. Saloons, dancehalls, and gambling houses sprouted from the plains. The city expanded rapidly until a connecting line was established from Wichita to Newton in 1872, after which it lost its key position as a cattle shipping point. Today Newton, a modern city and the county seat, serves as a trading center for the surrounding agricultural community.


Location: Sedgwick County.

In 1864 James R. Mead established a trading post near a small Wichita Indian village in Kansas on the site of the city of Wichita. Mead's partner was Jesse Chisholm, a half-breed Cherokee Indian, who pioneered the route into Oklahoma Territory that was later followed by the Chisholm. Trail. The trail at first bypassed Wichita and ran to Abilene because of the railhead there.

After the Wichitas were removed to Oklahoma Territory in 1865, Mead's trading post became the nucleus of Wichita, which was platted in 1870. The following year the Santa Fe Railway reached the town of Newton and in 1872 Wichita, which became the new "cow capital" of Kansas for a decade. Texas cowboys arrived over the Chisholm Trail with thousands of cattle, and saloons, cafes, dancehalls, and shops opened to serve them. Scores of settler-farmers also arrived and property values soared. By 1882, wheat farming and fencing had stifled the cattle drives, whose terminus was relocated in Dodge City. Land values collapsed and Wichita began to decline. By the 1880's and 1890's, however, the grain industry had replaced the cattle industry, and Wichita became a trade and milling center.

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Last Updated: 22-May-2005