Blood, Guns, Cards, and Money
Dodge City strongly reflects the current situation in the state of Kansas: loyalties of the town’s citizens are torn between the North and the South. Dodge is different from most Kansas towns or settlements in that its citizens are a mixed population of Northern and Southern supporters. Why? Because there’s money to be made. The more money at stake, the more people can endure, and Dodge is a city full of opportunity.
Two railroads, one Northern (Union Blue) and one Southern (Black River), began to push rails west into Kansas. Robert Wright, a budding entrepreneur, saw a chance to profit from the railroads’ arrival and incorporated a town in their path. Wright envisioned a place where those who were tired of the constant fighting could choose to live in peace — and make a profit, if they were so inclined.
Wright called his new home Dodge City. These days, people claim the name refers to how you’re supposed to survive with all the lead flying around, but that wasn’t on his mind then. The town’s charter explicitly stated that those of all political persuasions were welcome, and it made provisions for a large police force to keep the peace.
The idea of a nonpartisan city caught on and attracted the attention of many people, both inside and outside of Kansas. The town’s population grew quickly. Many of the newcomers were war-weary folks who were tired of living in a shooting gallery. Others were just there to make a buck. Some, unfortunately, had more sinister motives and came to cause trouble. Wright was elected the first mayor, beating a man named Hoover by a slim margin. He and the town council quickly found a marshal and deputies who were capable of keeping the peace in such a volatile situation. Larry Deger was hired as marshal, and two of his deputies are Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp and Ed Masterson.
“Bloody Kansas” and the border states are beset by a constant state of guerilla warfare. Every so often, one of these merry bands wanders into Dodge. They might need supplies, or they may just want to kick back and blow off some steam. Not much for law and order, their celebrations can turn rowdy. Other partisans in town often take exception to this disturbance of the peace and decide to take the law into their own hands to quiet things down, sometimes permanently. This usually leads to an all-out gunfight, with the town’s deputies caught in the middle. These groups are one of Marshal Deger’s biggest headaches. Getting drunken men who have spent the last few weeks fertilizing the plains with each others innards to treat each other civilly is a task worthy of Hercules. As long as they behave themselves, they’re welcome in town. If they don’t keep quietly to themselves, they have to go.
A number of particularly vicious bands roam the plains around Dodge. On the Confederate side of things, there is Morgan’s Marauders, Henley’s Hellions, and the Confederate Kansas League. Supporting the North, you have Anderson’s Raiders, Bob’s Boys, and the Unionizers. Also, rumors continue to circulate about a mysterious band that’s been dubbed the “Night Riders.”
Start up a conversation with any good, liquored up, stalwart supporter of the North or South and they’ll tell you that Dodge is somewhat a city of intrigue as well. The war, Dodge’s bipartisan nature, and two major railways (one north and one south) have made the city a magnet for spy activity. It only makes sense when a Confederate spy can hop onto a train for Chicago and from there reach any place in the Union. Likewise, a Union agent can catch a train directly to Richmond. The Mayor and town council take a dim view of all this cloak-and-dagger stuff. It only complicates Marshal Deger’s job and stirs up partisan feelings. As a result, being convicted of spying or supporting spies in Dodge—for the North or South, Deseret, or even the Indians—is punishable by hanging.
The buffalo trade in Dodge is booming once more, and now it’s hotter than ever. With beef herds in the North and South suffering a large number of mysterious deaths the demand has risen for buffalo meat. Previously buffalo hunters would simply sell the hides for $3.50 a piece and leave the meat to rot, but now hunters are receiving up to $30 for a whole animal.
Every day, hunters come in from the plains around town with wagonloads of the dead animals. These are sold to a slaughterhouse where the carcasses are skinned and split. The hides and meat are then taken over to the railroad station and loaded on an eastbound train. All of the slaughterhouses are on the western edge of town (fortunately downwind). They pay anywhere from $15 to $30 for a buffalo, based on size, freshness, and hide quality. Of course it isn’t easy money; buffalo hunting has its dangers – some claim there are more armed men than buffalo out there. Between the usual raiders, railroad gangs, and other hunters, Indians are the most dangerous occupational hazard of buffalo hunting. Many of the tribes who live on the plains depend on the buffalo herds for food and leather. They take a dim view of the white man slaughtering the herds on such a scale.
The trade in Texas longhorns around Dodge has picked up as well. This turn of events is due to the Cattle Owners Associations further west. The biggest and meanest of the bunch banded together and forged exclusive deals with their local railroads to haul their cattle and no one else’s. The smaller ranchers, unable to get their herds to market, have been forced to drive them north to Dodge. The cattle drives to Kansas are ordeals. The cowboys not only have to contend with bad-tempered livestock and the elements, but also gunmen hired by the cattle barons to prevent them from reaching their destination. When and if the cowboys reach Dodge, all they want to do is collect their pay and hit the town.
THE GUN LAW
Dodge City is a pretty wild and woolly place, so the Town Council decided it might be a good idea to try to rein in rambunctious cowboys a little. The passage of a new law forbids anyone to carry guns within city limits. This is the controversial “gun law.” As you might guess, it’s plenty controversial.
The law requires that anyone coming to town go immediately to the town marshal’s office to check his guns (if any) with Marshal Larry Deger. Marshal Deger’s office issues a claim slip that is brought back to claim the gun when the owner leaves town. Anyone who carries a gun in town is subject to arrest, confiscation of the weapon, and a $50-$100 fine per violation.
After incorporating the town, Wright contacted both Union Blue and Black River and offered each of them the right-of-way into town. On May 23, 1875, the Union Blue Railroad’s tracks crossed the Dodge City limits. Three days later—amid some commotion—the Black River line entered town. Both sets of rails run down the center of Front Street to a station built at the town’s expense. Mayor Wright has made it clear to both railroads that they had best behave while in his town. What they do outside of town limits is their own business, but there is to be no feuding in town. Any railroad caught violating this rule loses its right-of-way. To date there have been a few minor violations, fist fights between train crews, minor acts of vandalism, etc., but nothing big enough for the mayor to take action on. This is probably due to the fact that both companies are making money hand over fist hauling buffalo hides and meat out of Dodge and don’t want to do anything to endanger their cash flow.