ON THE WIDE, WINDSWEPT PLAINS OF WESTERN KANSAS AND the Panhandle of Texas, hunters followed and shot the shaggy, humpbacked transient herds of bison. Their slaughter brought about a great industrial drama that culminated in the practical extinction of the buffalo, the end of Indian warfare, and the rush of settlers to populate the plains.
Shoot them they did, courageous, adventuresome, expert marksmen to the tune of nearly two million a year and thereby lined their pockets with "buffalo gold." Few of these old buffalo hunters survive today, but the fruits of their industry are still living monuments.
But many are the men who shot the buffalo still living on in the annals of history; in the innermost recesses of your heart and mine. A goodly number of those early day hunters, the first family men of Dodge City, invested their buffalo gold into businesses of their own or enabled others to do so; the fruits of their industry monuments to early day men and their truly pioneering wives.
Reams have been written about early day buffalo hunters who, later became famous for various reasons, namely: Wyatt Earp, Bill Tighlman, "Bat" Masterson, `Buffalo Bill" Cody. But many other hunters were as expert on the draw and as widely known throughout the buffalo range. Mention buffalo hunters, of whom there were thousands, and memories of some of the great buffalo hunters spring into the limelight again: Charley Rath and his helper, Andy Johnson; "Brick" Bond; Bill Gillepie; George Bellfield; George Reighard; "Texas Jack" Mathias; and one other, "Prairie Dog Dave" Morrow of the white buffalo fame.
In the sixties and almost through the seventies, great migrating herds of hump-backed, shaggy buffalo darkened the plains as far as the eye could reach. They fed on the succulent buffalo and grama grass whether it was green in summer or dry in winter. They drank from creeks, rivers, and "buffalo wallows," depressions made in the hard-packed alkaline soil by buffalo licking the salt from the ground. Little groups of grazing buffalo, their tangled dewlaps almost dragging the ground, combined to make one vast herd which was always on the move during that instinctive migration which drove them north in summer, south in the winter.
In 1872 before the arrival of the Santa Fe railroad at Buffalo City, later re-named Dodge City, the buffalo had been killed mostly to provide food and hides for present needs by white man and Indian alike. Hays City did have a hide market previous to this time, however, and many hides were shipped from that point. But, with the coming of the railroad, many a man laid down the tools of his trade to shoot the buffalo; many would-be hunters were so young they had no trade; many were seasoned trappers and Indian traders even though their youth belied the fact.
Charles Rath from Sweetwine, Ohio, but "Plainsman Charley" as early as 1853, foresaw great possibilities in the opened market in the east, not only for buffalo hides and other furs, but for choice buffalo tongue, fat-streaked hump, and delicious steak. As a boy of twelve, while waiting with his parents for clearance at the custom house, Charley Rath had been teased by other children because he wore his brother's outgrown suit, fully four sizes too large, its lines sagging shabbily on the lean youth. If those children could have looked into the future, at one of the first family men in Dodge City, this boy turned man, they would have seen a large man with a head of black hair topped with a fine beaver hat, clothed in a rich brown tailor-made suit and shirt. His button shoes were shining black and his gloves were white. In later years, a niece of Mr. Rath wrote her cousin Robert, "I remember well the occasional visits of your father to our home when we were children to whom he seemed a fairy prince driving a prancing livery team and carrying a big bag of goodies for the children."
When Charles Rath accompanied his high Conestoga freight wagons,- it was a common sight during rest periods, to see the great man ensconced safely under a wagon-tongue, its end held high by the propped neckyoke. In the shade of the wagon, the grown man improved his education from the supply of text books which he always considered a necessary part of camp equipment,
Andy Johnson, originally from Sweden, later from the same community in Ohio as Mr. Rath, entered his friend's employ in 1871. The outfit had twelve "six and eight mule teams." Andy reported that Charley did the killing and employed twenty-one men whose duty it was to skin the buffalo, care for the meat and hides, and haul them to market. The party hunted along the old Pacific railway, also from Fort Hays to Fort Dodge. The men suffered greatly from cold and many times were forced to seek shelter in dugouts and caves in the canyons to keep from freezing. But the party weathered the storms, shot the buffalo, and got the meat and hides hauled to Hays City, Kansas. As early as February 1872, Charles Rath tried to take his buffalo entourage to a point fifteen miles west of Fort Dodge where the animals were more plentiful. He soon learned the distance to market was too great for profitable hunting.
Later, his freighters brought in lumber and supplies for the Charles Rath Merchantile Co., already under construction in "platted" Dodge City. Everything was being rushed so as to have supplies to outfit expeditions for the fall buffalo hunt. To the rhythmic pounding of hammers, on that hot summer day, board after board went into place on the store building. It faced a trodden trail, later the famed Front Street of Dodge City.
Standing nearby, Charles Rath, his great head of black hair already greying and his dark eyes keenly observant, turned to his young friend, George Hoover. His fingers hooked in the pockets of his brown vest, Rath stated his plans, quietly yet convincingly. "I'll stock everything from a full suit of velveteen and carved ivory-handled Colts to Dutch ovens, household furnishings, tools, and groceries. A man will he able to make up a wagon train and leave fully equipped."
George Hoover flicked a bit of dust from his neat dark blue suit. His blue-grey eyes scanned the vast plains, came back to the few straggling tents situated along the staked roadbed of the coming Santa Fe railway. The far-sighted young Canadian had set up a tent saloon on June 17, 1872, where those rails were to cross the deep ruts of the Santa Fe trail. Across its rough foot board bar, already he was doing a thriving business, taking a "quarter a finger" from buffalo hunters and skinners, trailsmen, freighters, and immigrants. Now a. slow smile lighted
his broad face and his fleshy hand slapped Rath's shoulder. "It's a great site for a town and you're the man, Charley, to swing a proposition like that."
Pleasure flushed the plains-weathered face of the future merchant. Andy Johnson, a lifelong friend from their hometown Sweetwine in Ohio, now working on the building, would handle the hide yard. There would be a big pile when the rails reached this westward point. The long haul of his eight and twelve mule freight wagons, formerly going to Hays, would be cut in half. Robert "Bob" Wright his partner would manage the store. The building would be large enough to house supplies for the camps of buffalo hunters, for government forts, outlying ranches, the townspeople.
"My second try at owning a general store," the already famous buffalo hunter, Indian tradesman, and veteran plainsman remarked. "But with a competent store manager, you will be free to hunt buffalo, keep up your trade with the Indians, and supervise your freight lines," young Hoover reminded Rath.
Several weeks later, while more rough foot wide board buildings were going up, Charles Rath drew up his driving team before the store. He helped Carrie, his beautiful young wife, to the ground. Her critical blue eyes swept the rough boarded front of the store building. A moment, she stood surveying the length of Front Street-seeing its tented homes; the row of wagons, with mules tied at sides and rear, along its south side; riding horses tethered wherever the owner could find a stake; oxen placidly grazing along the Santa Fe right of way; and groups of men entering Hoover's saloon.
Although the saloon was off to the east, she could hear ribald laughter and the clinking of glasses as its patrons partook freely of straight Bourbon. Her full lips tightly compressed, Carrie Rath gathered her full silken skirt into a firm grip, shook the fair curls falling softly below her high plumed hat, unresignedly, and hurried into the store building.
Carrie Rath also had come from Sweetwine, Ohio, as a bride, sojourned in Topeka, Emporia, and Osage, all points leading to the frontier town of her husband's choice. "It's good to see you, Andy," she greeted the former townsman, warmly.
After catching a glimpse of her future home, the rear of the
drugstore building across the street to the west, the young woman came back to speak with Andy Johnson.
"There's going to be work for you to do, Andy," she said, quietly. "Anyway, a board walk by the door."
While Charles Rath escorted his young wife across the street to the two room home which was to be so soon divided to make room for a doctor's bride, the doughty Andy shook his head slowly, a strand of black hair moving gently with the motion. "I dinna know that I can please her," he remarked to no one in particular. While the pounding of hammers still resounded through the Rath building, young Dr. T. L. McCarty and his brunette, Kentucky-born bride Sallie drove into the straggling tented frontier town. Getting from the rig, the young doctor gallantly held his wife's arm closely to his side as they went along Front Street. Here they met and passed his future clients cowboys and cattlemen wearing broad-brimmed hats, high-topped boots and spurs; gamblers and sports with well-turned fingers, smooth tongues, and artistically twisted mustaches; hunters and trappers just in from the plains with untrimmed beards and weathered clothing, all more or less awkwardly, tipping their hats to the young physician and his pretty, vivacious bride.
Sallie's proud eyes sought her husband's immaculate white bow tie, his neatly trimmed blonde mustache and goatee, then shaking her prim dark head, she whispered, "But, Doctor, they're so rough and untidy."
Quietly, her husband answered, "Most of these men are on the prairie for months at a time, miles from a habitation, dear. They endure hardships and privations the like of which you and I have never known. No doubt, we will find there are many fine men among them."
With that speech, young Sallie McCarty got a determined look in her eye, one that argued well for the wife of a frontier doctor. Carrie Rath moved all her belongings into the east room at the rear of the drug store building and blessed the day a doctor had come to town. Sallie McCarty set up housekeeping in the west room, while her husband got the back portion of the drug store for an office. Thus started a friendship between the wives of two frontiersmen that was to last a lifetime and bring about many a day's visiting during their aging
years when the two women recalled the trying, truly adventuresome days in early Dodge City.
A few days later, Chalkley "Chalk" Beeson appeared on Front Street. A short walk brought him into Hoover's saloon. The famous Hoover town-welcoming smile soon had the man engaged in conversation.
"We could use a man like you here in this town," Hoover remarked, his shrewd gaze taking note of the newcomer's brownish-blue-grey eyes, his fine physique, and pleasant manner. Beeson laughed heartily. Observant, he watched the money exchange hands and he talked with the men who came in from the plains. Often, with growing distaste, he recalled the long stage drives between Colorado Springs and Denver. And he thought of the girl "back home" in Iowa.
Days passed and Chalk Beeson still tarried, a daily visitor in Hoover's saloon-the saloon chiefly because it was the only gathering place at the time. "Leaving soon?" Hoover queried one day as the two men sat talking.
Chalk glanced through the open doorway, observing the play of light and shadow on the rough board walk. When he turned, finally, toward Hoover, the big, broad-shouldered, fine looking man was smiling.
"Guess I've stayed, George, until I can't get away." His eyes twinkled as he fancied the man's start when he heard the stage driver's report of future livelihood. "I'm going to start a saloon. I'll call it `Long Branch'."
Now it was Hoover's blue-grey eyes that twinkled. He rose to his feet and, coming nearer, laid a hand on Chalk's shoulder. Then he uttered words which set the pattern for his after life, words that were for the town's best good, for every man's right to a good and happy life.
"Fine! There's trade enough for both of us," he assured the man he had come to like right well.
Chalkley Beeson went outside.
Hoover busied himself with dusting his liquors, rows of shining bottles on the mantel behind the polished mahogany bar. That bar was Hoover's pride and joy and had come a long way to be installed in his rough boarded saloon. With quiet satisfaction, he observed his bartenders busily serving liquors to customers playing cards at tables beyond the bar.
One table only was unoccupied. Beside that table, early in the morning, a man shot through the abdomen had slumped to the floor. Like many another, his body had been carried to Boot Hill where men were buried in the clothes they wore, boots and all. Remembering, George Hoover shook his head sadly, then glanced through the open doorway.
Two men stood on the board walk, looking eastward. The young saloonkeeper
flourished his feather duster a moment, then leaned against the bar and listened.
"This is it," Hoover thought, excitedly, recognizing the far-off rumbling sound,
the familiar first-notice of a coming caravan. Impatience at the restraint of
ownership nettled him, for Hoover wanted to be outside with the other men. On
impulse, he motioned a helper to take his place. With a final flourish of the
feather duster, he came from behind the bar and stepped outside, upon the
rough boarded platform porch.
Dr. McCarty, meticulously attired, with his professional black satchel, advanced carefully along the uneven sidewalk. Dauntless courage blended with the twinkle in his clear Irish-blue eyes; firm resolution marked the outlines of his finely featured face. Chalkley Beeson brought his gaze from the smiling Kansas sky to the level of Hoover's azure-blue eyes.
A grin on his face, his feather duster held upright in his folded arms, Hoover remarked, meaningfully, motioning toward the east, "There's a great one coming." With a feverish delight, the saloon keeper thought, "Each coming caravan is building up the West," and finally voiced his thought aloud.
Chalk began speaking, slowly and thoughtfully, "The coming of a wagon train, five hundred strong, was an imposing sight when Charley Rath came here in the fifties to trade with the Indians and it is yet today."
Dr. McCarty commented, quietly, his fingers on the links of his massive gold watch chain, "And in the days to come, when law and order have come to Dodge City, the coming of a great caravan will still be an imposing sight."
He glanced briefly into the eyes of the other two men, events still vivid in his mind. Then the three men stood, attentively, looking away to the east.
Clearer now, from the plains came the tramp, tramp, tramping of hoofs; the clank, clanking of massive moving wheels; the cracking of great whips wielded by drivers of "bull" teams; the cries of men as they urged forward, amid a cloud of dust, the tired animals. At length, the advance men on horseback appeared on the far horizon.
Stretching a great distance along the Santa Fe Trail, the heavily loaded, high-bodied wagons, their white canvas sheets bulging skyward, rolled steadily forward. plodding oxen, sturdy mules, and patient horses strained to keep the cumbersome loads moving, until, one by one, each unit of the great caravan hove into view. So it was, four men of Dodge City's first families had many times watched great caravans come into the country, colonize along the Santa Fe Trail. Two of them had known the time, in the days before Dodge City had its beginning, when wagon trains had stopped at Fort Dodge, four and one-half miles to the east. At that time, around the arc of the fort, wagons grouped for protection from predatory Indians. Tired animals, freed from heavy neckyokes and collars, slacked their thirst from the Arkansas River south of the post and began feeding on the succulent buffalo and grama grass.
While all this was taking place, camp cooks had bacon frying, sourdough biscuits baking in little Dutch ovens, and a great pot of coffee boiling. Presently, tired men sat around the fire stowing away the homely fare, gulping great quantities of strong black coffee. Before the meal was finished, the swift darkness of the prairie settled around the tired travelers.
Around campfires, seasoned trailsmen recounted tale after tale of hair-raising adventures on wild western plains, while those new to dangers of the frontier country listened with awe and admiration. Before the hour grew late, men unrolled their blankets for the night, but not to a peaceful night's rest for the uninitiated had yet to learn the art of getting rest when opportunity presented itself. But as all days come to an end, so must all nights.
In the early morning, all hands fed and camp kits packed, oxen yoked and trace chains hooked to the singletrees, the wagon train moved slowly out of camp, taking the old trail which wound westward along the Arkansas River, past the site
of the future Dodge City and on until it neared Fort Dodge. From there, the wagon train sometimes traversed a sixty mile waterless waste until it reached the Cimarron River. This short cut dangerous route was known as the "Journey of Death." On and on, mile after mile, the wagon train which had its beginning in Independence, Missouri, wound its way in a southeasterly direction, coming to a stream every twenty miles or so, until the long trail ended finally at its objective, the far west city of old Santa Fe, New Mexico.
For many years, great slow-moving caravans of Santa Fe traders lumbered over the plains, following one or more of the deeply rutted routes of the old trail, carrying government supplies for military posts and their garrisons, rations, guns, munitions, blankets, etc., calicoes, kitchen ware, trinkets, and furniture for merchants, in exchange for wool, liquors and silver dollars. Sudden storms of the prairie made the long journey burdensome, while attacks from the Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Comanche Indian tribes worried the travelers greatly, sometimes making travel impossible. For that reason, immigrants and freighters waited in Independence and Santa Fe to join a large caravan, feeling more secure from Indian attacks. Later, stage coaches made their hazardous weekly trips carrying the mail, as well as passengers and their luggage.
In September of 1872, the Santa Fe railroad had built as far west as Dodge City which was to be the supply base and re-distribution center many years for great caravans. It became the rendezvous for trail drivers, cowboys, cattlemen, buffalo hunters and skinners. In fact, Dodge City, a town of tents and hard riding cowboys, boisterous cattlemen, the rough and ready freighter, the buffalo hunter and skinner, was fast becoming a town of many buildings, their rough-sawed lumber freighted from the saw mill at Hays.
As a class, these men were absolutely without fear, having been trained in the hard life of the prairie to settle their differences first and do their talking afterwards, or better still let others do the talking and burying. Those were the days when warfare was desperate and adventure thrilling. There were tragic and startling events, nerve wracking to those who experienced them. Dodge City quickly acquired a large floating population and
its trade assumed enormous proportions. It was the shipping point for government freight business, supplies being stored in a big warehouse east of the Santa Fe depot. Fort Dodge was an important military post at the time and required large quantities of supplies; military posts and their garrisons sent for supplies. This alone made traffic heavy. In fact, Dodge City became the point of supply for all general commodities for so vast a section that it was hard for easterners to comprehend its immense trade area.
When the products of the plains reached the eastern market, a great demand arose, not only for buffalo hides but for buffalo tongue and hump which were considered great delicacies. Day and night, Front Street was jammed with freighting expeditions, bringing in hides and meat, loading up supplies. In spite of the Indian menace, no matter how far south a hunter and his entourage of skinners ranged, Charles Rath Merchantile Company sent its freighters to pick up the hides.
The far western town, headquarters for hundreds of trappers, traders, hunters, and settlers was incorporated in September 1872, with P. L. Beatty its first mayor. Beatty and Kelly were partners in a restaurant on Front Street and First Avenue. To it came cattle men and their trail drivers, with their dusty, panting Texas longhorns grazing outside the straggling city limits, one to ten thousand in a herd. Cowboys and cattlemen caroused early and late in the town until it was said. "It was all day in the daytime and never night in Dodge."
Men drank hard liquor in Hoover's saloon, in Beeson's famed Long Branch, in Kelly's Theatre Saloon. In from months of privations on the plains, men spent money recklessly. Nothing was less than a quarter, not even a nickel item. When the cattlemen were through with dickering and selling their herds, they had one grand spree in their favorite saloon. But before this last spree, the men saw to it that their wagons were loaded with rations and all supplies needed from the Charles Rath Merchantile Company store, all set for a start before the coming dawn.