Early Abilene

Abilene as depicted in 1871. Not everyone thought the cattle industry was good for the town.

Part 2 of a 4 part series

The Abilene Weekly Chronicle on Jan. 12, 1871, entered the cattle-trade controversy when it printed a letter to the editor from a long time Dickinson County settler who signed his letter, “A.F.”

A.F. argued that the cattle trade did not benefit local citizens, except for a few, but only the rich cattlemen from outside of the state. Instead of bringing in money, the cattle trade cost the city and its citizens through taxes and the crimes caused by the rowdy cattle drivers (cowboys). To A.F., the lawless cowboys cost Abilene thousands of dollars in 1870 through their crimes and the prosecution expenses incurred by the city when bringing the cowboys to justice.

Another issue, according to A.F., was that cowboys often used the land surrounding Abilene to feed their cattle before shipping them off, which not only took feed away from the local cattle herds but also meant that the cowboys received free use of the land without having to pay any taxes on the land since they were not residents of the county.

A.F. concluded by stating “that a large majority of the actual citizens of the county are opposed to this whole business …. The people are now strong enough, and they have the right to control this matter …. The settlers have some rights, and I assure you, Mr. Editor, that in my neighborhood we will have these rights hereafter according to law and justice.”

‘Defendant’

A week later, on Jan. 19, 1871, the Abilene Weekly Chronicle printed a letter to the editor in response to A.F.’s letter. This writer, calling himself “Defendant,” argued that the only reason A.F. opposed the cattle trade was that A.F. is “disposed to be barratrous [sic], and jealous, of some of his neighbors who are more rapidly accumulating wealth than he is” and that there is no proof to any of A.F.’s claims. Defendant argued that “any person of ordinary intelligence” would realize the benefits of the cattle trade and that if Abilene ended its involvement in it, local businesses would suffer and leave, leaving Abilene so insignificant that it would wither and die.

Justice to Abilene and its citizens required the continuation of the cattle trade. According to Defendant, “justice demands that A.F. cease his efforts to incite malignant feelings in this good, quiet community, and go home, take an elevated seat on a pumpkin, and soliloquize thus: ‘my grandfather was a most wonderful man.’ ”

‘Equal Rights’

Another letter to the editor in response to A.F.’s and Defendant’s letters was printed in the Abilene Weekly Chronicle on Feb. 2, 1871. The writer calling himself “Equal Rights” was a resident of Solomon City and argued that no one could legitimately argue against the fact that crime and the expenses related to the prosecution of the criminals had greatly increased since the beginning of the cattle trade. Equal Rights stated that, despite Defendant’s “bombast” and bluster, there is no denying the truth that cowboys, cattle owners, and cattle dealers cared little for the local citizens or their rights.

According to Equal Rights, who claimed that he had gone through the local criminal records, the criminal prosecutions carried out during the cattle trade period in Abilene had amounted to around $2,600. Another issue was that the cowboys allowed their herds to wander the county, eating the grass that the local herds needed to survive. While Equal Rights did not oppose the cattle trade if it respected the rights of local citizens and farmers, the way the cattle trade currently went on was unsupportable and that this “will cause a slight unpleasantness which might require the cattle trade to move somewhere else.”

‘Ibex’

The Abilene Weekly Chronicle printed another letter to the editor on Feb. 2, 1871, that ended the series of letters started by A.F. This writer called himself “Ibex,” which some historians think was the pseudonym used by Joseph McCoy when he wrote a letter to the local newspaper.

Whether McCoy or not, Ibex took a strong defense of the cattle trade and labeled A.F.’s arguments as coming from “impulse and passion” rather than “thought and judgment.”

Ibex argued that, before the cattle trade, “[Abilene] was an obscure, dingy place, boasting of but one shingle roofed building, the balance a half dozen log huts, covered with dirt roofs. As a business place, it boasted one little ‘whiskey battery,’ one eight-by-10 dry goods and grocery house, containing nearly three wheelbarrow loads of goods. These two establishments jointly sold perhaps $500 worth of goods and wares annually, a small part for cash, balance on time or produce … To say it was an obscure town does not express enough: it was scarcely known by fifty men outside the county.”

Due to the cattle trade, though, Ibex stated, Abilene was now a thriving, well-known town, with prosperous businesses and residents. According to Ibex, the cattle trade itself was worth $5 million, that local businesses had $1 million in goods, that local banks handled $100,000 a week, and that $50,000 a month was paid out to area laborers.

The farmers also benefited because of the increased demand for their crops, produce, and animals. While Ibex does admit that immoral elements, like drunkards, thieves, gamblers and prostitutes, do tend to congregate at those places that do large business, “Ibex” stated that A.F.’s solution was to banish commerce and businesses. Ibex argued that Abilene must choose whether it wanted to stick with its heritage and prosperity, or go with A.F.’s “miserable, short-sighted, if not stupid and blind, policy.”

“Banish from Abilene the cattle trade,” Ibex wrote, “and you banish most of your best businessmen, and convert your village into one wherein the solemn stillness of a funeral would reign perfectly, and one wherein a current ten dollar bill would be something to be remembered but not often seen.”

This prophecy of doom, though, did not end the push by local citizens for the end of the cattle trade.

Contact Tim Horan at editor@abilene-rc.com.

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