Don Francisco Vasquez de Coronado left Mexico in 1540, searching into Mid-America for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. His party included thirty horsemen, foot soldiers, guides, and Juan de Padilla, a Franciscan friar. On 29 June 1541, the party crossed the Arkansas River about 1½ miles east of present-day Fort Dodge, and Fr. Padilla celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving on a hilltop near the crossing. This was the first Christian service in the continent's interior, eighty years before the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts.
This 38-foot concrete cross was erected on the spot in 1975 as part of America's Bicentennial celebration. Visitors can stand here and see the vista that awaited Coronado, although his view did not include a grain elevator.
Three hundred years later, the land hadn't changed much. But the area where Coronado stood was a busy highway, the Santa Fe Trail. Wagon trains could advance 12-15 miles a day, taking six to seven weeks to cover 800 miles between Franklin, Missouri, and Santa Fe.
The Arkansas River was the border between the United States and Spanish territory. The Spanish had forbidden New Mexicans from trading and manufacturing. When Mexico gained independence in 1821, her people eagerly welcomed the first American traders.
The U.S. government survey team camped about fifteen miles west of Coronado's Cross in September 1825. Surveyor Joseph Brown mistakenly identified the place as the 100th meridian and awaited instructions whether to cross this border into Mexico. After two weeks with no communication, two members of the team went back to Missouri, and the remainder continued their survey westward.
In 1846, U.S. troops used the Santa Fe Trail to invade and seize New Mexico and the Southwest. The ensuing war ended two years later, and the international boundary moved closer to today's border, making the Santa Fe trail a national road. Military freighting increased as army posts were established to protect Trail travellers. By the 1860s, the railroad began to push farther west, replacing the Trail as it went, until it reached Santa Fe in 1880.
From 1821 to 1880, so many thousands of wagons used this trail, that their tracks are still visible - 130 years later. This image is borrowed from Google Maps, processed to enhance the trail tracks. The highway turnoff near the survey team's campsite is at the bottom right of the image. The Santa Fe Trail split at this point; the dry mountain route headed for Colorado, and the "wet route" followed the Arkansas River. You can see where the trail split, near a sharp bend in the river.
This is what a viewer sees from the roadside stop. It takes a little practice to see the ruts, but they're obvious once you know what to look for. In the first picture, start at the distant trees and look down and right, roughly along a "four o'clock" orientation.
This map shows why Dodge City was so important, and also so dangerous. On one side of the town was the newly-bought Louisiana Purchase; on the other, Spanish territory. Dodge City was truly on the frontier.
The war with Mexico and the annexation of Texas changed the character of the Santa Fe Trail, and the route became even more important. Fort Dodge was established here because of its strategic location on the Trail, near the split between the wet and dry routes. In June 1872, George Hoover followed surveyors for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad until he was exactly five miles west of Fort Dodge. There he stacked two piles of sod, laid a plank between them, and opened a saloon - the town's first business. By the time the first train arrived in September, there were nine thriving businesses on Front Street. The distance was important because no liquor was permitted within five miles of the army post.
The town and the fort were both named for Gen. Grenville Dodge, who established the fort. The town was originally called Buffalo City. But another Kansas town was using that name and the Post Office balked. So the town changed its name to match that of the fort. Gen. Dodge was also chief engineer for the railroad while it was being built through this area. Dodge city quickly became the world's largest shipping point for longhorn cattle.
This sod house was the first house built in Dodge City, built by H.L. Sitler, and was located between City Hall and the railroad near Second Avenue. This same picture was [on a field survey card,] with this notation: "An old camp house, the first building on the site of Dodge City was built in 1871 by [Henry] L. Sitler. Tom Nixon, shown standing in the doorway, was a buffalo hunter. While sheriff of Ford County he was killed in line of duty. This building stood south of the railroad tracks between Second and Third Avenues."
Dodge City was where cattlemen and soldiers came to unwind, and they usually didn't see eye to eye. Encounters were almost always unfriendly. For the first few years, there was no local law enforcement, and the Army had no jurisdiction in Dodge City; so the place was truly lawless. Boot Hill Cemetery recorded the outcome of many disputes.
Dodge City had no regular burial ground for its first six years. Boot Hill is the lookout hill over the town; it was also a burial ground for those who didn't have enough money for a proper burial at Fort Dodge. Those buried here had neither ceremony nor coffin. They died with their boots on and were buried that way in shallow graves, after being stripped of their valuables and wrapped in blankets.
In 1879, the known bodies on Boot Hill were removed to a new cemetery east of town. It's estimated that only about half of those buried here were found and relocated; the whereabouts of 30 or so are not known. The Boot Hill Museum's demonstration is all for show, but some bodies almost certainly remain beneath these replica markers. Nobody knows who they were, or where they are.
Black Jack, September 1872
According to Kansas newspapers he was a black man who was shot in front of Beatty & Ketley's Saloon and restaurant. Black Jack was shot through the head and died instantly. He was the first person buried on Boot Hill.
J.M. Essington (Nov. 1872) was a carpenter and owner of the Essington Hotel. "While drunk and in a fuss, he was shot and killed instantly by the cook." The new owners changed the hotel's name to Dodge House.
We spent our nights in Dodge City at an excellent B&B on top of Boot Hill. Times change. For the better.
Boot Hill Museum is a reconstruction of old Dodge City's Front Street. It will be familiar to anybody who remembers the TV series Gunsmoke.
Dodge City's first jail was reportedly a thick buffalo hide staked tight to the ground, to immobilize drunks. Next was the "cooler," a term that originated here. It was this well, 15 feet deep, into which drunks were lowered until they cooled off. When they were able to climb out of the well, their debt to society was deemed to be paid.
Cooler is not the only word with Dodge City origins. Other common
terms that were coined here include
stinker - refers to the smell of the buffalo hunter
joint - a saloon
stiff - bodies weren't always buried right away
red light district - because train men left their lanterns in front of brothels
Every day at high noon, Front Street erupts into a gunfight. Things start out peacefully enough, with two gentlemen having a quiet conversation outside the Long Branch Saloon. A "soiled dove," one of the town's working girls, strolls by and greets anybody who might like to get better acquainted. Two guys spill out of the saloon in a fight that you know will have to keep getting fiercer. Despite the girl's encouragement, you know these fellows don't have long to live.
It's all over in minutes.
Not everyone had to be buried on Boot Hill.
From a sign inside,
Dodge City was home to a diverse group of people, They ranged from soldiers to cowboys, merchants to gamblers, and prostitutes and saloonkeepers. The saloons and dance halls of Dodge City maintained the social life of the bustling city. Soldiers, buffalo hunters, and cowboys brought a great deal of money to the town. The town also attracted other types of "business" men and women. Gamblers, thieves and "soiled doves" were always available to take advantage of the growing town's wealth.
Many times the unique population did not mix well when found together. The combination of cowboys from Texas and soldiers from Fort Dodge was not welcomed in all of the city's saloons.
Only soldiers were welcome in the city's more selective saloons, such as Beeson's Saratoga. The sign continues, with a quote from an 1879 visitor: "The morals of the city are rapidly improving. There are only fourteen saloons, two dance halls and forty-seven cyprians in our metropolis of 700 inhabitants."
The Dodge City Peace Commission
During the Saloon Wars of 1883, Luke Short recruited an army of gunslingers in Dodge City. They posed for this portrait, which hangs in the Beatty & Kelley Restaurant, to celebrate their victory.
Back row: W.H. Harris, former sheriff and co-owner of the Long Branch Saloon; Luke Short, co-owner of the Long Branch Saloon; Bat Masterson, former sheriff.
Front row: Charlie Bassett, former lawman; Wyatt Earp, former assistant marshal; Frank McClain, friend of Earp's; Neil Brown, former assistant marshal.
Not pictured: W.F. Petillon, editor of the Dodge City Democrat.
Most of the buildings in the Boot Hill Museum are reproductions. Four are original: the jail, this residence, the church, and the school. The house and the church are being heavily remodelled, so we'll have to wait for another visit to see inside.
The business of Dodge City is meat. It became the buffalo-hunting capital of
the world shortly after its founding, but the herds were hunted to
exhaustion within three years. Longhorn cattle, descended from stock brought
to the New World by Spanish explorers, filled the void. They ran
wild in Texas, where cowboys who were short on money after the Civil War
rounded them up and drove them up the trails to board
eastbound rail cars at Dodge City.
Soon, the place was known as the "Queen of the Cowtowns."
This sculpture overlooks the Cargill feedyards, second largest in the world with a capacity of about 60,000 head. Cattle enter the lots weighing 600-700 pounds, and are fed to about 1000-1200 pounds over three months' time. Kansas feedyards market over five million cattle a year, about one quarter of all fed cattle in the United States.
Do you want to see if there are really 60,000 cattle in that picture? There's a much larger version here, and the very large original (3.2 Mb) can be found here. No picture can convey the smell or the noise. They're well outside of town for good reason.
My trails have become your highways
Seven million head of longhorns
marketed from Dodge City
70's - 80's
Lest we forget
Dr. Simpson also sculpted the Dodge City Cowboy, the city's oldest monument, in 1927. This tribute to the early cowboys used Joe Sughrue as a model. Sughrue was a former cowboy and later a marshal of Dodge City. The inscription reads, "On the ashes of my campfire this city is built."
Unfortunately, the longhorns brought a problem. They were immune to an often fatal disease that affected other breeds, a bacterial infection called tick fever, among other names. The Kansas legislature established a quarantine prohibiting the movement of longhorns to many parts of the state. As the quarantine line moved, many Kansas towns lost out on the Texas trade. But for nearly ten years, this line stayed east of Dodge City, which therefore prospered as the cattle capital of the world.
Longhorn Park is next to the airport. The herd, descended from Spanish stock, was established in 1996 as the official Dodge City Longhorn Herd. The sod barn is faithful to original construction in a place where there were very few trees.
Longhorn Park's other inhabitants are jackrabbits, who are not afraid of cars
or bulls. They are much larger than the rabbits we see in Connecticut. Many
of them are almost two feet tall. There are some in the foreground of the
previous photo with two bulls grazing.
Here you can also see the use of limestone fence posts.
The Dodge City Trail of Fame is a continuing civic booster project. It
started in the late 1980s when another project was underway to restore the
huge Santa Fe Depot. Organizers reasoned, "if Hollywood can do it, why
The Trail of Fame leads visitors through Dodge City. The first 20 medallions were placed between the depot and the entrance to Boot Hill Museum. They honor important figures in city history, and actors who helped make the city famous all over again.
In 2008, there are 22 medallions, mostly in front of the stores on Gunsmoke Street. A map in the visitor center will help you find them.
The people of Dodge City hold Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp in special esteem. He held several offices in law enforcement here for four years when the place was called the "Wickedest Little City in America" and the "Bibulous Babylon of the Frontier." The city's main street is named for him.
These two cars were parked next to each other. The Cherokee Nation has been registering motor vehicles since 2001 under an agreement with the State of Oklahoma, which maintains records and enters the registration into the national database. To register your car there, you must of course be Cherokee; and you must live within the fourteen counties under tribal jurisdiction. The fees are used to maintain the tribe's infrastructure.
There are two very large sundials next to the train station, one each for
Central and Mountain Time. They can be read accurately to the nearest
minute, except at night.
The analemma is needed for day-to-day precision.
In 1847, Fort Mann was established at the Cimarron Crossing to protect the Santa Fe Trail against Indian attacks. The colonel in charge of Ft. Mann recommended that several forts be built along the Trail. Fort Dodge was one of these, built between the Mulberry and Cimarron Crossings.
Construction began in 1865. Having no lumber or hardware, the soldiers built seventy sod dugouts, 10x12 and seven feet deep. A door to the South faced the Arkansas River and a hole in the roof let in light and air. Banks of earth were the soldiers' bunks (a little bit less to dig). The first shipments of lumber arrived in summer 1866, and an officers' quarters and a temporary hospital were added. Supply houses, corrals, and a store were built.
More permanent accommodations took another two years, and used locally quarried sandstone. After such a long time in the squalid sod huts, the soldiers built very nice buildings for themselves. The Commanding Officer's quarters was the first two-story building in the camp. The first floor was for official use and the second floor for living quarters. The house is used the same way today, for the site's Administrator. It's called Custer House, although there is no evidence that George Custer ever spent any time here. The officers' quarters (second photo) is presently undergoing renovations; it will be reopened to the public when they are done.
The original post office is still in business, although with reduced hours of service. The wagon was donated for this display by the Oscar Scheib family, whose homestead in Bucklin, Kansas, was about 20 miles southeast of Dodge City.
Between 1870 and 1875 many more buildings were built at Fort Dodge, making it look more like a small city than a military reservation. The soldiers may have been too interested in building; they drew criticism for not protecting the Santa Fe Trail well enough. General Marcy came to investigate, and was very displeased. His report resulted in the Court Martial of Lt. Hesselberger, who had supervised most of the building.
Beginning in 1874, the army stepped up its activity against the Indians considerably. Generals William T. Sherman and Nelson Miles were especially brutal in their efforts to exterminate a people they saw as an intractable enemy.
Life on the post was fairly stable from 1874 to 1882, with most of the excitement eventually coming from the cowboys just beyond the five-mile limit of the military reservation. Once in 1877, Col. William Lewis marched on the lawless Dodge City, an incident that helped prompt the forming of Dodge City's famed "Peace Commission."
By 1882, the Army concluded that Fort Dodge had completed its mission, and moved out. For the next eight years, the site was managed by the Department of the Interior. There was a rush of settlement in 1886, when several homes were built here. In January 1890, the entire site was sold to the State of Kansas for use as a Soldiers' Home. It has been in that occupation continuously since then. It houses Kansas veterans in various facilities, depending on their degree of self-reliance. There are independent cottages, barracks, and a complete hospital for patients who need long-term nursing care.
Besides the museum and hospital,
The Kansas Soldiers' Home now includes ... a recreation center, three resident halls and sixty-five cottages. Names of streets and buildings honor great American Presidents and military heroes, including Eisenhower, Nimitz, Sheridan, Garfield, Custer, Lincoln, Dewey, Halsey and Walt. Veterans of the Mexican, Civil, Indian, Spanish-American, Philippines, Boxer Rebellion, World Wars I and II, Korean and Vietnam Wars have all been occupants.
The peaceful park, quiet, shaded tree-lined walks and dignified buildings, both old and new, seem a far cry from the dugouts and forsaken soldiers that existed on the Arkansas River bank in 1865.
- from an article provided by the site's Administrator
In September 2001, religious zealots attacked the United States. Most Americans seem to have chosen to remember the day by giving it a telephone number. Our government's inappropriate response is well outside the scope of this story.
Dodge City built Liberty Garden, with models of the structures that were attacked. Water streams like tears down the sides of the twin towers. The memorial includes a piece of limestone recovered from the damaged face of the Pentagon in Washington. The base of the flagpole is a piece of structural steel that was once part of the World Trade Center in New York. There is also a piece of sandstone from a hemlock grove near the site of the Flight 93 crash in Pennsylvania, but it has not yet been placed on display.
on to Hot Springs