Jesse Chisholm, using his Cherokee roots, established trading posts along a trail from Texas that was blazed from buffalo migratory patterns. The Chisholm Trail followed easy paths through the rough terrains of Texas and Oklahoma enabling drovers to move thousands of longhorn from ranches of the South to stockyards of the North.
In 1867, Joseph McCoy, an Illinois livestock dealer, assured the skeptic public that he could move 200,000 head of cattle from Texas in ten years by connecting the Chisholm Trail to the railroad. McCoy would utilize Abilene, Kansas as his cow town hub marking the City of the Plains as the first cow town of the West. Less than a mile away from this location, nearly two million head of Texas longhorn were loaded on the railroad from the Great Western Stockyards. McCoy quieted the naysayers in half the time of his guarantee; drovers had moved approximately 1.5 million more cattle than he had promised. He is inspiration for the phrase, “The Real McCoy” because he found a way to turn a $2 longhorn in Texas into a $40 longhorn in Illinois.
September 5, 1867-October 5, 1871
Welcome to Abilene! The cattle oasis set forth by an Illinois dreamer. Railroad deals and horseback handshakes brought the drovers to the cattle Mecca of the prairie. Herds of cattle were driven at least 1,000 miles from the heart of Texas. 100 days on the trail turned men into animals, and the first sight of civilization would cause a loss of inhibitions. The drovers would be paid handsomely, and Texas Street was there to swindle the drovers’ new wealth away. Gunslingers, gamblers and greed lined the sin-filled streets of the little City of the Plains. The Topeka Commonwealth put it best, “At this writing, Hell is now in session in Abilene.”
The Western states had beef; Illinois and Missouri had the packing houses. Abilene was the link through the railroad. During the winter, population was around 500. During the cattle season, the town grew to 3,000; Cowboys outnumbered Kansans 6:1. These cowboys would line the streets with a pocket full of silver, fresh haircut and the finest duds and boots this side of the Mississippi. Abilene was a volatile mixture of wealth from the East, confederate burn outs from the South, and farmers from the Midwest, all with their own agendas and hatred for one another. Soon Texas Street would become the backdrop for some of the wildest tales in the Old West. Here are just a few of those stories.
McCoy was a boyhood neighbor of Abraham Lincoln, he was an Illinois entrepreneur with a zest for life and a thirst for money. He referred to himself as “The Real McCoy” and he saw a rare opportunity to move Texas Longhorn to the North. Before the Civil War, the Texas rancher rarely considered drives into the Free states, but the destruction of the South and the blockades along the waterways left Texas with a bottleneck, and it was up to McCoy to save the Lone Star State from the brink of financial destruction.
McCoy to ascend to his cattle throne had to jump through hoops and cross blockades himself. Texas Longhorn were known to carry the Texas fever. Though the Texas stock were immune, the cattle of the North would certainly die off if they were struck with the fever. A quarantine was set for Texas cattle that would ensure that Texas longhorn would not cross east of the 6th Meridian. McCoy had to locate a desolate spot along the Kansas prairie where lawmakers could not hold his dreams back.
After several rejections from railroad tycoons, and town founders, finally a baggage handling mishap left McCoy without a clean shirt. As McCoy went to claim his clothes, he saw an untapped resource of plentiful grass and endless possibilities. It was in June of 1867 that McCoy would lay out his plans for the first Cowtown of the West in the quiet Queen of the Plains, Abilene, Kansas. Log cabins and dugouts were replaced with frame houses and saloons. Joseph McCoy within two months of his arrival had turned Abilene into the best advertised small town in America.
The quiet town that founded upon Christian ideals, and named directly from Luke 3:1, had been converted to a town of debauchery, lawlessness and sin. Entrepreneurs from the East saw an opportunity to capitalize on the town that was now overflowing with greedy aristocrats and gullible drovers.
The cowboy boot has carried controversial origin stories, most agree that many versions of the boot were invented centuries before the Chisholm Trail was plotted. But most commonly used for horse riding was a Wellington boot, a shorter and Calvary oriented boot.
It was an unnamed Texas drover that asked for a custom boot from T.C. McInerney’s Drovers Boot Store. The cowboy complained that his confederate-issued boots were not made for stirrups. The year was 1868, and McInerney was an Irish Immigrant that had just opened his boot store on Texas Street. He went to work on this specialized boot by giving a distinct pointed toe, angled heel and treadless leather sole for easy insertion and removal from the saddle stirrup. The advertisement below appeared in the 1870 Abilene Chronicle showing off the first illustration of the modern cowboy boot.
McInerney built his business on being a true gentleman, knowing the boot business and the needs of the cowboy. He kept 10-20 men employed working around the clock to keep up with the demand of his new style boot. His early boots were knee high, adorned with the lone star and crescent moon set in red Morocco.
Writer Adolph Roenigk lived and chronicled the early days of the Western frontier, and he stumbled upon Abilene and the original cowboy boot merchant. “McInerney was the first shoe and boot merchant, he made all boots for the festive cowboy; no shoes for them. These boots were all made of the finest calfskin leather. All high heeled and red tops which reached to the knees and cost these boys from $12.00 to $20.00 per pair.”
Three years into the lawless Cowtown, Abilene was begging for a real lawman. Attempts to bring order to the insanity only infuriated the cowboys further. The signs posted to indicate the “NO SHOOTING” ordinance was filled with bullet holes. It was clear that Mayor T.C. Henry would have to hire a fearless warrior, and soon he would be shaking hands with one of the toughest and bravest men to bring law and order to Texas Street.
June 4, 1870, Tom “Bear River” Smith arrived after putting down a railroad riot in Wyoming. He was a tough Irishman from New York City, where he was a middleweight boxer and policeman patrolling the dangerous five points. After Smith had accidentally shot a 14 year-old shoplifter, Bear River would rarely carry a gun again. Smith let his fists do the talking, and he would soon prove to the cowboys that he was more than just a lawman, he was invincible.
Smith rode his horse, Silverheels, down the middle of the street, badge glistening in the sun, no guns in his belt or saddle. It was a laughable site, and the cowboys thought they were going to make short work of this man. Mayor Henry was convinced that he had sent a man to his death.
Soon, Smith would take down the classic ruffians Big Hank and Wyoming Frank while they were trying to unholster their pistols, Smith pummeled the outlaws with his fists. It was going to take a group effort to take down the new marshal, and they set it all up at the Old Fruit Saloon. As Smith walked through the front door, a gambler gave Smith his pre-eulogy, “Adios Smith, your fists ain’t goin’ to save you this time.” Smith retorted, “I’ll be coming out in two minutes, and I’ll have the man I want, and I’ll do it without using a single gun.”
Oil lamps along the walls gave off a dim yellow light. They cornered Smith, and started firing shots from all directions, but all bullets miraculously missed the new marshal. Smith took a leap into the crowd and started knocking out cowboys one-by-one. Eventually, he got to the ringleader, knocked him out cold, and then threw the outlaw over his shoulder and carried him out like a trophy. One last attempt was made by a cowboy who took an oil lamp and threw it at Smith, usually dousing the victim in oil and engulfing them in flames. This particular lamp was a dud and broke at Smith’s feet. He just stepped over the small fire and moved out to the street. From that moment on, Smith had gained the respect of merchants and cowboys around town.
Order was restored, and the cowboys were minding their manners. Smith was respected by all, good and bad, Kansans and cowboys revered the man. Sadly, Smith would not survive Abilene, but ironically it was not a cowboy that would hand the marshal his demise, it would be two lonely homesteaders.
Andrew McConnell and Moses Miles had a small farm north of town, and during the 1870 cattle season, John Shea was driving a herd across their farm. The Scottish homesteaders ended up killing Shea for his lack of respect for their land. The two men were acquitted because it was determined that it was a kill in self-defense. But, later evidence would show the McConnell was not as provoked as he led on. Smith at this time had taken a job as a US Marshal. Off duty, he rode to the homestead dugout with Sheriff McDonald to assist with the arrest of McConnell and Miles.
As the new Sheriff attempted to force McConnell out of the dugout, he resisted arrest. Now heavy guns were ready to take down the fists of the law. Smith barged into the dugout ready to start throwing down, but McConnell got a shot off in Smith’s abdomen, and Sheriff McDonald cowered back to town, leaving Smith wounded trying to fight off the two by himself. Smith ended up getting into a bloody wrestling match with McConnell. Coming up from behind, Miles clubbed Smith with the butt of his gun, and as Smith struggled to bring himself to his feet by a log pile, McConnell grabbed a hatchet and violently chopped off Bear River’s head.
A posse in town went to the scene and saw that their iconic hero was dead. The posse was enraged by the gruesome scene, but they knew that justice would have to prevail. It would have been easy to grab the two men and enforce capital punishment, but instead, they captured the men and sent them through the legal system.
Smith was dead at the age of 31, the entire town mourned. From the Baptist church, the wagon pulled a casket draped with an American flag, flowers placed along the trail of the casket, following was hissaddled riderless horse, Silver Heels.
Nearly a century later, when President Eisenhower would return to his hometown, he would visit Tom Smith’s grave, noting that Smith was the true hero of Abilene, despite the echoed name of Wild Bill throughout the streets of Abilene, it was Smith that tamed the beast of Texas Street.
Wild Bill Hickok was already a legend by the time he arrived at Abilene. He was a comic book hero with precision marksmanship. Rumors of his skill and speed were unmatched in the West. Hickok was the fastest draw, and this made him a target for any outlaw that thought he might challenge the legend. Wild Bill had been in Abilene on many occasions, but as an unknown gambler. He built his reputation at 23 years old, when he had killed the McCanles Gang in Nebraska. He also worked for General Custer as an Indian scout.
Still mourning the death of Marshal Smith, Mayor Henry had to hire a fearless, sadistic sharpshooter who would exude terror to any cowboy with a gun. That would be Wild Bill. He was six foot one, brown wavy hair, carrying a bowie knife and twin revolvers for all to see. His office was the Alamo Saloon, and with his feet kicked up on the gambling table, people travelled far and wide to get a glimpse of this living legend. It was a rare opportunity to see Hickok in action, but his legend was enough to keep the peace on Texas Street…for now.
Bill always kept his back towards the walls just to protect him from cowards trying to get the best of him with his guard down. Nobody could take Wild Bill in a shootout, the town was living in fear of a reckless lawman, but he kept the peace with the fright of his hair trigger revolvers, ivory grips pointing forward so he could twist draw. But there were quiet rumblings from Texas Street, and the Texans were getting antsy. The battle between good and evil was about to take place in the middle of Abilene, Kansas.
Three mystery riders arrived at Drover’s Cottage in 1871. Spotted by the Cottage clerk, C.F. Gross. Gross saw these men drinking light and gambling heavy. These were not your normal cowboys, so Gross inquired about the mystery men, and arrangements were made to officially meet at midnight in their room. Gross nervously approached the room where the three were staying, but curiosity was truly getting the best of him.
A familiar face answered the door, familiar in the way that a police sketch would depict the wanted man. He introduced himself as Frank James, and around the room sat his brother, Jesse James and notorious killer Cole Younger. Three of the infamous James Gang were sitting in Gross’s hotel.
Gross was completely baffled as to why they were hiding in his hotel, and why hasn’t Wild Bill kicked down the door with his six shooters blazing? Frank informed Gross that Marshal Bill was aware of their presence in Abilene, but he’s also a smart man, and knows that he cannot win in a game of numbers. Frank also told Gross that there were men that were watching Wild Bill’s movements around the clock. The James gang could take the town in five minutes, but they had mutual respect for Wild Bill, and they didn’t want to get tangled in a wild shootout.
Phil Coe was the outspoken proprietor of the Bull’s Head Saloon, along with Ben Thompson; both with strong Texan sentiments. The two men had taken offense to any Texan that arrested by Wild Bill, claiming that he was singling them out. They had enlisted the help of future Serial Killer John Wesley Hardin to kill Wild Bill. Ironically, Hardin would actually come to respect Wild Bill, and would have nothing to do with killing the legend. Thompson had fallen off his horse and was bed ridden, so Coe was going to have to take care of the Marshal himself.
October 5, 1871…7 p.m. The Dickinson County fair was rained out on the account of mud, fifty cowboys came back to Texas Street ready to cause trouble. Coe was ready to make good on his promise to get Hickok before the first frost.
9 p.m., a shot is fired, in the midst of all the craziness, a gunshot silenced everyone. In Wild Bill’s Abilene, that was one sound that didn’t happen. Bill walked over to where the shot came from, right in front of the Alamo Saloon, and there was a group with Phil Coe lazily holding his revolver to his side, still smoking from the barrel. Wild Bill screamed for Coe to drop his gun, and Coe retorted, “I was merely shooting at a stray dog, no harm in that.”
Within a heartbeat, Bill saw Coe’s shoulder twitch, swinging his gun wildly to fire off two shots. One shot kicked up dust near Bill’s boots, and the other ball fluttered through his coat, violently stripping the threads. Another heartbeat, and Bill retaliates with two shots from his Colt Navy revolver. Both shots penetrate Coe in the stomach, knocking him to the ground to let him bleed out for a few hours before he died. Bill is still very aware of the group of rowdy men in front of him, he snarled out a threat, “If any of you want the balance of these pills, come and get them.” The group is paralyzed and silent, then there is a silhouette of a man running towards Bill with guns in his hands, in the glare of oil lamps, Bill fired at the shadow, and the shot knocked down the assailant.
Tragically, the man turned out to be Wild Bill’s friend and theatre policeman, Mike Williams. Hickok carried Williams onto the billiards table where his body went cold and lifeless. Bill had just killed an innocent man, a new father and husband. Hickok was soaked in blood, looking at the stunned crowd, screamed for everyone to clear out of town. Within an hour, there wasn’t a cowboy to be found. It was the night the cowboys died in Abilene, and the cattle trade was never welcomed back. The town had issued an ordinance ensuring no business would be done with cattle. T.C. Henry had created his golden fields of wheat, and the town, after five years, was finished with the Cowboys.
The town relieved Wild Bill of his duties. Bill was never the same, distraught from killing his young friend, he paid for the funeral and the casket. Bill rarely carried a gun after that night, and just five years later, Bill would be shot in the back by Jack McCall in Deadwood, South Dakota.