Cattle Towns

Cattle towns or “cow towns” were small frontier settlements whose entrepreneurial existence depended heavily on the trade in free-range cattle. A typical cattle town lay at the junction of railroad and livestock trail. It provided facilities for the reception of herds driven up from the south, their sale, and their transportation to urban meatpackers, to Midwestern cattle feeders, or to the ranchers of the central and Northern Plains. The most famous ware those of post-civil war Kansas, each served by a trail from Texas.

The first was Abilene, organized as a market for Texas stock in 1867. It flourished until farmers overran its outlying ranges, ending its access to the trail. Ellsworth and Wichita then assumed roles as major cattle towns. Dodge City became a cattle town in 1876. Caldwell flourished from 1880 through 1885. Kansas finally closed its borders to direct importation of Texas cattle, ending the careers of both Dodge and Caldwell.

Land politics at the cattle towns tended to center on conflict between critics and defenders of the cattle trade. Farmers feared trampled crops and the fatal effects of “Texas Fever” on domestic livestock. Many townspeople opposed the saloons, professional gambling, and prostitution apparently required by cattlemen and off-duty cowboys.

Businessmen invariably closed ranks against outlying farmers but tended to concentrate on moral reforms—favoring corrective measures: multiple police officers to enforce tough gun control laws, thus ensuring good order.

Radical reformers, chiefly evangelical, grew increasingly active after Kansas adopted liquor prohibition in 1880.

The end of cattle trading in each town resolved all these dilemmas.

Source: Cattle Towns
© 2011 University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

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