Matt Dillon-that venerable and fictional U.S. Marshall headquartered in Dodge City-was probably a composite of several real lawmen who actually wore a badge and enforced the law in the Kansas cowtown of Dodge City. Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp were two of the more famous lawmen who sought to impose order on the lawless in Dodge City. Both men favored .45 caliber Navy Colt revolvers, though neither had to use them all that often. A reputation for being a fast draw and deadly with a gun was often the best weapon in a town tamer’s arsenal, since it usually made would-be lawbreakers think twice before drawing their own weapons.
Dodge City, Kansas was born June 17, 1872 on the windswept prairie five miles west of the Fort Dodge military reservation. The new settlement consisted of a three-room sod house (built in 1871 by pioneer rancher Henry Sitler), and a barroom in a tent. The location was deliberate: Liquor was prohibited in Fort Dodge, and the fledgling town was located just outside the military preserve. Other businesses soon followed the barroom. On August 15, the town was organized as Buffalo City, but by October had been renamed Dodge City. There was already a Buffalo, Kansas, and the U.S. Post Office had a policy of avoiding duplicate names within the same state to avoid confusion in delivering the mail.
But Ford County, Kansas, where the fledgling town sprang up, was still a wilderness with no government, much less organized law enforcement. The town didn’t even have a sheriff until 1873. Dodge City, itself, was not formally incorporated until 1875–and it was during this two years of anarchy that the town acquired its reputation as a dangerous and violent haven for the lawless.
The military-the only vestige of government in the vicinity–had no jurisdiction outside the fort. To make matters worse, the newly completed Atchison, Santa Fe and Topeka railroad had turned Dodge City into a boomtown with many businesses, including multiple saloons and brothels. Buffalo hunters, railroad workers, cattle drovers and soldiers from the nearby fort fought in the streets, which inevitably led to shootings. Men died with their boots on in quick, violent bursts of gunfire ignited by free-flowing liquor, which led to the creation of a “Boot Hill” cemetery, further fueling the town’s reputation for violence.
The first recorded killing in Dodge City was in September, 1872. During the year that followed, fifteen men would die in the lawless streets and be planted on Boot Hill, giving rise to the city’s reputation as a haven for lawless hooligans and gunslingers. The first attempts at law enforcement were a combination of rough vigilante justice and deputies whose methods were as violent as the lawbreakers.
By 1873, two political factions had arisen in the town–those who wanted the town to remain wide-open to liquor, gambling and prostitution, and those who felt the town’s growing reputation as a violent and dangerous place was bad for business. The law and order crowd won out, and a sheriff was appointed. Charlie Bassett, the appointee, was re-elected in 1875. By that time, the great buffalo slaughter had ended, and the huge revenues flowing into Dodge City from processing and shipping buffalo hides had ended. Longhorn cattle from Texas became the town’s main source of revenue, arriving via the Chisolm and Western Trails to be shipped on to final destinations by rail.
When Charlie Bassett–who began the trend toward more civilized law enforcement in Dodge–could not be elected to a third term according to the state constitution, William B. “Bat” Masterson was elected Ford County sheriff in 1877. Aside from his reputation as a deadly gunman, the dapper Masterson was famous for his derby hat and the gold-tipped cane he adopted after being wounded in a gunfight in 1876-the one and only time he ever actually killed a man in a gunfight.
Order was imposed–as it often was in the Old West–via a city ordinance prohibiting firearms, though the ordinance in Dodge City wasn’t all-inclusive. To pacify the “wide-open” advocates, the railroad tracks became the demarcation line. North of the tracks, no guns could be carried. South of the tracks was still wide-open to booze, madams and mayhem.
Lawrence Deger, the first city marshal of Dodge was appointed by the mayor in 1875. The Dodge City marshal’s office was occupied by a number of men with familiar names in western history, including Wyatt Earp
* (1876-1879) and Bill Tilghman (1884-1886).
* NOTE: Though Wyatt Earp claimed to have served as City Marshal during this time period, and some documents in Dodge City agree with his statement, some historians question whether he ever actually served as a City Marshal in Dodge City.