Butler County Times Gazette
  • Peace Commission - Keeping the Peace in early Dodge City

  • The year 1883 got off to a good start in Dodge City.

     


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  • EDITOR'S NOTE: As a way of celebrating Dodge City's 140th birthday this year, the Daily Globe will take a look at a few events that shaped the town's history. This week, the story of political forces at work in early day Dodge City.
    These stories are produced with the help of the Kansas Heritage Center.
    The year 1883 got off to a good start in Dodge City.
    A record ice harvest produced 2,000 tons of ice from the frozen Arkansas River. Saloon keepers and hotel operators took as many as 300 tons each to keep drinks cold during the long, hot summer.
    More than 100 new houses were built in the preceding year and telephone lines were being added piecemeal around town. Dr. McCarty put a phone line between his house and his office; another connected the post office to the flour mill.
    Newspaper men were trying to see things in a positive light, hoping to help the town emerge from its lawless beginnings.
    Nicholas Klaine, editor of the Dodge City Times, wrote on March 22 of 1883:
    "Within two years past Dodge City has undergone radical changes in her municipal character. Then wayward, incredulous countryman is not fleeced by the sharp deceiving confidence operator. The unsuspecting traveler is not knocked down and robbed. There are no highway robberies, no murdering and no thieving. It is true, gambling, prostitution and whisky selling is carried on but there is some restrain, some respect, and show of decency in the illegitimate and unlawful affairs."
    Meanwhile, businessman Robert Wright had four carloads of mature trees brought in on the Santa Fe railroad and created a 40-acre municipal park adjacent to the river.
    Convinced that the town needed to pay as much attention to its physical appearance as its moral character, Wright also donated land for a Railway Park adjacent to the depot.
    Early in the year, a number of people fell victim to smallpox.
    Fearing a panic and even possible disruption of the upcoming cattle drive season, some tried to blame the deaths on the lifestyles of the victims.
    Dan Frost, writing in the Ford County Globe, said "Each one were hard drinkers, and we may say did not draw a sober breath for weeks before their deaths."
    Patients were isolated at Fort Dodge and public officials declared Dodge City "safe."
    Robert Wright reported from the Stockmans' Convention in Austin, Tex., that Dodge City could expect over 300,000 cattle to arrive in Dodge in upcoming months.
    A routine city election quickly turned into a contest between those who wanted to drive drinking, gambling and prostitution from the town and those who needed the business.
    A hotly argued campaign resulted in Dodge City biggest voter turnout ever: 357 voters.
    Page 2 of 4 - Larry Deger was elected mayor and all his cohorts were elected to the council.
    Dodge City was on the brink of change.
    Within three weeks the winning council passed "An Ordinance for the Suppression of Vice and immorality," aimed at halting everything from prostitution to vagrancy.
    Trouble begins
    The real trouble began when Deger and a special police force arrested three "singers" at the Long Branch Saloon.
    Claims soon arose, spread mainly by the men who hadn't been elected, that the enforcement of the new law was preferential, neglecting to arrest "singers" at several competing saloons.
    The man running the Long Branch at the time was Luke Short, who, like many entrepreneurs at the time, had been on both sides of the law.
    Shortly after his ladies were arrested, Short encountered a city official and the both drew their weapons. Both men fired and, although no one was injured, these were the opening shots in what became known as The Dodge City War.
    Short was arrested, then released on $2,000 bond. He was shortly arrested again and refused bond. Instead, Mayor Deger offered to put him on whatever train out of town he chose.
    Short chose Kansas City and began telling everyone he met about the way he was treated in Dodge.
    Citizens took sides and friends of Short kept him advised of the ebb and flow of public opinion. In most cases, they advised him to either find someone to run his Dodge City operations or sell them entirely. They advised that he not return to town, at least while Deger was in control. Deger had men armed with shotguns searching arriving trains.
    Emboldened by some positive press in the eastern part of the state, Short called on Governor Glick, claiming that the actions taken against him were politically motivated and not due to any illegal actions on his part.
    The governor telegraphed Ford County sheriff Hinkle, who replied that the mayor was just maintaining peace.
    The governor, forced to evaluate the situation from a distance and having heard only Luke Short's side of the matter, accused the mayor of claiming to be a peace maker but heading a mob instead.
    The governor added that he would be willing to send troops to Dodge City to close every saloon and dance hall if necessary.
    Convinced that the governor was misinformed, and worried about the attention the matter was attracting, leading citizens notified the governor of another development.
    Bat Masterson, who had served as sheriff in Ford County but was exiled on pain of death should he return, had his own reasons for taking Short's side. It was Deger and his friends who got rid of Masterson.
    Page 3 of 4 - Masterson had arrived in Kansas City, which the locals took to mean he was headed to Dodge. And according to reports, he was bringing several friends, including Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliiday.
    Prominent Dodge City businessmen Robert Wright, George Hoover and Chalkley Beeson traveled to Topeka to broker a settlement with Short and the governor.
    The men suggested that Short might be allowed to return to Dodge to finalize his business affairs but, should he attempt to remain, his life would be in jeopardy.
    The sheriff of Dodge City increased the posse meeting the trains to 45 men.
    By this time, Deger and his crowd had learned how to use the eastern newspapers to their advantage, vilifying not only Short, but also his partner William Harris.
    Unable to resolve the conflict, Gov. Glick appointed Col. Thomas Moonlight, the state's adjutant general, as Minister Plenipotentiary to Ford County, charging him with negotiating a treaty between the two factions.
    Bat Masterson passed through Dodge without incident, headed to Colorado aboard the Santa Fe.
    But the sheriff and others were still concerned about the rumor of Wyatt Earp's return to Dodge.
    They petitioned the governor to  authorize a company of state militia to maintain the peace.
    Luke Short returned to Dodge City on June 2.
    The governor, following developments from his office in Topeka, received a telegram from the commander of the militia assuring him that everything had been peacefully settled.
    Two minutes later he received another telegram, this time from Hinkle, Mayor Deger and others, saying, "Our city is overrun with desperate characters from Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California. We cannot preserve the peace or enforce the laws." They asked for more militia.
    But another telegram from Hinkle soon called the troops off.
    "The difficulty is settled. Short's fighters have left town. I am satisfied we will not have any more trouble," Hinkle said.
    The Dodge City War was over.
    In part, the tale shows what influence men like Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp had during those times.
    Their presence in town was enough of a threat to Deger and his friends that many of them disappeared.
    And Masterson and Earp soon left Dodge as well, but not before posing for a photograph with their friends W.F. McLain, Neil Brown, Charlie Bassett, W.H. Harris, W.F. Petillon and Luke Short himself.
    That photo has become one of the most recognized images from the period and the group became known as the Dodge City Peace Commission.
    Sources: Information used in this story can be found in "Dodge City: The Early Years, 1872—1886," by Wm. B. Shillingberg. The book is available for checkout at Dodge City Public Library and for purchase at the Kansas Heritage Center. Information about Kansas history is also available online at www.skyways.org.
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