We’re talking here about Abilene, Kansas, called in its day the Queen of the Cow-towns and not the Abilene of the song, the pretty town where women don’t treat you mean, which refers to Abilene, Texas.
Abilene is the county seat of Dickinson County and was in existence 9 years before it became a cow-town. It was founded in 1858 by a couple called Hersey who named it after a pleasant-sounding place mentioned once in the Bible. It started out as a stage coach stop with two log huts, a stable and a corral. It grew slowly but steadily until the Kansas Pacific Railroad reached it in 1867.
Then all of a sudden it changed dramatically. A cattle dealer from Illinois called Joseph McCoy recognised the natural advantages of the town’s environs – plenty of grass and water for livestock – and decided it would be a good place to ship cattle from. It was the perfect moment for a new railhead to flourish because the Shawnee trail had just closed owing to problems with Texas Fever.
McCoy advertised the new shipping point at Abilene all over Texas and built a hotel for the cowboys and a stockyard to house the cattle in transit. The town expanded and prospered for a few years until the inevitable unwanted characters – which included cowboys – began to arrive. Then, to the dismay of the core population which was now in a minority, gunfights became common and the town was lawless.
McCoy himself was elected as the first mayor, but the city needed a lawman and so in 1870 they appointed a Chief of Police called Thomas ‘Bear River’ Smith. He was a slight but courageous man who forbade the use of firearms within city limits and was quite prepared to enforce the law with his fists. Peace reigned for a short while. Unfortunately this upstanding man was murdered by 2 outlaws when he was trying to arrest one of them.
Tom Smith’s successor was a colourful man about whom there are many stories – Wild Bill Hickok. Although he had presence and was a skilled marksman, preventing a number of murders, he spent more time in the saloon and with ‘soiled doves’, a euphemism for prostitutes used by cowboys among others, than in furthering the cause of law and order. His days in Abilene became numbered when he accidentally killed his deputy in a shooting affray.
It was the last straw for Abilene. The city fathers forbade the Texan cattle drovers the use of their town and the Chisholm trail no longer led there. Abilene became a quiet place and later diversified, but that was the end of its connection with the cattle trade.