“Abilene was the first, and Dodge City was the last…but Ellsworth was the wickedest cattle town of them all.”
|US Army Troops at Fort Harker - 1867|
When we think of “the wild west”, we often think of the geographical regions around Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, Texas, and Arizona. Let’s not forget Kansas, though. Located in the center of the continental United States, the state of Kansas was – and is – a major transportation hub for the distribution of goods throughout the country.
Back in the day, of course, that meant cattle, and visitors to the state of Kansas today can still visit the towns that grew up along the railroad lines. Everyone knows of Abilene, and of course, we’ve all heard of Dodge City. But what about Ellsworth, Kansas?
Once the home to several Native American tribes, the area became a dangerous place as the Santa Fe Trail cut through the “Smoky Hills” region. The Cheyenne and other tribes raided wagon trains and stagecoaches, and soon Fort Ellsworth was constructed for the protection of travelers.
Soon, a small town had sprung up around the fort. Although the fort was re-named Fort Harker, the town became known as Ellsworth, and when the railroad completed a line to the fort in July, 1867, the little community boomed, quickly swelling to a population of two thousand.
The early years were marked with difficulties. In addition to continued raids from Indians, the town faced a cholera epidemic, and severe flooding from the Smoky Hill river. Yet it survived.
From 1871 to 1875, Ellsworth served as a thriving cattle market, dominating the other “cowtowns” in Kansas. Along with the rough frontiersmen and hard-working cowboys who called Ellsworth home, a wild and wicked population of gamblers, outlaws, and prostitutes were drawn to the town.
It wasn’t long before Ellsworth had gained a reputation as a “wild and wooly” place. In addition to drunken cowboys and occasional shoot-outs, the town was subjected to violence and havoc from a gang led by two men, Craig and Johnson. The set out to take over and to establish a “reign of terror” with their desperado deeds. They robbed, they killed, they bullied.
Finally the good folks of Ellsworth set out to put an end to the terror and rid the town of such “vermin”. A vigilante committee was formed, and it was agreed that the best way to solve the problem was to get rid of the gang’s leaders.
Both Craig and Johnson were captured, taken to the Smoky Hill, and strung up on the limbs of an old cottonwood tree growing along the river’s banks. Their cohorts took note and figured it might be a wise thing to pack up and move on.
Even with the outlaw gang routed, the town of Ellsworth saw its share of excitement. Tales of gunfights, hangings, and fortunes won and lost at the gambling tables are legendary. Wild Texas longhorns were driven through the streets toward the Kansas Pacific stockyards. Cowboys rode hard and played hard, spending their hard-earned wages at one of the many saloons.
The shipping pens closed in 1875, but the reputation Ellsworth had gained has lived on. Today, the area is home to about three thousand residents who live peaceful lives as ranchers and farmers.
Visitors can learn of the town’s rich history at many museums and other tourist attractions, including the Ellsworth jail, built in 1873. Oh, the stories those walls could tell!
Of course, the walls themselves can’t speak, so fortunately today’s western writers are taking pen in hand to tell the tale of Ellsworth, Kansas. Those of us who write romance can’t resist throwing in a little love along with the lust.
For more information on Ellsworth, you can also make a virtual visit through Facebook:
I hope you've enjoyed this trip back in time!
Until next month... Christina