For several years after Western Kansas was being
opened for settlement, the counties in this region
remained unorganized and had no population except the
cattlemen. They were the lords of the land, but had no interest
in it except as it provided grass and water for their stock.
They ranged their cattle over thousands of acres without
the restriction of a single fence, but they were doomed to
witness a marvelous change in the country.
The supremacy of the cattlemen was of short
duration. The railroad company, which had been the prime
means of beginning the cattle industry, was also the chief
inducement for people to come in and homestead the
land. Just as soon as it was known that the Indians had
abandoned this region people all over the United States
began to study the maps of Western Kansas.
The spring of 1878 opened with plentiful moisture.
As far as the eye could reach the short-grass plains were
covered with a carpet of green, unmarked by roads and
highways. Not a sign of civilization except the iron rails
of the Santa Fe railroad. Not a tree or a shrub was here
to break the vision, nothing in sight but the great herds of
Texas cattle grazing at will in this vacant "back yard" of
But the eyes of the cowboys who guarded the herds
began anxiously to watch the distant horizon, for they
had heard the rumors of coming settlers. As the days
passed, sure enough, tiny dust clouds appeared far to the
east and grew, and soon they could discern covered
wagons lumbering slowly, but steadily advancing over the
maze of cattle trails. As the hours passed they could hear
the shouts of the drivers above the creaking wagons
urging their sweating horses or ox teams and tired domestic
possibilities. They were not dismayed by the fact that it
was sparingly watered by the few creeks and the
Arkansas river, which was usually dry several months of the
year. Scarcer and scarcer grew the timber as they made
their way west, until all that there was grew on the
islands in the river, beyond the reach of annual prairie
But they did not complain because the land before
them lay bare to all the garish sunshine of the year, with
out the shadow of a tree or the seclusion of primeval
forests. Their eyes roamed in every direction and they
were not dismayed when they saw only the townsites of
ants and prairie dogs rising in dwarf mounds above the
level height of the close-curled buffalo grass. They were
thinking of a time in the future, when the buffalo grass
would be replaced by tame grasses and by fields of golden
grain. They dreamed of cities which would spring up
to replace that debris of animal and insect architecture,
which alone had littered the landscape for centuries.
To the landless it seemed a great boon to have the
opportunity to settle upon government land and acquire
fee simple title to a quarter section of land for a mere
living upon it. Even many who had farms or places of
business in the east decided they could better their
conditions by disposing of their property and settling upon the
cheap, yet fertile land of the west. Briefly, it may be stated
that the heads of families, or persons over 21 years of age,
were entitled under the acts of congress to 480 acres of
land, 160 as a homestead, 160 as pre-emption, and 160
as timber claim. Only 320 acres, however, could be
entered at the same time. Five years' residence was required
on a homestead claim before patent could be issued. The
settler had six months after he filed on land before
establishing a residence and commencing his improvements.
He might also be temporarily absent six months.
Preemption required immediate settlement. After six months,
cattle toward the valleys of the Pawnee or Arkansas
rivers. And they could see written across the canvas tops
in crude letters, "WESTERN KANSAS OR BUST".
The vanguard of grangers had arrived. They were
hardy pioneers, looking for a home, a place to settle and
rear their families. They were not daunted by the great
vacant expanses of rolling prairie and level plains. Even
though it looked like a barren waste, they knew it held
by paying $1.25 per acre, patent could be secured. Within
limits of railroad land, $2.50 per acre was paid.
No settlement was required under the timber culture act. The
claimant was required to break five acres of land during
the first year, five acres during the second year, and
cultivate the first five, and the third year plant five acres to
trees, tree seeds or cuttings. All this could be done by an
agent, and a non-resident could acquire title to land under
the provision of this act. Since there was only one timber
claim in each government township, and it could be
owned by a non-resident, this class of claims were soon all
taken up. But the job of plowing and cultivating the
timber claims supplied some of the settlers with money
so they could stay on their homesteads. In many cases, in
lieu of payment for their labor, they were given title to
the timber claim.
Naturally, the cattlemen were resentful of the
coming of the settlers and homesteaders who kept arriving
singly and in groups during the years of 1878 and `79.
Coming in wagons, or dropping off the trains along the
railroad sidings of the Santa Fe, they were met by the
cowboys, who did their best to discourage them from settling
"Say, let us tell you something," they would begin.
"It never rains out there and you will starve to death.
Dodge City is as far west as civilization will ever go, and
that place is hardly a fit place for a civilized man with a
family." From that time on there was a struggle between
the grangers and the cattlemen as to who would occupy
In 1878 there was a sprinkling of homesteaders
scattered over the prairies, and the next year, 1879, many more
filed on claims. Nature seemed to favor the efforts of those
first settlers, even if the cattlemen didn't. Everything
planted that first year yielded bountifully, and the
country gave out every promise to those desiring to make
permanent settlement. Towns were established and
dugouts and sod houses of homesteaders dotted the plains,
where they lived as snug as "wasps" in their mud houses.
James Craig came to Garden City in March, 1879, and he
tells how they located the claims:
"I found Buffalo Jones and Bill Stapelton on the job
ready to show people over the country, and locate them
on government land, and for some time after my arrival
they did a thriving business. I remember driving around
with Jones and Stapelton locating people. The land office
at that time was located at Larned, and Jones received a
report every day of all land located the previous day. We
would start out in the morning with perhaps six or eight
people who wanted to locate. It was my job when we
started from a known corner to count the revolutions of
the wheel of the vehicle we were riding in. A
handkerchief tied to a wheel and knowing the distance around
the wheel was a quick way to measure between the
corners, and of keeping track of the section, township and
range. We could tell the prospective settler just how far
we were from Garden City."
It has been said of that first year that it was a "will
o' the wist which lured hundreds of homesteaders into
this region, only to have their hopes blasted by drouth
during the next succeeding years." The dry weather set
in the fall of 1878, continued all through the year of 1879,
and with little intermission during 1880-81-82.
In those years, in spite of the fact that the settlers
congregated to pray for rain and for relief from climatic
conditions, it never rained, and the country looked like
a parched desert. The very grass would crunch and fall
to powder beneath the feet of the settlers. At the end of
four years, few of the first enthusiastic people who had
taken claims were left. Even as the "Arabs quietly folded
their tents and moved away", so did the first settlers, but
instead of folding up tents, they unfolded their old canvas
tops and spread them back in place over the
weather-beaten wagon bows. Beneath the old sign
"WESTERN KANSAS OR BUST" they scrawled in bright new letters,
"Busted by God", and the heads of the famishing horses
that were hitched to those "ships of the Great Plains"
were headed back east toward "wife's folks".
It has been said that all who remained did so because
they couldn't get away. But that is not true. Those who
kept on did so because they could, and because they
wanted to. They had a persistence born partly of faith in the
country and partly of a dogged determination to stick to
their possessions to the end. They refused to be beaten by
climate or any other circumstance.
Many had come into the country well dressed, but
after two or three years their clothing was worn out and
they had not the means to buy new. Socks became a
luxury. Blue jeans covered the worn cloth trousers of the
men and they were not particular as to the style of their
coats. Their stiff derby hats were dented and battered but
continued to do service. The women made over the good
clothes they had brought with them for their growing
children, and for themselves made new cotton dresses.
And then as their plight became known boxes and barrels
of clothing began arriving from relatives and benevolent
organizations in the east. These donations were hailed
with delight, although the housewives were often filled
with despair and disappointment when they tried to fit
out their families with "used and discarded clothing."
But it was not so much a question of what to wear,
as what to eat? The Rev. A. C. McKeever, a pioneer of
Finney county, recently said in an address to the old
settlers at Garden City:
"There were times when the flowers did not bloom,
the grass did not get green, and the larder was low. If it
had not been for the jack rabbits and the wild ducks and
geese, a great many of the early settlers would have found
it much harder.
"I remember hearing about a case in the early days
of a man who had come out west to make his fortune.
He had faith, he was ambitious, and he worked hard.
The report went out through Ohio, Indiana and Illinois
that the people were starving to death on the plains, and
the good people of Ohio sent a young man out here to
investigate, and provided a purse whereby the suffering
might be relieved. This young fellow from Ohio came
to the man who had staked his all to make his fortune.
Of course he did not want to turn over the money to
anyone who was not in need, so he was very careful in his
investigation and cautious in his movements. He asked
the settler how he was getting along, and true to the
policy of the early settlers, he was told what a wonderful
country it was, and how delightful to live in such rarefied
air, and told about the beautiful sunsets. Then the
would-be-benefactor asked him where they got their provisions,
and told him that word had gone out that the settlers
were starving and that a carload of provisions had been
sent out for those in need, but he was so glad to learn
there was no need here. The settler was silent for a few
minutes, then he said, "Well, you know, we got along
fine last year and expected to this year, but our dog died,
and you know, it takes a damned good dog to catch rabbits.'"
There was little money in the country among the
settlers, except the pension checks received from the
government by the civil war soldiers. The chief industry
among the homesteaders was picking up buffalo and
cattle bones of which there appeared to be an
inexhaustible supply all over the prairies, and hundreds of loads
were brought in to points along the railroad to be
shipped, for which the settlers received five or six dollars a ton.
Mrs. H. W. Crow recalls how her husband and Sim
Buckles would go far out on the prairie to gather bones.
There were no roads or trails to follow and in order to
find their way back to Garden City, they would tie a log
under the wagon low enough to drag on the ground to
make a mark, so they could follow it home. They would
also haul in "buffalo chips" and rick them up like hay
stacks to keep them dry for winter fuel.
Another source of income which was obtained in a
hard but thrilling way was the catching of wild horses,
which were shipped east. In 1880 two men from
Pennsylvania came out to Garden City to buy up wild horses
to take backeast and sell at retail. They had no difficulty in
buying two car loads of fine horses, but a difficulty arose
when they offered a $1000 bill in payment. It was
impossible to get it changed, and they finally had to go to
Larned where the United States land office was located.
In those days C. J. Jones, the Craig brothers and
others would go out antelope hunting. They would fix
up sleds so they could get over the ground quickly and
it was an easy way to haul in the game. They usually
returned with a few, or perhaps a number, and would
ship them to Topeka or Kansas City, receiving four or
five dollars apiece for them.
N. F. Weeks, who with his brother, J. W. Weeks,
located at Garden City May 3, 1878, has left a written
record of some of those early hunting trips:
"About 1879 white-tailed deer were more or less
plentiful in the sand hills, and Jones and others made
frequent trips into the sand hills. Jones was always
accompanied by his favorite stag hound. On one of these trips
I accompanied him, and reaching a place where the Dan
Larmor ranch was afterwards located, a fine buck was
sighted and the hounds took up the chase. We were
riding in a platform spring wagon, Jones driving and I
holding the gun. As the chase warmed up Jones kept urging
the team to greater speed. It was a mad rush across the
hills, the wagon swayed and bounced and at times it
almost upset. The deer headed for the Island in the river.
Finally we struck some particularly rough and boggy
ground and we both took headers from the wagons.
Jones managed to land on his feet and kept on running.
Just how I struck the ground I have never been able to
tell, for it was like being hit by a cyclone, but I saw Jones
plunging into the water and heard him shouting to bring
the gun. I finally reached the island where the dog was
holding the deer and Jones dispatched it with a bullet.
"Parts of the wagon and pieces of the harness were
scattered for miles down the river and the wagon had to
be sent to Sterling for repairs. That did not bother Jones
in the least, he got what he went after and did not count
the cost. Jones always had a lot of hunting dogs and when
he was unable to supply them with meat they formed the
habit of raiding the butcher shops of Halsey and Butts,
and frequently would carry off a whole quarter of beef,
for which Jones would pay without question. One of his
favorite hounds disappeared once and he went to
Colorado in search of him, thinking he had followed some
emigrant wagon off, but the dog was never found.
"Early in the fall of 1879 Jones suggested a hunt in
the Cimarron river country for buffalo. At that time he
had a large number of wolf and stag hounds, and others
of like character, and recently having secured a
high-grade pup, he wanted to try it out on big game.
So accompanied by my brother, Joe Weeks, and George
Edwards, son of Jesse Edwards, we left Garden City with
two wagons. I rode with Jones and we traveled southwest
toward the Cimarron. Antelope were plentiful in the
sand hills, and we soon sighted a large herd. I shall never
forget that sight. The sun was just coming up and its
first rays fell on the brownish-red and white of the
grazing animals. Immediately the hunting instincts were
aroused, every muscle became taut, every nerve in the
man seemed to quiver with excitement, and his eyes
snapped and glittered as only a man's will when the instincts
of the true hunter are aroused.
"On getting within fair shooting distance he could
have bagged several easily, but he wanted to see his dogs
perform, and suggested that he would cripple an
antelope, and then the dogs and the pup would be turned
loose. This was done, the leashes were unloosed, and with
loud baying the dogs took after the startled and fleeing
antelope. Some time elapsed and the older dogs returned
to the wagons, but much to Mr. Jones' anxiety the pup
failed to show up, so telling the other men to continue
their journey to the Cimarron we started in search of the
pup. All day we kept up the search, but the pup was never
"Our water supply gave out and late in the day we
headed for the Cimarron where we expected to find
water. About nine or ten o'clock that night we came up
to the other members of the party. Their supply of water
was also exhausted and the river was entirely dry. This
was a serious situation. Our horses were already in an
exhausted condition, and it was a two days' drive to the
Arkansas. There was no water on the way, nothing but
the sun-scorched prairie sage brush and withered grass.
Early the next day we started and our progress was necessarily slow.
"We made camp the first night, and fortunately there
occurred that rare phenomena of the plains, a dew fell,
and eating the dew-covered grass our horses were
somewhat refreshed. We were all suffering from thirst, and
we ate nothing but crackers all day, and by eating them
slowly, a saliva would be started in our dry and parched
mouths. Late in the day what a glorious sight unfolded
itself. There ahead of us was the Arkansas river, and the
water glistened in the sunlight. It was a joyous,
life-inspiring scene, and man and beasts quickened their steps.
Reaching the water, all rushed to partake of its blessed
relief. It was warm and unpalatable, but it quenched the
burning thirst. The horses drank with avidity, and when
they had had enough for the time, they could not be
forced from the river, and finally one of Edwards' horses
died. During the torture of those days, Jones was the guiding spirit."