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Ford County, Kansas

Ford County, Kansas, might be the most well-known cattle country in the nation. Dodge City, the county seat, was a busy cowtown with a rugged reputation in the 1870s and 1880s, which grew to legendary status through motion pictures, radio, and television. The Santa Fe Trail passed through Plains Indian hunting grounds. The railroads replaced the trails and brought important industries to the county.

Ford County, in the southwestern part of the state, is in the Arkansas River Lowlands. The flat plains are made of sand, silt, and gravel deposited over time by streams and rivers. The county was organized in 1873 and is named for Colonel James H. Ford, who led Civil War soldiers at Little Blue, Westport, and Mine Creek. The area was prime hunting land for the Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Apache Indians, where bison were once plentiful. It was part of the old Washington County, Peketon County, and later an enlarged Marion County. In 1865 Fort Dodge was established to protect the commerce traffic on the Santa Fe Trail and U.S. mail deliveries. Fort Dodge closed in 1882.

Kansas had become a shipping point for cattle in 1867. Longhorns were herded from Texas to Kansas by cowboys. They were kept in holding pens to be shipped by train to markets in the east. As the early cowtowns became populated with farmers and ranchers, the cowboys and the longhorns were no longer welcome. By the mid-1870s the cattle trails were moved west and Ford County was at the center of the cattle industry. Then in the mid-1880s the state legislature moved the boundaries west once again, impacting the local cattle industry. 

The rough and tumble life of the cowboy in myth and reality helped to color Dodge City’s reputation. Cowboys, or drovers, arrived after long months on the trail ready to relax and spend their hard-earned money. They supported the local merchants and the dance halls, saloons, and gaming. The Santa Fe railroad construction reached Dodge City in 1872, the same year it was chartered.

Kansans supported statewide prohibition, which took effect in 1881. Yet Dodge City continued to allow saloons to serve alcohol. The railroad was so concerned about the community’s morals that it hesitated to invest in new structures. In an attempt to reduce vice, the Dodge City council tightened laws in 1883 targeting the Long Branch Saloon in particular. Saloon co-owner Luke Short was arrested along with employees and gamblers, then escorted out of town. Then all gambling places were ordered closed. The railroads and merchants became concerned about the lost services. Prominent gunfighters like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson arrived in Dodge to support Short, and the factions resolved their differences. A group of eight men, nicknamed the Dodge City Peace Commission, gathered in a saloon in solidarity and the “Dodge City War” ended. Finally, Dodge City accepted the ban on alcohol sale in 1885, and saloons were forced to close or change.

The Wild West reputation continued years later as newspapers in the East and dime novels described the early times much to the initial dismay of the citizens. In 1939 the legend grew with the world premiere of the Warner Brothers film, Dodge City. This inspired the popular radio and television series, Gunsmoke, which aired from 1955 to 1975. Citizens began to appreciate the Wild West legend that drew tourists to Dodge.

Ford County properties listed in the National Registers of Historic Places include the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway Depot, Boot Hill Museum, and a segment of the Santa Fe Trail. People with connections to the county include Robert M Wright, cattleman, community founder, and mayor; George J. Hoover, the first businessman, called “Mr. Dodge City;” Chalkey Beeson, cattleman, saloon owner, and farmer; Governor Fred Hall; and Jess C. Denius, newspaperman and state senator.

Quick Facts

Date Established: February 26, 1867
Date Organized: April 5, 1873
County Seat: Dodge City
Kansas Region: Southwest
Physiographic Region: High Plains and Arkansas River Lowlands
Courthouse: 1912-1913


1865 - Fort Dodge is established.
1867 - Ford County is established.
1872 - Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad arrives in Dodge City.
1873 - Ford County is organized.
1870 - 1880s- Dodge City is important town in the cattle industry for around a decade until the dead line is moved west of the town.
1955 - Gunsmoke premieres on television and provides tourism to the area for the two decades that it was on air.

More on Ford County


Entry: Ford County, Kansas

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: February 2010

Date Modified: August 2023

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.