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Dodge: "The Wicked Little City"

Updated on November 20, 2011

Dodge City, Circa 1874

Circa 1879

Dodge City, Kansas was named after Major General Greville Dodge. He was the commanding officer of Fort Dodge, also named after him, when it was built in 1865 near the city’s present site. The Fort was considered a necessity to protect west bound pioneers and wagon trains from Indian attacks. The fort was also commanded by another man with the same surname in 1872, Colonel Richard I. Dodge.

The fort was also used for postal services and a supply depot for soldiers battling Indians further south. And as with other forts in the Old West, towns or settlements soon sprang up around them as settlers and businessmen knew they would be protected.

One such man was rancher Henry J. Sitler, who in 1871 built a sod house near Fort Dodge. He decided it was a good location for some of his cattle operations since it was near the Santa Fe Trail and Arkansas River. That and the fact the Santa Fe Railroad was laying track in their direction sealed Dodge City’s destiny as a major hub for the cattle Industry.

Black Sunday, April 1935

But, before cattle there were the buffalo. Ironically, the town’s founding fathers had intended to call it Buffalo City, but the name was already taken. Ford County wasn't established until 1873 and Dodge City wasn't officially incorporated until November 1875, so there was no law or government in Dodge. At that time Dodge was a major shipping point for buffalo hunters. But, within a few years the buffalo had all but disappeared from over hunting. The buffalo hunter disappeared along with them and was replaced by the cowboy.

Robert M. Wright, a town director, explained that even before the railroad arrived or a depot built, many businesses had already begun springing up. By 1877 it had become firmly established as a cow town and as such attracted not only legitimate businesses, but more seedy enterprises as well. Gambling halls, saloons and prostitutes and other activities catering to trail weary and lonely cowboys flourished. Along with them came the thieves, con men, outlaws and gunfighters.

Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp

Cattle towns thrived from the 1860s through the early 1890s. Abilene, Kansas is considered to be the first, succeeded by Wichita and Dodge City. However, in the 1880s Dodge City stole Abilene’s glory by calling itself the "Cowboy Capital of the World."

Historians say Dodge was not only founded on cattle business, but the whiskey barrel as well. And the city’s politics revolved around whiskey. This is one underlying reason Dodge acquired its reputation as the “Wickedest Little City in America.” Whiskey was at the core of what was to become known as the “Dodge City War.”

The Dodge City War initially began when Colonel Dodge prohibited the sale of alcohol at the fort in 1872. An enterprising 24 year old Canadian, George M. Hoover, immediately saw a business opportunity and set off for Eastern Kansas where he loaded up a wagon full of whiskey. He returned and went into business about 5 miles west of the Fort. He was later to become the richest man in Dodge and its first mayor.

By 1877 Dodge had a population of less than 1,000, but 16 saloons. The early city government and law enforcement were corrupt, controlled by a group known as the “Dodge City Gang.” They were made up of factions wanting to keep Dodge a wide-open town. See:

Boot Hill Musum

Some of the Old West's most famous lawmen worked under this and later administrations, such as Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp. But, by 1879 public animosity towards the Dodge City Gang began building and a push for reform commenced. People wanted a safe, moral environment in which to live and raise their families. The “Reformers” as they became known had had enough of newspapers across the country smearing their town. For instance, the New York Herald wrote “…saloons, gambling rooms and dance halls run with perfect freedom and their proprietors are the leading men in town.”

Before it was all over famous lawmen and gunfighters around the country were headed for Dodge. One of those was noted Tombstone gun slinger Luke Short who was already living in Dodge and part owner of the Long Branch Saloon. His saloon was largely responsible for the Dodge City War. Ordinances had been passed concerning saloon operations. But, it seemed even the reformers new mayor, Alonzo B. Webster, was only concerned with controlling the profits.

The Long Branch Saloon presented strong competition to city officials, most of who owned saloons or were heavily invested in them. So, while infractions of their ordinances were by and large ignored by other saloons the Long Branch was continually harassed with fines and arrests of their employees. Eventually, Short went to the city jail wearing his revolvers and a gunfight erupted. No one was injured but several days later Short was arrested for assault. He was released on bond but told to get out of Dodge.

Short, who was friends with Bat and Wyatt, wired other well known lawmen and gunmen to round up support. Those who rallied to the cause included the likes of Doc Holliday, Shotgun Collins, Rowdy Joe Lowe and Charlie Bassett. With such a show of force the opposition decided to back down. The Dodge City War was over…and not a drop of blood had been spilled.

Today, Dodge City is a thriving metropolis. However, its citizens manage to maintain elements of their Old West heritage. Around the city are historical sites, museums and landmarks dedicated to preserving Dodge City’s history.


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