Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West

Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West

by Tom Clavin


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Dodge City, Kansas, is a place of legend. The town that started as a small military site exploded with the coming of the railroad, cattle drives, eager miners, settlers, and various entrepreneurs passing through to populate the expanding West. Before long, Dodge City’s streets were lined with saloons and brothels and its populace was thick with gunmen, horse thieves, and desperadoes of every sort. By the 1870s, Dodge City was known as the most violent and turbulent town in the West.

Enter Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. Young and largely self-trained men, the lawmen led the effort that established frontier justice and the rule of law in the American West, and did it in the wickedest place in the United States. When they moved on, Wyatt to Tombstone and Bat to Colorado, a tamed Dodge was left in the hands of Jim Masterson. But before long Wyatt and Bat, each having had a lawman brother killed, returned to that threatened western Kansas town to team up to restore order again in what became known as the Dodge City War before riding off into the sunset.

#1 New York Times bestselling author Tom Clavin's Dodge City tells the true story of their friendship, romances, gunfights, and adventures, along with the remarkable cast of characters they encountered along the way (including Wild Bill Hickock, Jesse James, Doc Holliday, Buffalo Bill Cody, John Wesley Hardin, Billy the Kid, and Theodore Roosevelt) that has gone largely untold—lost in the haze of Hollywood films and western fiction, until now.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250071484
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/28/2017
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 117,056
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

TOM CLAVIN is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and has worked as a newspaper and web site editor, magazine writer, TV and radio commentator, and a reporter for The New York Times covering entertainment, sports, and the environment. He has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, and National Newspaper Association. His books include The Heart of Everything That Is, Halsey's Typhoon, The Last Stand of Fox Company, and Last Men Out. The Heart of Everything That Is is being developed as a feature by Ridley Scott Films, Fox Company has been optioned and adapted for the big screen, and Last Men Out is being developed as a 10-hour limited series by the Levinson/Fontana production company. He lives in Sag Harbor, NY.

Read an Excerpt

Dodge City

Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West

By Tom Clavin

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2017 Tom Clavin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-07148-4


Little wonder that many early immigrants to the region thought of the vicinity of Dodge [City] as comparable to the Garden of Eden. There was a saying among the pioneers that God, after he created the heavens and the earth, chose to make a garden for Himself and thus He designed Kansas.

— ODIE B. FAULK, Dodge City: The Most Western Town of All

That Dodge City was the gateway to the Great American Desert probably does not seem to be much of a recommendation for it. And not by a long shot was it the most populated, prosperous, or progressive city in middle America. Why, then, did it matter to anyone? Why did major daily newspapers to the east and ones in Denver and as far west as San Francisco and San Diego carry stories about the goings-on there in the 1870s? And why well over a century after its "golden decade" is there still immediate name recognition when one hears "Dodge City"?

The small city in southwest Kansas came to symbolize both the American West and a nation seeking to fulfill its manifest destiny. Pioneer wagon after wagon deepened established trails and created fresh ones as a young generation of Americans sought new homes and opportunities. The search did not go smoothly. What happened in Dodge City was happening all across the western frontier, only more so.

On the first page of his memoir about Dodge City, Robert Wright, one of its earliest and most successful businessmen, writes that his image of the city then was "a picture ever changing, ever restless, with no two days alike in experience. In those days, one lived ten years of life in one calendar year. Indians, drought, buffaloes, bad men, the long horn, and, in fact, so many characteristic features of that time present themselves that I am at a loss where to begin."

What makes the Dodge City story such an enjoyable one is that it was a reservoir of tall tales, yet many of the facts are equally if not more fascinating. Most of the stories involve the explorers, cowboys, businessmen, gamblers, women from both sides of the tracks, lawmen, and others who came to call it home or who were simply stopping on their way to somewhere else.

By the mid-1870s, Dodge City had become the major "cow town" on the frontier — with all the good and bad that entailed — and was a doorway to the Great American Desert, the huge chunk of the country that was still largely unknown territory to many Americans. This was the plateau that rolled westward from the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains. To strike west of Kansas City onto this plateau was to enter the vast unknown, where marauding Indians, wild animals, and all kinds of deprivations waited. Tales about such well-known trails as the Oregon, Santa Fe, and Chisholm followed by explorers, settlers, Mormons, prospectors, entrepreneurs, and some simply seeking adventure on the other side of the next hill were both captivating and frightening.

The exploits of Jim Bridger, John C. Frémont, Buffalo Bill, and Kit Carson captured the imaginations of young men who dreamed of joining their ranks. For many of them, the end of the Civil War in 1865 was a catalyst to begin their own adventures. Some found what they were looking for, some were disappointed, and some did not survive the occasionally harsh surroundings and even harsher people.

On the way west was a site known as Cimarron Crossing. This was where many early westbound explorers and settlers forded the Arkansas River and could then head into Colorado or go to Texas or on to New Mexico. It was near here that Dodge City was founded and took root.

Well before the Civil War, what had initially inspired the early explorations of an emerging America was the Louisiana Purchase. The transaction took place in 1803, and there was an immediate desire to explore the 828,000 square miles that President Thomas Jefferson and his administration had just spent fifteen million dollars on. That same year, Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark began their expedition, and many Americans would be enthralled by their reports about a strange and wonderful and intimidating land.

A territory called Kansas was right in the middle of the vast Louisiana Purchase property that stretched from Louisiana itself to portions of Montana and Idaho. There would be other explorers on the heels of Lewis and Clark, including the well-traveled Lieutenant Zebulon Montgomery Pike, who in 1806 crossed the region that would contain Dodge City. He observed "wind [that] had thrown up the sand in all the fanciful forms of the ocean's rolling waves" and cautioned that people on the eastern sides of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers would be smart to "leave the prairies incapable of cultivation to the wandering and uncivilized aborigines of the country."

Pike was certainly not the first explorer of European descent. In 1542, the noted Spanish conquistador Francisco Vazquez de Coronado led a party of approximately fifty men, thirty of them on horses, east and then north into southwest Kansas. Coronado's men had taken an Indian captive who claimed that the Spaniards would discover a river as wide as five miles across and from which they could take fish as large as horses. The expedition had come up from the Rio Grande valley of New Mexico via the Texas Panhandle and a strip of Oklahoma to this flat country that they referred to as "plains." On their way to the valley of the Arkansas River they had encountered a black-brown sea of buffalo, a jaw-dropping sight. To add fish the size of horses to their discoveries was too tempting to resist.

The captive's claims turned out to be exaggerations, but Coronado and his followers were still impressed by the vast plains east of the Rocky Mountains. They were filled with lush green shortgrass that rarely grew taller than sixteen inches. They also found twisted mesquite trees, shrubs with prickly thorns, sharp-needled cacti, and cottonwood trees along streams and creeks. They soon learned that in the summer hot air followed them up from the south, parching almost everything in its path. The shortgrass turned gold and brown and delectable for the literally millions of buffalo that roamed the plains. Other animals found in abundance were prairie dogs, skunks, badgers, ground squirrels, jackrabbits, coyotes, pronghorn antelopes, and dark-gray wolves, who thrived on all the available prey.

But most of all there were American bison, most often called buffalo. It is estimated that when European explorers like Coronado and those who came after arrived in future Kansas, there were at least five million and perhaps as many as eight million buffalo there. Big and shaggy, they didn't fear the wolves or other animal predators. They were safe in numbers as long as they remained on the plains and away from the Rocky Mountain foothills, where they would risk encounters with grizzly bears.

A bull buffalo could weigh a ton and be a ferocious fighter, but much of the herd's protection was thanks to the older cows with a highly developed sense of smell. The biggest danger buffalo posed to Coronado's contingent was their hooves. The explorer wrote to the king of Spain, Charles V, about the plentiful supply of buffalo meat for his hunters but that their trial-and-error efforts set off stampedes that ran down horses as well as men.

There were as many buffalo in the area that would later host Dodge City as anywhere else in Kansas. Explorers bearing "modern" rifles in the ensuing centuries had a lot more luck killing the lumbering beasts for their meat and hides. In the unlikely event that there wasn't a herd handy, other game would supply early settlers and others passing through, including ones with feathers: wild turkeys, prairie chickens, grouse, ducks, and geese. There was plenty of water and fertile farming soil. The weather could be a challenge, though, beginning with those hot winds up from Mexico. Kansa was an Indian word meaning "people of the south wind."

A sign that summer was giving way to autumn was when the leaves on trees along rivers and streams changed from green to gold, orange, and red. While the breezes no longer blew exclusively up from the south, the air and the ground remained dry. In winter, however, there was snow. Sometimes lots of it. It piled up in the mountains to the west and blanketed the plains. A blizzard could last several days, and just like in the 1800s, such storms today can claim the lives of people exposed to them. Finally, spring crept in when moderating winds from the south — ones that can be harsh and unforgiving in July and August — gradually melted the snow, water rushed down from the mountains, and the earth was ready to be tilled.

The original inhabitants, however, were not very interested in farming. Bands of Apache, Kiowa, and other tribes roamed the prairie, feasting on the wild game and buffalo, the latter supplying most of the Indians' food, clothing, and utensils. (A brutal but efficient harvesting method was practiced when the hunters stampeded a herd toward a cliff and the panicked buffalo plunged to their deaths.) When horses from the Great American Horse Dispersal that had begun in the Southwest in the late 1600s arrived in the plains and multiplied there, the domineering Apache could roam even farther and faster and send successful raiding parties against such enemy tribes as the Wichita, Kansa, Missouri, Oto, and Osage.

But in the first half of the 1700s it was the Apache's turn to be pushed around. Descending from the central Rocky Mountains, the Comanche proved to be the better horsemen. That and an especially fierce fighting ethos combined to spell doom for the earlier inhabitants when the interlopers reached the Arkansas River. The Apache were swept aside, forced to find less-dangerous surroundings, while the Comanche expanded into Texas and as far southeast as the Gulf of Mexico. Eventually, the remaining Apache and the Kiowa found ways to coexist with the Comanche. They might still steal each other's horses, both out of necessity and to earn status within their tribes, but the land offered enough food and resources for everyone.

Then white men began to show up. Most of them traveled east to west, finding a region of swaying green and brown grass and choking dust that gradually inclined toward the mountains, at its center twenty-five hundred feet above sea level. Zebulon Pike would be followed by another army officer, Major Stephen Long, who echoed his predecessor's opinion that this eastern portion of the Great American Desert was "uninhabitable by a people depending on agriculture for their subsistence."

Such sentiments certainly didn't persuade people back east to fill wagons with plows and seed and head to the Arkansas River area to begin farming. But a few entrepreneurs saw the explorations of Pike, Long, and others as opening the territory to traders. One of the very first was William Becknell. He loaded up mules in Missouri and took them to Colorado to trade with Indians for furs. Not finding any willing customers there, he accompanied a group of scouts to New Mexico, specifically to the settlement of Santa Fe. Trading there was brisk, and when he returned to Missouri, Becknell had blazed what would become the Santa Fe Trail.

In 1822, the year after his first sojourn, Becknell was back again, with a group of wagons and workers and more goods to trade. He was soon followed by others. In April 1824, the largest group yet, consisting of eighty-three men in twenty-four wagons, set off from Franklin, Missouri, and three months later reached Santa Fe. Coming and going, they passed near the site of the future Dodge City.

Still, the city could have become nothing more than one of dozens of settlements that found ways to survive near the Santa Fe and other trails. What contributed greatly to this particular settlement's earning a prominent place on the map of Kansas was the founding of a fort, and there would be not one but two officers named Dodge associated with it.

The Comanche, Apache, and other Indian tribes did not have an inherent hatred of white people. At least, not initially. Encountering them here and there had the benefit for the Indians of trading furs and other animal products with them for trinkets and some clothing and, unfortunately, whiskey, for which the Indians had no immunity. Even just occasional exposure could lead to alcoholism and early death. This was also true of diseases like smallpox and cholera. During the decades of white migration west before the Civil War, the Santa Fe Trail was basically a commercial route for traders, though beginning in 1849, it also served as a stagecoach route. All this exposure to white travelers resulted in thousands of Indians dying from diseases, much more so than in armed conflict.

Many Hollywood movies would have viewers believe that the sight of any white people out on the prairie would whip Indians into a fury. For the most part, however, white people and their equipment were a curiosity to them. One example of the latter was the Conestoga wagon. It was constructed to resemble a longboat and was watertight so that it could "sail" across the vast ocean that was the Great American Desert. These wagons became known as "prairie schooners." Indians could not imagine riding in such contraptions, but rather than attack them, they watched as they moved on to westward destinations. The friction would increase years later when there were many more white people and more of them were stopping to settle or were killing the buffalo.

When Indians did attack with more frequency and savagery, migrants and miners petitioned the U.S. government for protection. The government did attempt to work out treaties with tribes and compensate them for allowing safe passage. Such treaties rarely lasted long, because they were broken by avaricious white traders and eager settlers, or because the Indians really hadn't understood what they were giving away and thus continued with their traditional practices of hunting and camping wherever they pleased. When white people got in the way or trespassed (according to the Indians) on sacred ground, or when an exchange of goods went wrong, arrows flew, guns that had often been gotten from traders blazed, and the white intruders had to fight to survive.

As the historian Samuel Carter III described it, "To the marauding Comanches and Cheyennes, still lords of the Plains whatever others thought of them, the wagon trains were like the Spanish galleons to the pirates of the Caribbean. Time and again they raided the caravans, killing and scalping the drivers for good measure. A favorite point of ambush was Cimarron Crossing, twenty miles west of the site of Dodge, where the Conestoga wagons trying to ford the shallow Arkansas made an easy target for the raiders."

The army sent units west to build forts in the Dakotas, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas. The southern ones became important when the ending of the war with Mexico resulted in a leap of trading along the Santa Fe Trail and the increase in conflicts with Indians due to more whites passing through the territory. A fort, or post, no matter how crudely constructed, offered some shelter from bad weather as well as from Indians in addition to being a place to resupply and rest.

One such post was built in April 1847. Captain Daniel Mann with forty men arrived at the Arkansas River eight miles west of the future Dodge City. There they fashioned logs into four structures within walls that were twenty feet high and sixty feet long. The geographical significance of the outpost was that it was roughly halfway between Leavenworth, the biggest city in Kansas then, and Santa Fe itself.

Mann's little fort on the prairie lasted only three years. In August 1850, Fort Atkinson was established one mile to the west and also close to the river. In its early days the fort went through a head-spinning series of names — first Fort Sodom, because the buildings were made of sod; then Camp Mackay, after an officer who had died the previous April; then Fort Sumner, because Lieutenant Colonel Edwin Sumner had led the contingent that had constructed it; and finally Fort Atkinson, after another officer who had died. This post also did not last long, sort of a victim of its own success.

In July 1853, the former mountain man and now Indian agent Thomas "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick arrived with wagons filled with gifts and a mandate to hammer out a treaty with the Comanche, Apache, and Kiowa to allow safe passage on the Santa Fe Trail in that region. He never needed to reach for the hammer. The Indians were agreeable to not attacking travelers in exchange for the gifts. Unlike many other treaties, the Treaty of Fort Atkinson stuck. The tribes stayed south of the Arkansas River, travelers on the trail went unmolested, and the government could not justify the expense of maintaining Fort Atkinson. By 1854, it was an empty shell.


Excerpted from Dodge City by Tom Clavin. Copyright © 2017 Tom Clavin. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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