Abilene, KS is a moderate city in Dickerson County, with a population of 6,835.* Known for being the home of the famous President Dwight D. Eisenhower, it is often overlooked for its initial claim to fame.
In 1861, Abilene, KS was founded. It started as a small prairie village along the Smoky Hill Trail. During the first six years after being founded, the town offered little resemblance to a city. All of that changed when a man by the name of Joseph McCoy came into town. He had a vision of Abilene becoming a robust town, full of cattle and trade. He soon started promoting Abilene to anyone and everyone, stating that it was the perfect place to start a business.
During the 1860s-1880s, cattle trails became very popular in the Midwest regions of the United States. Joseph McCoy ventured that cattle trades would be successful in Abilene, and soon started creating an easy trade market with cattle dealers in Texas. In 1867, McCoy’s Great Western Stockyards started taking in Texas cattle. Abilene was towards the end of the cattle trails and became a popular headquarter for cattle trades.
However, the good times in Abilene did not last long. In spring of 1868, the town’s population became overcrowded with businessmen, gamblers, gunmen, and brothels. There was no law enforcement, therefore the free for alls that occurred between the crooks and brothels continued throughout the streets. The July edition of the Topeka Commonwealth declared, “At this writing Hell is now in session in Abilene.”** Until the fall of 1869, the continuation of Texas cattle trades and unlawful activities continued in Abilene.
Around 1870, the city of Abilene tried to gain law and orderly conduct in the town. The first sheriff and deputy created a town jail and a “no gun” law. Later, two men were hired from St. Louis to gain civil conduct, but after surveying the town, they disappeared and were never heard from again.
Not long after this, the city of Abilene appointed Marshal Smith as sheriff. He was able to create some peace, but unfortunately, that November he was ambushed and killed, along with his deputy. The city leaders were distraught and unsure of what to do next. They searched for someone to fill Marshal Smith’s shoes, and stumbled upon Wild Bill Hickok. He was a noted government scout and gunman. Hickok did a fabulous job of maintaining order in Abilene.
The fall of 1871 led the slowing of the cattle trade in Abilene. Soon after, Abilene reverted back to a quiet town, that is, until our 34th President was elected.
The cattle trades and crime found in Abilene are often overlooked in Kansas’s history. I never learned about any of this prior to this class, and I found it really interesting. I thought that cattle were always in Kansas. It is very interesting to discover that they were in fact moved here! For education majors, this could be interesting to add to your curriculum while giving lessons on Kansas day, instead of doing another lesson on the state flower.