The Santa Fe Trail, opened in 1821 by William Becknell, became a great commercial route between Franklin, Missouri, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, until 1880. Thousands of wagons traveled the Mountain Branch of the trail which went west from Dodge City along the north bank of the Arkansas River into Colorado. For those willing to risk the dangers of waterless sandhills, a shorter route called the Cimarron Cutoff crossed the river near Dodge City and went southwest to the Cimarron River.
Fort Dodge was established in 1865 on the Santa Fe Trail, midway between two major Indian crossings on the Arkansas River. It was an important outpost on the Western frontier, offering protection to wagon trains and serving as a supply base for troops engaged in the Indian Wars. Kiowa, Cheyenne and other Plains tribes inhabited the area, and wild game was abundant including vast herds of buffalo.
Dodge City was founded in 1872, just five miles west of Fort Dodge on the edge of the military reservation. It quickly became a trade center for travelers and buffalo hunters. The same year, the railroad reached Dodge City, assuring its continued existence and making it a major shipping point. An estimated 850,000 buffalo hides were shipped from Dodge City in the years 1872-1874. 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 Bibulous 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. Farmers, during hard times, gathered the bones and sold them for six to eight dollars a ton. The bones were used in the manufacture of china and for fertilizer.
By 1875, the buffalo were gone as a source of revenue, but the Longhorn cattle of Texas soon took their place. From 1875 to 1886, over 5,000,000 cattle were driven up the Western Trail from Texas to Dodge City. Cowboys from the cattle drives had more than a little influence in establishing Dodge City’s reputation as the wildest town on the western frontier. Such notable law men as Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp became legends in their
own time as they fought to bring law and order to the streets
of Dodge City.
The town these early men knew was laid out with two Front Streets, one on either 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 nineteen businesses were licensed to sell liquor. During those first years the population varied according to the season, swelling during the summer with the influx of 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 usually was available so even beer could be served cold. Some saloons advertised anchovies and Russian caviar on their cold lunch menus.
Gambling ranged from a game of five cent Chuck-a-luck to thousand dollar poker pots. Many saloons offered some type of musical entertainment, a piano player, a singer, or as in Chalk Beeson’s Long Branch, a five piece orchestra. Beeson also organized and led the famous Cowboy Band which entertained all over the west at cattlemen’s conventions,
concerts, dances and in Washington, D.C. at the inauguration of President Harrison.
The town thrived and its populace of buffalo hunters, railroad workers, soldiers and drifters “settled their differences” in shoot-outs. Lawlessness reigned, creating the need for a burial place.
Boot Hill Cemetery.
For six years Dodge had no official cemetery. Persons dying who had friends, enough
money or sufficient standing in the community were buried in the post cemetery at Fort Dodge. Others, penniless or unknown, were buried where it was convenient to dig a hole. Boot Hill, now a part of downtown Dodge City, is the most famous burial ground in all western lore, even though it was used only until 1878. Fort Dodge was closed in 1882 and by 1886, the cattle drives had ended. An illustrious period of history was over but the legend lives on in Dodge City’s historic preservation of its romantic and internationally famous past.
The first settlement of non-indigenous people in the area that became Dodge City was Fort Mann. Built by civilians in 1847, Fort Mann was intended to provide protection for travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. Fort Mann collapsed in 1848 after an Indian attack. In 1850, the U.S. Army arrived to provide protection in the region and constructed Fort Atkinson on the old Fort Mann site.
The army abandoned Fort Atkinson in 1853. Military forces on the Santa Fe Trail were reestablished farther north and east at Fort Larned in 1859, but the area around what would become Dodge City remained vacant until the end of the Civil War in April 1865. In April 1865, as the Indian Wars in the West began heating up, the army constructed Fort Dodge to assist Fort Larned in providing protection on the Santa Fe Trail. Fort Dodge remained in operation until 1882.
The town of Dodge City can trace its origins to 1871 when rancher Henry J. Sitler built a sod house west of Fort Dodge to oversee his cattle operations in the region. Conveniently located near the Santa Fe Trail and Arkansas River, Sitler’s house quickly became a stopping point for travelers. With the Santa Fe Railroad rapidly approaching from the east, others saw the commercial potential of the region. In 1872, Dodge City was staked out on the 100th Meridian and the legal Western boundary of the Fort Dodge reservation. The townsite was platted and George M. Hoover established the first bar in a tent to service thirsty soldiers from Fort Dodge.
The railroad arrived in September to find a town ready and waiting for business. The early settlers in Dodge City traded in buffalo bones and hides and provided a civilian community for Fort Dodge. However, with the arrival of the railroad, Dodge City soon became involved in the cattle trade.
Today each summer, the Dodge City Chamber of Commerce holds Dodge City Days, the city’s annual community festival. Lasting ten days, it includes the Dodge City Roundup Rodeo, a parade, a beauty pageant, music concerts, a golf tournament, arts and craft shows, and other activities. Several other community events are held throughout the year. In early May, the city’s sizable Mexican community celebrates Cinco de Mayo in Wright Park with live music, folk dance performances, and traditional Mexican cuisine. To celebrate Independence Day, the city holds its Old-Fashioned Fourth of July which includes a fireworks display and children’s activities at Boot Hill.
Christmas in Old Dodge City, the city’s winter holiday festival, starts in late November and lasts until Christmas. It begins with a formal Christmas tree lighting downtown, a chili cook-off, and the Parade of Lights, a parade of floats decorated with Christmas lights.
Two other annual events reflect the central role of agriculture in the local economy. The Ford County Fair is held in July and includes 4-H and FFA exhibits, competitions, and shows as well as other activities. Also in July, the Western Kansas Manufacturers Association (WKMA) holds the 3i Show, an agri-business expo of agricultural products, technology, and services.