Dodge City Born of Gamblers ‘n Gunslingers

After the Civil War, Americans started moving westward and conflicts with Indians increased. To protect wagon trains, the Army built Fort Dodge along the Santa Fe Trail in 1865.

Six years later, in 1871, rancher Henry L. Stitler constructed a sod house about five miles from Ft. Dodge. The next year, the first business, a sod saloon, was constructed to service soldiers and buffalo hunters.

Dodge City, Kansas was founded in 1872, just in time to welcome arrival of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. The railroad ignited growth and created the most legendary frontier town in the Old West.

Initially, Dodge began as the capitol of buffalo hunting. One observer wrote, “The streets of Dodge were lined with wagons bringing in hides and meat and getting supplies from early morning to late at night.” A good buffalo hunter could make a hundred dollars a day. It is estimated that from 1872-1878, 1.5 million buffalo hides were shipped from Dodge. Then there were no more.

While buffalo hunters were slaughtering themselves out of a job, cattle were fast becoming the basis of a new boom. Dodge City emerged as the principal shipping point for herds of Longhorns driven up from Texas.

The town had been founded by saloon owners and liquor dealers catering to a wild bunch – – soldiers, buffalo hunters, and now cowboys. For the first few years, there was no law in town. It’s estimated that 15 men and one woman were killed in the first 12 months! Most were buried without coffins and with their boots on in Dodge City’s famous Boot Hill cemetery. Rough, tough, and wide-open, Dodge was dubbed by one newspaper, “The wickedest little city in America”. One historian described it as a “town spinning out of control”.

Law enforcement in wild cattle towns meant keeping the peace more than solving crimes. Often the town turned to the fastest, most fearless gunslinger to be its peace officer. And often, it was a professional gambler.

After going through several marshals, Dodge City hired Wyatt Earp in 1876 to keep the peace. When Wyatt banned fire arms from town, he hired another gambler and gunman, Bat Masterson, as his deputy to help enforce the unpopular ordinance. That year there were just 2 killings, down from 70 the year before.

Masterson also became a partner in the Lone Star Saloon, a dance hall, gambling house and bordello. At 22, he ran for the position of county sheriff and won by three votes.

Bat lost his re-election campaign for sheriff and was out of a job. It was 1880, and the buffalo were gone. Now the 26-year old turned to his other talent – gambling. Experienced Faro dealers were commonly paid $25 for a 6-hour shift.

According to Masterson, “Gambling was not only the principal and bestpaying industry of the time, but it was also reckoned among the most respectable.”

Another newcomer to Dodge was dentist Doc Holliday. Although he still practiced his profession, Doc already had a reputation as a hard drinking gambler and dangerous gunslinger.

On one occasion a group of cattle drovers arrived in town and decided to take over a saloon. Marshall Earp soon arrived and started busting heads and arresting cowboys. When one of the Texans drew his gun and pointed it at Earp’s back, Doc Holliday, dealing at a nearby table, yelled at Wyatt and shot the wouldbe bushwhacker. Having saved the lawman’s life, the two became close, loyal friends.

Another notorious gambler ‘n gunslinger, Luke Short, who soon became friends with Wyatt and Bat, arrived in Dodge in 1882 and purchased half interest in the Long Branch Saloon.

By 1883, two rival groups were vying for power. One, the “Dodge City Gang”, led by Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, it included Luke Short, Charlie Bassett, Doc Holliday, and Shotgun Collins. All gamblers and gunslingers, they wanted the town to remain a wide open cow town.

As the town had grown, more “legitimate” businessmen and politicians wanted to tame Dodge; the gunslingers and gamblers who’d run everything for the first dozen years were no longer appreciated.

The anti-gambling group, backed by a newly elected sheriff, arrested Luke Short and five other gamblers and put them in jail for being undesirables. The six were not allowed to see any lawyers. They were given a choice — take the Eastbound or the West-bound train out of Dodge. Luke Short went east to Kansas City. From there he called together the greatest group of frontier gamblers ‘n gunslingers ever assembled.

Newspapers across the country got wind of the dispute and began touting the impending “Dodge City War”.

The sheriff and property owners appealed to the Governor to declare martial law. He refused. When Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday and others started drifting into town, the opposition collapsed. They agreed to allow Luke Short to return to his business and bloodshed was avoided. But the glory and gory days of Dodge City were numbered. Eventually, Luke Short sold his half of the Long Branch Saloon. Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday went to Tombstone, AZ.

By 1886, the great cattle drives from Texas to Dodge City were coming to a close. The cowboys, saloon keepers, gamblers, gunslingers and prostitutes moved west. And the sun set on the most notorious Wild West town on the frontier.

the Governor to declare martial law. He refused. When Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday and others started drifting into town, the opposition collapsed. They agreed to allow Luke Short to return to his business and bloodshed was avoided. But the glory and gory days of Dodge City were numbered.

Eventually, Luke Short sold his half of the Long Branch Saloon. Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday went to Tombstone, AZ.

By 1886, the great cattle drives from Texas to Dodge City were coming to a close. The cowboys, saloon keepers, gamblers, gunslingers and prostitutes moved west. And the sun set on the most notorious Wild West town on the frontier.