Critical Essay by Darci Clark
The Cattle Towns by Robert R. Dykstra
Topics in American History: The American West
The Cattle Towns by Robert R. Dykstra is a detailed research work on the history and development of the post-Civil War Kansas cattle towns. He discusses how the Texas cattle trade influenced the expansion of Abilene, Dodge City, Ellsworth, Wichita, and Caldwell and how the towns fared after the cattle trade moved on. Dysktra’s analysis focuses on the legal and political conflicts that arose between entrepreneurs and farmers due to the cattle trade. He is more interested in discussing the social history of the cattle towns rather than embellished Wild West stories of cowboys and lawmen which made towns like Dodge City famous.
All the Kansas towns had to overcome obstacles to become part of the cattle trade. Abilene had to win a political battle to become the Dickinson county seat and the legal battle over the cattle splenic fever quarantine statutes to gain access to the cattle trade. This issue of splenic fever, a disease Texas longhorns brought to Kansas and infected local stock, was an issue in every cattle town’s development. Ellsworth was initially planned as an agricultural town but faced problems with Cheyenne marauders and Asiatic cholera before becoming a principal shipping point for the cattle trade. Wichita’s citizens, however, needed to convince the railroad companies to build through their town. There was initial interest by three railroad companies but the deals fell through. Wichita competed with the neighboring town of Park City for a county seat and the railroad. The railroad eventually chose Wichita which meant the end of Park City. Dodge City became a major hub for buffalo hunters until the decimation of the buffalo population ended that trade. Unlike the other cattle towns, Dodge City had little trouble in replacing the buffalo trade with the cattle trade since the railroad had already targeted the town as the best potential shipping center. The final cattle town Dykstra discusses is Caldwell, which was planned at a perfect location for a new shipping point for the cattle trade. Even though Caldwell became a successful shipping point, it never gained its full potential due to the shared cattle traffic with the town of Hunnewell.
I found the second chapter entitled “Cattle Town Enterprise” the most interesting section of the book. Entrepreneurship and the idea that cattle town citizens were “here to live and get rich if we can” drove the development of the Kansas cattle towns. Dykstra describes the role of the cattleman and the livestock buyers, as well as the important service of the railroad and banking companies in the cattle trade. Prior to the beginning of the cattle trade, eastward bound railroad cars were usually shipped empty, so filling these cars with cattle created a significant profit for the railroad companies. The large financial transactions exchanged in the cattle trade were highly profitable for banking establishments and created a need for banking facilities in the cattle towns.
Much of the local entrepreneurship in the cattle towns catered to the drovers who led the longhorn cattle up from Texas. A variety of businesses benefitted from the cattle trade including grocers, hotels, restaurants, and dance halls. Clothing and groceries were the two biggest commodities purchased by transient consumers. One merchant even moved his business as the cattle trade moved from town to town. Hotels and boardinghouses, the most famous establishment being the Drovers Cottage, promoted their businesses to attract drovers and included amenities to entertain them. In addition to these essential services, local entrepreneurs provided entertainment for the drovers in the form of theaters, gambling rooms, brothels, dance houses, and saloons. These businesses took advantage of the fact that drovers spent their money recklessly. Dykstra makes a convincing argument which shows that the success of the cattle towns was driven by local entrepreneurship. He does indeed – I’ve always found it interesting how the prostitutes were taxed right along with all of the saloon owners – fun stuff.
Cattle towns have become notorious for the violence that reportedly occurred during these years. Dykstra notes that “three of the five major cattle towns, in fact suffered from violent reputations even before their careers as cattle trading centers.” Violence occurred before the cattle towns had any organized municipal services to protect their citizens so the addition of transient cattle drovers only made the problem worse. Citizens sometimes took the law into their own hands by enacting vigilante justice but still needed to keep the drovers satisfied for the town to thrive economically.
Once the cattle towns established a system of law enforcement, they did not have just a single town marshal in charge. Dykstra points out that the image of the lone marshal protecting the town did not actually happen, but instead there were up to five men dedicated to protecting citizens during the cattle trading season. Since most violence occurred at brothels, saloons, and gambling dens, these businesses were taxed higher to compensate for the cost of law enforcement. Criminals were given lenient sentences so the drovers would continue to come to the town. Some of the towns even had issues with law enforcement candidates who participated in illegal activities, but on the whole the towns dealt with criminals effectively. The idea of the lawless cattle town was more an image of Wild West legend than reality.
A conflict eventually arose between the cattle town businessmen and outlying farmers because rural settlement was consistently put aside in favor of the cattle trade. Drovers would lead their herds through the farmer’s unfenced fields destroying crops. Farmers were also charged exorbitant interest rates on bank loans and were even encouraged to raise livestock rather than grow crops. The tension between farmers and the pro cattle trade eventually played out in the political arena in competition to win seats for county offices.
The conflict between rural and urban citizens was one of the causes that led to factionalism. Other causes were old versus new citizens and establishment versus dissents. Factional conflict kept any one political group from gaining too much power and allowed rural citizens to help in local decision-making. Cattle town citizens also argued over reform issues to curtail or remove liquor and other sinful businesses like prostitution from their towns. Some of these moral reforms were successful but only gained acceptance once the cattle trade moved on.
Dykstra traces the history of the cattle towns effectively by telling the stories of the people who made the towns successful during the cattle trade years. It was an interesting read and offered a realistic view of the Kansas cattle towns without the sensational Wild West stories of cowboys and shootouts.
Dykstra, Robert R. The Cattle Towns. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1968.
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