On the way west was a site known as Cimarron Crossing. This was where many early westbound explorers and settlers forded the Arkansas River and could then head into Colorado or go to Texas or on to New Mexico. It was near here that Dodge City was founded and took root. (Pg11)
That Dodge City was the gateway to the Great American Desert probably does not seem to be much of a recommendation for it. And not by a long shot was it the most populated, prosperous, or progressive city in middle America. Why, then, did it matter to anyone? Why did major daily newspapers to the east and ones in Denver and as far west as San Francisco and San Diego carry stories about the goings-on there in the 1870s? And why well over a century after its “golden decade” is there still immediate name recognition when one hears “Dodge City”?
What makes the Dodge City story such an enjoyable one is that it was a reservoir of tall tales, yet many of the facts are equally if not more fascinating. Most of the stories involve the explorers, cowboys, businessmen, gamblers, women from both sides of the tracks, lawmen, and others who came to call it home or who were simply stopping on their way to somewhere else.
By the mid-1870s, Dodge City had become the major “cow town” on the frontier—with all the good and bad that entailed—and was a doorway to the Great American Desert, the huge chunk of the country that was still largely unknown territory to many Americans. This was the plateau that rolled westward from the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains. To strike west of Kansas City onto this plateau was to enter the vast unknown, where marauding Indians, wild animals, and all kinds of deprivations waited. Tales about such well-known trails as the Oregon, Santa Fe, and Chisholm followed by explorers, settlers, Mormons, prospectors, entrepreneurs, and some simply seeking adventure on the other side of the next hill were both captivating and frightening. (Pg.10)
Their migration turned into a nightmare. The family’s last stop before expecting to reach the Colorado border was in Ellis, Kansas. On the morning of September 11, 1874, their wagon and a few head of cattle left Ellis, expecting an easy trip to Fort Wallace. It wasn’t. The family was ambushed by seventeen Cheyenne Dog Soldiers led by Kicking Horse. As the four youngest daughters watched in horror, their parents, brother, and two older sisters were killed and scalped. Katherine, Julia, Adelaide, and Sophia German, ranging in age from nine to fifteen, were dragged off as captives of the Cheyenne.
When word of this reached Miles and his men, finding the four kidnapped girls became their new mission. The scouts learned that the Dog Soldiers had entered the Panhandle. They also heard that the German sisters had been separated, with two girls going with a band headed by Gray Beard and the other two with Stone Calf. Bat and a few of the other scouts had crossed trails with Stone Calf before, at Adobe Walls, when his son was one of those killed during that June attack.
The Cheyenne bands and the white girls with them proved very elusive as the weeks passed. Especially frustrating was the thought that two or all four of the German sisters had been brought hundreds of miles to Mexico and traded away there. If so, they would never be recovered. The scouts consoled themselves that Cheyenne were not known to go that far south, away from their hunting grounds and familiar surroundings. They kept searching and hoping.
The scouts found Gray Beard’s camp on November 8. A few days earlier, the more experienced ones had speculated that the Cheyenne would follow their routine and begin to set up a winter camp near McClellan Creek. Miles dispatched a contingent of soldiers and scouts to find out. On the morning of the eighth they arrived atop a slope near the creek, and looking down, they spotted dozens of tepees there. When the army soldiers arrived, led by the chief of scouts, Lieutenant Frank Baldwin, another Civil War recipient of the Medal of Honor, an attack was launched. As Baldwin would later write in his report, they rushed down the hills and charged the Cheyenne village “yelling like demons.”
During the brief battle, most of the inhabitants of the village fled. Those left behind were either too petrified to fight or dead. Also left behind, discovered trembling under a buffalo robe, were Julia and Adelaide German. The girls had not been harmed but were as malnourished as many of the Cheyenne children. Bat later recalled that “their little hands looked like bird’s claws.” (Pg.90)
That search was derailed by the early and unusually harsh onslaught of winter. Bat’s stamina and luck were put to the test on December 16. The War Department had decided to establish a new outpost not far from Adobe Walls, on Sweetwater Creek. A large train consisting of over a hundred wagons carrying a million pounds of grain and over half a million pounds of other goods was to set out from Camp Supply to travel south of the Canadian River to help establish the new outpost.
It set out well enough, but after only forty miles the men, Bat among them, and their teams of oxen and horses were battered by a sudden blizzard. Some drivers, blinded, veered off and disappeared into the storm, never to be seen again. Disoriented animals froze in their tracks. After the blizzard barreled on, what was left of the wagon train continued, with only a couple of dozen drivers and their supplies reaching their destination. It would be another six weeks before a new supply train tried another trip.
The severity of the winter produced Colonel Miles’s desired result for him. What had become an annual agony for tribes was that many of them were unable to find enough food on the frozen plains, with the women and children suffering the most. As Miles’s troops neared the border with New Mexico, an emissary from Stone Calf appeared, informing the colonel that the Cheyenne band was nearby. Their leader wanted to discuss laying down their arms in exchange for food.
Bat was one of the men who, understanding the risk that it could be a trap, volunteered to talk to Stone Calf. On March 1, 1875, without weapons, they rode into the Indian camp. The scouts could see immediately that Stone Calf must be serious because his people were clearly starving. It was explained to the Cheyenne leader that the German girls must be returned before an ounce of food was provided … if they were still alive. Bat and his companions were brought to a tepee and ushered in. There they found Katherine and Sophia lying on animal skins, as close to starvation as the others in the camp. It had taken almost six months, but all four German sisters were found alive.(Pg.91)
I don’t like this quiet; it augurs ill. In 1875 I was in General Miles’ cantonment in Texas. Along with the government employees and soldiers there were 400 buffalo hunters. Everything was quiet, like this camp, for two or three months and then things went lickety-bang. —BAT MASTERSON
On his way back to Dodge City in the spring of 1875, Bat Masterson made a detour that almost got him killed.
Mobeetie was located in the northeast corner of the Texas Panhandle. The rancher and cattle baron Charles Goodnight, who traveled the prairie and plains extensively, once characterized it as “patronized by outlaws, thieves, cut-throats, and buffalo hunters, with a large percent of prostitutes. Taking it all, I think it was the hardest place I ever saw on the frontier except Cheyenne, Wyoming.”
After all that Bat had been through on many a hoof-beaten trail, this town probably seemed like a good place to slap the dust off his clothes, wet his whistle, and enjoy the company of good gamblers and not-so-good women. At that time, Mobeetie was known as Sweetwater. A year earlier, a band of hunters down from Kansas founded a camp near Sweetwater Creek. The camp was nicknamed “Hidetown” because the hunters used buffalo hides to construct rudimentary dwellings.
Bat either arrived in the camp in June 1875 or had arrived earlier and took up buffalo hunting again for quick cash. That month, a contingent of the 4th Cavalry commanded by Major H. C. Bankhead rode into the area to build a fort. With the Red River War over, the government wanted to make sure the Comanche and Kiowa stayed on their reservations and didn’t venture north out of Indian Country again.
With soldiers and supplies only a couple of miles away, Hidetown went through a bit of a boom period and was officially named Sweetwater City, and soon simply called Sweetwater. That name would stick until 1878, when the town applied to the U.S. government for its first post office, and with a Sweetwater post office already designated elsewhere, the place became Mobeetie.
As they had at Adobe Walls, several Dodge City merchants—particularly Charles Rath, Robert Wright, and Lee Reynolds—established a trading post to buy buffalo hides and sell supplies in Sweetwater, which bloomed to a population of 150 residents. The merchants later claimed that before the buffalo virtually disappeared from the Panhandle, the outpost had purchased over 150,000 hides. Such brisk business put money in the pockets of the hunters, offering businesses like saloons and brothels the opportunity to be established.
As the summer passed into fall 1875, Bat remained in the town, which was growing by leaps and bounds. The nearby garrison had been officially renamed, becoming Fort Elliott. As a result of all his exertions in tracking down the four German sisters, Bat was on the inactive list of scouts, meaning it was pretty much up to him when or if he wanted to ride out with the army again. With only a few renegades not confined to reservations, and with the army contingent at the fort dissuading the other Indians from straying, scouts were not in demand.
Rath’s store was open and thriving. A fellow named Tom O’Loughlin, with his wife, Ellen, had arrived in Sweetwater and opened a restaurant and hotel. When another man, W. H. Weed, pulled into town carting hundreds of barrels of whiskey, the first saloon was founded. There was even a laundry operated by a Chinese immigrant. Another saloon opened, and then others, with names like the Pink Pussy Cat Paradise, the Buffalo Chip Mint, and the White Elephant. (Two miles outside of town was the Ring Town Saloon, which catered only to the black buffalo soldiers at Fort Elliott.) One that also featured dancers and rose quickly to being considered the main saloon was called the Lady Gay. The owners were Henry Fleming and Billy Thompson.
There wasn’t any place calling to Bat except the Sweetwater saloons, and the tales of his rescue of the sisters—which grew taller with every telling—resulted in other customers and even barkeeps buying him drinks. Dodge City was another two hundred miles away, and he figured he’d get there eventually, when Sweetwater lost its charm. For now, life was good.
It was about to get even better: Bat fell in love, or something like it. Unfortunately, Bat’s first love was about to suffer a fate similar to Wyatt Earp’s first love, but under more dramatic circumstances … or as Bat would describe it, “Things went lickety-bang.”
After his Ellsworth adventures, Ben Thompson, sometimes accompanied by his troublemaking brother Billy, had moved back and forth to Texas and from one Kansas town to another, always willing to relieve cowboys and fellow gamblers of their money. He continued to dress the part of a successful frontier gentleman, with a touch of his native England: “He was what could be called a handsome man,” Bat later wrote about him. “He was always neat in his dress but never loud, and wore little if any jewelry at any time. He was often seen on the streets, especially on a Sunday, wearing a silk hat and dressed in a Prince Albert suit of the finest material.”
Bat and Ben Thompson may well have crossed trails before, more likely when gambling in saloons rather than in the buffalo hunting grounds. Some friendship may already have developed, but it was in Sweetwater that they became better friends—enough that one saved the other’s life.
In the summer of 1875, Thompson had come to Sweetwater to deal faro at his brother’s brand-new saloon. Faro is a card game at which Wyatt Earp was already proficient and one that was a lot more well known among the general population on the frontier than it is today. There was even a study done on it in 1882 showing that it was the most popular form of gambling in the United States, with the money wagered being more than all other games combined. The American version was based on a late-seventeenth-century game in France that was called pharaon.
The game was played on an oval table covered with a green cloth, with a cutout for the banker. One suit of cards was placed on a board atop the table, with the cards in numerical order—for example, thirteen cards, from the deuce of spades to the ace of spades. Each player put his money on one of the thirteen cards, and he could bet on more than one card. The rules get rather complicated after this, but the goal was, as in most saloon gambling games, to beat the bank by drawing higher cards. Cheating was rampant in saloons across the West, especially by the bank. Some manufacturers practically encouraged this by producing faro equipment in marked boxes that aided cheating. The time came when Hoyle’s Rules of Games warned readers that there was not one honest faro bank left in the United States.
In addition to the Thompson brothers, the Lady Gay featured girls who would dance with customers and do a few simple stage routines. This was also true of a saloon down the street owned by a man named Charlie Norton. There, the dancers were known as the Seven Jolly Sisters. One of them was Kate Elder, who would later find fame on the frontier as the consort of Doc Holliday. (She had also been a soiled dove in Wichita, but ever after insisted that she had not known Wyatt Earp.) Another was Mollie Brennan, who had dark hair and blue eyes and a cheerful, lively disposition—much like Bat Masterson was often described at the time.
Mollie was most likely a player in a typical scenario: as a teenager she had traveled west from a city or left a farm behind to seek a more exciting life. What she found in Denison, Texas, was life as a prostitute. In 1872, she was in Ellsworth, Kansas, and she married Joe Brennan, a saloon keeper there. Who knows what the chances were of that marriage working, but they went to zero the following year when Ben and Billy Thompson hit town. Mollie fell for the latter and followed him to Texas after the killing of Sheriff Whitney. Two years later she was in Ellsworth again, and later that year, as the winter of 1875–1876 approached, Mollie was in Sweetwater. She was reported to be a popular performer at Charlie Norton’s place. She had the ability to dance with men, make them laugh, and persuade them to keep ordering drinks.
Mollie Brennan may also have still been a prostitute, because in frontier dance halls in the 1870s the line between that profession and singing and dancing was, at best, blurred. Many men who frequented such establishments accepted this without a moral qualm. Everybody had to make a living. Wyatt’s second and third “wives” worked as prostitutes, even during the years they considered him their husband. Bat would have had the same tolerant attitude, or none of it mattered: he found Mollie fetching and his heart expanded.
She may well have felt the same way about him, the dark-haired, twinkle-eyed, dashing rescuer of kidnapped girls. They laughed and drank and danced together, and did whatever else together after hours because Bat had been given a key to the Lady Gay by Billy Thompson, implying his relationship with Mollie by then was purely professional, or Bat and his brother Ben being friends trumped everything else. With the key, Bat could come and go at all hours, and it was a better place to be than the poorly constructed boardinghouse that O’Loughlin called a hotel. Mollie had to continue laughing and drinking and dancing with other men to keep her job at Norton’s saloon, but it was understood that she was the object of Bat Masterson’s affections. What were the chances of a buffalo hunter / scout / gambler and a dance-hall girl / fallen woman making a go of it?
Betting against it was Sergeant Melvin King. He was a member of the 4th Cavalry, and in January 1876 the unit was still stationed at Fort Elliott. King was infatuated with Mollie and jealousy was eating away at him. He was not someone you wanted as an enemy. He had fought in the Union Army during the war and in postwar Indian battles along the frontier, and he fought in bars and saloons, too. He was older than Bat by eight years, and just from having a lot more experience as a brawler, King may have been better with his fists than the lovelorn twenty-two-year-old.
He certainly had been in a lot more trouble. The man who would go down in American frontier lore as Melvin King was born Anthony Cook, in Quebec, as was Bat. He was the oldest of five children and his family farmed in Upstate New York. When he turned eighteen in October 1863, he joined the Union Army. During one battle Cook was taken prisoner, but fortunately it was in March 1865 near Petersburg, and he was free weeks later when the war ended.
He tried farming, didn’t take to it well, and in July 1866 he was back in the army. Stationed in Georgia, he was court-martialed for shooting at a dog and hitting another soldier instead. Cook received a light punishment, but a harsher one of hard labor was meted out after he beat up his commanding officer. There were more drunken brawls and the punishments escalated, until Cook was dishonorably discharged in August 1869.
Two months later in New Orleans, as Melvin King he enlisted in the 4th Cavalry. He pretty much kept his nose clean and became one of the unit’s best wranglers. For some of 1875, he had served as Colonel Ranald Mackenzie’s orderly. King had apparently gotten some control over his drinking, and in any confrontations he brandished only his fists.
However, the confrontation he and Bat had was fought with more than fists. On the night of January 24, a drunken Sergeant King showed up at the Lady Gay. Norton’s saloon was closed that night, and Mollie, Kate, and a few other girls decided that they would join their boss and drink and be entertained at Billy’s place. Bat was there playing cards with three men, and when one of them dropped out, King took his place. After a few losing hands the sergeant, now even more irritable, left the Lady Gay.
Around midnight, Bat, Mollie, and Norton strolled over to the latter’s saloon. The owner went behind the bar and the young couple sat at a table. Suddenly, there was pounding on the front door. When Bat opened it, a drunken Sergeant King burst in shouting and waving a gun. Before Bat could make any attempt to placate him, King fired. The bullet entered Bat’s groin and traveled to where it broke his hip. King fired again, but this time Mollie had flung herself in front of Bat and she took the bullet. As both of them fell to the floor, Bat yanked his six-shooter clear and shot King in the chest. He, too, fell to the floor.
Having heard the gunshots echoing in the empty confines, people were piling into the saloon. They were joined by a squad of troopers, who found their sergeant mortally wounded. With Bat on the floor near death, it wouldn’t take much to finish him off and avenge King. What happened next has been the subject of much debate over the years.
Ben Thompson, distracted from dealing faro at the Lady Gay, had gone to Charlie Norton’s place to see what the commotion was about. Seeing that the soldiers were about to kill his friend Bat, Thompson drew his pistols and leaped atop a gaming table. Wyatt gave this description many years later to Stuart Lake, which some have considered at the very least embellished: “Blue eyes snapping, legs spread wide, a six-shooter in either hand, he held King’s trooper friends at bay until Bat had been moved to safer quarters.”
The commotion had also attracted Henry Fleming, Billy Thompson’s saloon partner, and he had the presence of mind to send a messenger to Fort Elliott to rouse the 4th Cavalry’s commander. He in turn ordered the fort’s doctor to hurry to Norton’s saloon. He did, accompanied by a contingent of soldiers charged with keeping the peace. When the doctor arrived, he pronounced Mollie dead. But both King and Bat were still alive. After examining the sergeant, the doctor had his comrades prepare to bring him to the fort hospital. Maybe he had a chance to survive.
Bat’s prospects were gloomy. Initially, the doctor directed that he be made as comfortable as possible. There was no hospital in Sweetwater to bring him to, and it would not have been too smart to put him up in the surgery at the fort. Bat was brought to his room at O’Loughlin’s hotel. Since no bullet could be found, it was assumed that it had exited. The army doctor said that ultimately the only way to be certain was if Bat did not develop blood poisoning. And it wouldn’t matter to him at all if Bat simply died, as many men before him had done after being so grievously wounded.
But Bat’s strong constitution and youth combined to keep him alive. It was a slow and painful fight, but he survived. Sergeant Melvin King died the morning of January 25 and was buried at the fort the following day.
When Bat was able to get up and move around, he walked with a limp, and would do so for the rest of his life. The walking stick he often used out on the street would erroneously be credited with giving “Bat” his nickname.
A few accounts credit Billy Thompson as the man who jumped up onto a table and faced down the angry soldiers. However, recollecting later in life, it was Ben Thompson whom Bat cited among his personal pantheon of heroes, along with Wyatt, Wild Bill Hickok, Charlie Bassett, and Bill Tilghman. “Those men,” he wrote, “all of them, lived and played their part and played it exceedingly well on the lurid edge of our Western frontier at the time Ben Thompson was playing his, and it is safe to assume that not one of them would have declined the gauge of battle with him had he flung it down to any one of their number.”
Thompson, alas, did not live to an age when he could spend much time recollecting, though he tried. Later in 1876, when he tired of Sweetwater, Ben returned to Austin and opened his own saloon, called the Iron Front. A man named Mark Wilson owned the Capital Theater and viewed Thompson as a competitor. Apparently, Thompson was not aware of any ill feelings, because on Christmas Eve he took friends there for a drink. A fight erupted involving other patrons, and when Thompson tried to play peacemaker, Wilson appeared with a shotgun and fired. He missed Thompson, who, wasting no time, whipped out his six-shooter and killed Wilson. The bartender fired a rifle, hitting Thompson in the hip, and then he, too, was shot by Thompson. A judge decided both shootings were in self-defense.
Ben Thompson then led a relatively quiet life, until 1881, when he was hired as marshal of Austin. Trouble arrived in the person of another theater owner, Jack Harris, while Thompson was visiting San Antonio. Once again things escalated fast, Thompson and Harris reached for their guns, and moments later the latter was dead. Thompson was tried and acquitted, and he rode back to Austin.
If he had only stayed there. Back in San Antonio in March 1884, Thompson was ambushed. No longer a lawman, he was in San Antonio on private business and ran into King Fisher, a rancher of his acquaintance. They decided to see a show that evening at the Vaudeville Variety Theater. Obviously, it did not bother Thompson that it had been owned by Jack Harris.
At the theater, the friends were invited upstairs to sit with Joe Foster, who had been a friend of Harris’s. Also seated in the box were Jacob Coy and Billy Simms, who had also known the dead former owner of the theater. Suddenly, when Coy and Simms moved away, guns blazed in an adjoining box. Fisher, though shot thirteen times, managed to get off a shot, hitting Coy and crippling him for life. Thompson had collapsed to the floor, where Foster finished him off with a shot to the head. Somehow, he’d also managed to shoot himself in the leg. It later had to be amputated, and shortly after the operation, Foster died.
Ben Thompson’s body was returned to Austin, and his grave can be found in the Oakwood Cemetery there. Eight or so weeks after killing Sergeant King, when Bat was able to ride again, he decided to put some distance between himself and Sweetwater. He went home to the family farm outside Wichita and remained there until he felt fully recovered. Then, in the spring of 1876, he traveled to his once and future home, Dodge City. (Pg.127)
I post this segment for educational purposes. I am grateful to the author.
WE&P by: EZorrilla.