Cow towns were cities that sprang up at railroad terminals in the West. Abilene and Dodge City, Kansas, were two early and celebrated cow towns (also called cattle towns). Beginning in 1867, when the Union Pacific Railroad reached westward as far as Abilene, cowboys began driving large herds of cattle from Texas northward along the Chisholm Trail which were then loaded on trains and transported to markets in the eastern United States.
The cattle industry prospered in the years following the American Civil War (1861–65): demand for beef rose at the same time as large herds of cattle, the offspring of cows and bulls left behind by early Spanish settlers, roamed wild on the open range. Cowboys were hired to protect the herds from mountain lions and rustlers, round them up at the end of grazing season, and drive them to railheads. At the end of the long trail drive, when the cowboys were paid, many of them went on spending sprees. With inns, saloons, and brothels that catered to the hard-working and free spirited cowboys, the cow towns were rough places. Many legendary lawmen, such as Wyatt Earp (1848–1929) and Wild Bill Hickock (1837–76), earned their fame trying to maintain law and order in the cow towns.
By the mid-1880s, changes on the frontier brought an end to the "Wild West." Settlers used barbed wire to fence in their lands, effectively closing the open range. Railroads also reached into formerly remote locations thereby eliminating the need for cattle drives. The days of the long cattle drives were over. But cow towns continued to prosper as trading posts, serving the interests of farmers and ranchers alike. Many of today's thriving cities in the West grew out of the cow towns of yesterday—including Wichita, Kansas; Fort Worth, Texas; and Cheyenne, Wyoming.
See also: Barbed Wire, Cowboy, Chisholm Trail, Longhorn Cattle, Open Range, Prairie
COW TOWNS. A by-product of the dramatic growth of the cattle business in the latter part of the nineteenth century, cow towns flourished from 1867 until the 1890s when railroads ended the necessity for long cattle drives. The first of what became the stereotypical cow town was Abilene, Kansas. A small rural community that consisted of a dozen log huts, most with dirt roofs, Abilene provided what ranchers needed: acres of undeveloped fields of tall grass crossed by streams of water and a rail line to Chicago's meatpacking plants. By the 1870s, cattle drives resulted in dozens of other cow towns joining Abilene in replacing log huts with saloons, gambling rooms, and whorehouses to entice the cowboys. Although the number of gunshots fired in cow towns was far fewer then Holly wood portrayed, the violence did create conflict between the merchants and the cowboys and revealed a class conflict that characterized much of the developing West. Many of the merchants and landowners were from the North and Republican Party members, while the cowboys tended to be ex-Confederates who supported the Democratic Party. Before this class conflict could be played out, however, the era of the cow town was over. The railroad provided a more profitable means to transport beef. The cow town would continue but only in dime novels and on movie screens.
Brown, Richard Maxwell. "Violence." In The Oxford History of the American West. Edited by Clyde A. Milner II, Carol A. O'Connor, and Martha A. Sandweiss. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
White, Richard. "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A History of the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.
See alsoAbilene Trail .