Joseph McCoy's idea was a new one:
Bring the cattlemen and the buyers together out on the plains. Abilene soon became the center for the Texas cattle market and one of the West's most notorious "wild & woolly" towns. There was no end to the celebration as Cowboys took over the town, shooting and yelling with wild abandon. It was a Cowboy's holiday until Marshal Tom Smith tamed the town with his bare fists! Wild Bill Hickok walked these streets and the quickness of his gun is still talked about today. At the Dickinson County Heritage Center, his gun is still on display. In Abilene, you'll face the past that was the wellspring of the American cattle industry and the cowboys of legend and reality. A visit to Abilene is truly a celebration of History, Heroes and Hospitality!
History of Abilene
by Jim Gray
The Kansas Cowboy (Official Publication of the C.O.W.B.O.Y. Society)
Abilene began as a small prairie village along the Smoky Hill Trail. It was platted at the east side of the crossing of Armistead Creek in 1861. Following the entrance into the Civil War the name of the creek was changed to Mud because its namesake had joined the Confederate forces.
The name of Abilene was chosen from a verse in the New Testament meaning, "City of the Plains". For six years, the settlement had little resemblance to a city, being just an assemblage "of a half dozen huts". Joseph McCoy would change all that with his vision of a great cattle "depot" on the plains. Texans were searching for a safe and accessible market for their wild Texas Longhorn cattle. Everywhere they turned they were met with resistance. In 1867, McCoy’s Great Western Stockyards welcomed them eagerly with open arms. The trail to Abilene was far west of settlement on the open prairie with lots of room to graze the cattle comfortably until a sale could be made.
With the first drives of Texas cattle to Abilene, the sleepy little town became the first of the "end of trail" cattle towns in Kansas. The Drovers Cottage was the "headquarters" of the Texans and the cattle buyers from the East. The following spring of 1868 saw the town’s population swell with an influx of businessmen, gamblers, gunmen, pimps, and prostitutes.
Cowboys were encouraged to share their pay with one and all. No law was prepared for the onslaught of Cowboys just in off the trail. Galloping horses and frantic gunplay was commonplace on Abilene’s streets.
According to Joseph McCoy’s own account the Cowboys would often "imbibe too much poison whiskey and straightway go on the warpath. Then mounting his pony, he is ready to shoot anybody or anything; or rather than not shoot at all, would fire up into the air, all the while yelling as only a semi-civilized being can. At such times it is not safe to be on the streets, or for that matter within a house, for the drunk cowboy would as soon shoot into a house as at anything else."
The July edition of the Topeka Commonwealth declared, "At this writing Hell is now in session in Abilene." For the next couple of years the Texan and the merchants of sin reined supreme in Abilene. But, that would soon change.
The town became a third class city in the fall of 1869. By the following spring Abilene prepared to meet the Cowboys with a new marshal and a "No Gun" law. The girls of the dance halls were required to stay south of the railroad tracks. Abilene hoped to contain the uncivilized element in an area known as the Devil’s Addition. The Cowboys had other ideas. They ripped down the "No Gun" signs. They threatened the civic leaders and demolished the newly built city jail. The marshal resigned, followed quickly by the deputy.
The city sought out a pair of police officers from St. Louis. They stepped off the train and headed for Texas Street to survey the situation. The saloons were filled with wild, unruly Cowboys. It was reported that their experiences in the various saloons was, to say the least, unpleasant. They boarded the eastbound midnight train and were never heard from again.
Abilene’s salvation came in the form of a man straight out of a Western movie script. "Bear River" Tom Smith arrived on the train with his horse, "Silverheels". He rode through town in the middle of the street sitting tall in the saddle.
The "No Gun" signs were again posted. But, this time Marshal Smith backed up the law with an uncommon boldness. When challenged by a surly Texan, the marshal beat him into submission with his fists! Abilene was no longer the realm of the Cowboy. It belonged to Marshal Tom Smith. The summer of 1870 passed in unusual calm.
On November 2, 1870, Marshal Smith accompanied Deputy Sheriff J.H. McDonald to a homesteader dugout in the country. There, they were ambushed and Smith was killed.
Abilene knew it could not endure a return to the uncontrolled days before Marshal Smith. The search was on for a man to fill Smith’s uncommon boots. That man was soon found in the form of Wild Bill Hickok. Hickok’s reputation as a government scout and unparalleled gunman would serve Abilene well.
There were those among the Texans with reputations to match. Ben Thompson was reported to be the fastest gun in the West. He was a partner with another gunman, Phil Coe, in the Bull’s Head Saloon. Thompson’s reputation also served him well as few were willing to confront him and his lightning quick hand. Then there was a young Cowboy just in from the Chisholm Trail by the name of John Wesley Hardin.
Hickok met Hardin in the street demanding his pistols. There, according to legend, Hardin got the drop on Hickok with a trick draw of the pistol. Hickok made a quick remark that won over the young man and they became guarded friends. Later, Hardin reportedly shot a man through a hotel wall to stop his snoring. Marshal Hickok scoured the town for Hardin as he made his escape in his nightclothes out onto the prairie.
Toward the end of the 1871 cattle season, a mob of Cowboys celebrated in the streets before returning home to Texas. Phil Coe was among them as a stray dog ran though the street. Coe pulled a pistol and shot at the dog drawing Hickok’s attention. Coe next drew on Hickok and in a flash the Marshal’s pistols were called to action. As Coe fell mortally wounded to the street, a man approached from Hicock’s rear. Hickok wheeled and fired and the shadowy figure fell to the street. Drawing near the body, Wild Bill discovered he had killed his deputy. It was the last time Hickok drew his weapons in a fight.
By that fall, the cattle trade was waning in Abilene. Settlers were taking up homesteads all around on the fertile prairie. The Great Western Stockyards would grow silent. The Drovers Cottage would be moved to the new "end of the trail". Wheat would soon become the new King of Abilene.
Abilene Convention & Visitors Bureau
Abilene, Kansas 67401