Ellsworth still has the reputation for being something of a ‘cow town’ to this day. Reputations have a way of sticking around, and this is a city that was founded that way initially. Ellworth was called the ‘The Wickedest Cattletown in Kansas,’ and some people might still be proud of a nickname like that today.
Obviously, there are some people who are really excited about the economic aspects of the cow town days of Ellsworth. However, most people are interested in the area because of all of the wild stories about the cowboys who ran the place back in the 1860’s and the 1870’s.
When people call the historical Ellsworth one of the wickedest cattle towns in the United States, they really aren’t talking about all of the great economic opportunities in the area. They’re talking about the behavior of the cowboys who had too much power and freedom in the area for so long.
Cowboys would get drunk all the time and shoot each other. Lots of people died in these shootouts. During this time period in the West and throughout a good portion of the less populous United States, there was a certain rhythm to the way things worked. There would be some sort of economic reason for people to settle in a particular area. They would, and the brothels, gambling halls, and saloons would show up and completely transform the area.
A lot of the cowboys that came to Ellsworth were ultimately just passing through, since this was largely an area where the cows were transported and not an area where the cows were raised. This meant that there were fewer consequences associated with any of the behaviors of many of the cowboys that made it there, and this had an effect on whether or not they would start to get disorderly. Many of them were more or less unleashed by the freedom that they enjoyed in this area, and they were away from most of their long-term responsibilities elsewhere.
People tend to erase the fact that prostitution was a huge part of life in the Old West. Open prostitution was just as common. There was really no hiding it, and the women needed to be able to work out in the open in a lot of cases just in order to really get the business that the needed. Prostitution was so common in Ellsworth that it was more or less the most thriving industry that didn’t involve agriculture in some way or another.
The crime in Ellsworth was just as rampant, and many of the local law enforcement officials struggled when it came to almost anything related to keeping all of the drunken cowboys and their followers under control. The ex-Union Army soldier E. W. Kingsbury became the local sheriff back in 1868. He was more or less in charge of making sure that the entire county ran smoothly, which meant that there was only so much that he could do in the small city of Ellsworth itself. That tough task was left up to the local marshals, and the drunk cowboys had a tendency to outnumber them dramatically.
One of the most notable marshals was Will Semans. He tried to stop a ‘disorderly’ man in a dance hall. Given the now-euphemistic language of the time, people today could only speculate what the man in question was doing. Will Semans’s efforts might have been genuinely heroic, but he died for them, getting shot and killed on September 26, 1869. This was a common experience for the marshals who tried to police the city of Ellsworth.
Everyone has heard of certain outlaws in the Old West. There should be more press about the outlaws known as Craig and Johnson, who quickly became infamous throughout Ellsworth. These two outlaws became armed robbers on their worst days, and bullies on their best days. They managed to rule the town on the level that even the drunken and disorderly cowboys could not manage. It is a testament to the power of the marshal Will Semans that Johnson and Craig managed to operate so much more overtly the moment that the marshal died, as if they decided that it was now open season on all criminals.
However, it should be noted that vigilante groups and ‘citizen’s groups’ were much more common during this time period. The citizens of Ellsworth got together, formed a vigilante group, and got Craig and Johnson hanged close to Smoky Hill River.
Chauncey Whitney managed to take over as the local lawman, even though he did not just operate in Ellsworth. He was good at the job and people genuinely liked him for the most part. The crime rate in Ellsworth began to decline by the 1870’s or so. This was partly as a result of the efforts of Chauncey Whitney and other people deeply concerned about the law. However, this was just partly a result of the fact that the cowboys did not have a tendency to show up in Ellsworth when the stockyard was gone.
Abilene, Kansas and Dodge City became the new cow towns of the area. Ellsworth was not able to switch to a new economic field in time in many cases, and this just meant that a lot of people involved with the area had to move and go elsewhere after the local economy of Ellsworth changed.
Ellsworth has managed to survive to this day. The people who believed that the loss of the stockyards would mean the end of Ellsworth were wrong. The fact that the area is still around after over a century is always impressive, and this may be the case for a while. Heritage tourism is helping to keep the place alive, and a lot of people are working to preserve the wonder of these sorts of small towns.