Sharing Kansas history
Kansas has a long and interesting history when looking at the cowboy and cattle towns.
Cowboy Jim Gray, who is from Ellsworth, spoke to the Butler Community College Life Enrichment group Tuesday, sharing some of his knowledge of the history.
Gray, a sixth generation Kansan, co-founded The COWBOY (Cockeyed Old West Band of Yahoos) Society to promote and preserve the Kansas cowboy heritage through the bi-monthly newspaper Kansas Cowboy. He also has written the book "Desperate Seed" Ellsworth Kansas on the Violent Frontier" and writes a newspaper column, "The Way West."
Gray used to own Drover's Mercantile in Ellsworth, where he sold old west clothing.
One day a man came in and started talking to him about his ancestors. They ended up sharing stories for a couple of hours. When the man left he said, "I didn't think anyone cared about this anymore."
This got Gray to thinking.
"These stories are being lost," he said.
That is when he started the COWBOY Society.
Since then they have shared stories and events with others, keeping the memories alive.
Those stories date back to 1867 which was the beginning of the cowboy as it is known today.
Gray said that was the date the Chisholm Trail opened to Abilene.
To better understand the history, Gray took part in a 200-mile cattle drive in 2011.
"For a historian to experience first hand that lifestyle, it adds a greater insight into what you're doing," he said.
"There was a natural energy on the prairie before we plowed the ground that was so much more powerful than it is today. Mirages were more powerful."
Gray went on to talk about the old cattle towns.
He believes the first cattle town was the first one to ship cattle, which was Abilene, while the first trail town was Baxter Springs. Other cattle towns included Newton, Ellsworth, Wichita, Great Bend, Hays, Ellis, Dodge City and Caldwell, one of the last and one of the wildest.
"Why did we need cattle towns?" he asked.
He explained most of the cattle were in Texas, but there were not enough markets there. In fact, the value of cattle in Texas was so low at that time people would shoot an animal, eat what they wanted and leave the rest laying there.
That changed after the Civil War when there was a greater desire for beef and a shortage of cattle in the North.
"Texas had more than they needed so they started taking them north," Gray said.
The problem was Texas cattle carried a disease that was mysterious to everyone. It would kill 90 percent of domestic cattle that grazed in the same fields.
Because of this a quarantine was developed in Missouri, which caused a problem getting the cattle north.
A cattle buyer from Illinois, Joseph McCoy, recognized the new railroad being built into the prairie in Kansas and went up and down that route looking for a suitable town to build stockyards. He settled on Abilene. His idea was for buyers to come to Abilene or have the option to ship cattle east from there.
"That opened up this whole new idea of a cattle town," Gray said.
Gray said cowboys got a bad reputation for shooting things up, but that depended on the situation. In Abilene in early years, there was nothing there for them so they came and sold their cattle and left with no problems.
That changed when all of the businesses began to pop up.
"1868 was a whole brand new experience," Gray said.
Also in 1868 buyers slowed a bit, but there were three times as many cattle.
"McCoy finally figured out a plan," he continued.
He hired the best cowboys he could find of those who came into Abilene and sent them out on the prairie where they captured buffalo, elk, antelope and wild horses, which were shipped back east and he put on what was basically the first wild west show. He did the same thing in Chicago. With the interest that created, he put together a train ride that took people to western Kansas to see these animals. That continued to grow the cattle industry.
In 1869 there were 70,000 head of cattle and by 1871 350,000 head were drove north.
This time period also saw the increase of gamblers and prostitutes in these cattle towns.
"It was a wonderful, wild place," Gray said.
One mercantile in Abilene sold $150,000 in goods in a five-month cattle season. This included what was sold to the cowboys and "tourists."
"Everyone of these cow towns basically became a cowboy resort," he said. "It was a wild place."
As it became more wild, it became evident something needed to be done to get things under control. The final incident that proved this to be true was when a bullet went through a baby carriage in 1869.
They brought in the St. Louis law, who had a reputation for being tough, but after walking through the town, they just got on the train and left. So then, finally found Tom Smith.
"He knew how to handle himself," Gray said.
He took on the job and the next day he started posting signs stating he was going to enforce the no gun law, which he did.
Eventually he was shot at a home outside the city while helping a fellow law man. After that they hired Wild Bill Hickcok, but Gray said all he had to do was maintain what Smith had established.
"A lot of people will tell you the cattle towns moved west with the railroad but that is not true," Gray explained.
By 1870 the railroad had reached Denver, and Abilene continued through 1871, then shut town. Newton and Ellsworth took over for a little while.
Gray said it shifted west because as farmers came into the area they asked for quarantines to be set up to keep Texas cattle out, so the cowboys had to find markets further west. Quarantines shut off Ellsworth in 1875 and Wichita in 1876. After that, routes went to Ellis, then Dodge City, then finally at the end of the shipping season in 1885 basically the whole state of Kansas was quarantined and that put an end to the Kansas cattle towns, Gray told the group. Things continued to shift west.
In the 1890s it was discovered the Texas Cattle Fever was caused by a tick that lived on the southern coast that caused a blood disease. While the longhorns had developed a resistance to it, the cattle farther north had not. All that had to be done to the cattle was dip them in insecticide, which they began to do.
"The interesting aspect to all that is if they had known (about the tick) they wouldn't have been searching for towns on the plains and we wouldn't have had all these cattle towns," Gray said.
Gray enjoys writing about the drovers from Texas and has helped establish a National Drovers Hall of Fame in Ellsworth, which is being developed.
The program was made possible by the Kansas Humanities Council.
Julie Clements can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.