The city of Hays was founded in 1867 as the southern branch of the Union Pacific Railroad worked its way west. Hays City was named after Fort Hays (founded in 1865 as Ft. Fletcher, renamed in 1866), which was in turn named for Alexander Hays, a Union General killed during the Civil War.
William F. Cody, who had been hunting buffalo for the Kansas Pacific Railroad, and a partner named William Rose established the town site of Rome in June, 1867. The town grew quickly and by the end of July, the fledgling settlement boasted over 2,000 citizens. Cody and Rose however would make a fatal mistake when they refused to take on a man named Dr. William Webb as a partner in their town site venture. Unknown to them, Webb had the authority to establish town sites for the railroad, and when Cody and Rose refused him, he established the Big Creek Land Company, which platted the town of Hays City, on the other side of Big Creek about a mile east of Rome. Hays City was named after Fort Hays (founded in 1865 as Ft. Fletcher, renamed in 1866), which was in turn named for Alexander Hays, a Union General killed during the Civil War.
A rivalry at once sprang up between the two places, but the railroad company threw its support to Hays City and Buffalo Bill Cody and William Rose were soon giving free lots away to anyone willing to build or erect a tent in the town. Despite their promotional efforts, many of the citizens and businesses of Rome soon moved to nearby Hays City to be closer to the railroad. A year later, there was nothing left of Rome. Hays City, in the meantime, was prospering as hundreds of people flocked to the new town, especially after the railroad arrived. Hays was a rough and tough town in its early years, at one-time sporting 37 liquor establishments. Many notable people lived here, including the Custer’s and the 7th Cavalry, Wild Bill Hickok, and William F. Cody, who acquired his nickname of Buffalo Bill by furnishing buffalo to feed the railroad workers in Hays.
From 1865 to 1889, Fort Hays served as an important army post. Troops were posted at Fort Hays to protect military roads and defending construction crews on the Union Pacific Railway. Fort Hays also supplied many other army posts in western Kansas. At different times, Fort Hays housed the 7th U.S. Calvary and the Buffalo soldiers of the 9th and 10th Calvary regiments. The fort was closed in 1889 and now serves as a historical site with four buildings remaining.
“Wild Bill” Hickok
A legend during his life and considered one of the American west’s premier gunfighters, James Butler (“Wild Bill”) Hickok was born May 27, 1837, in Troy Grove, Illinois. Hickok moved west in 1855 to farm and joined General James Lane’s Free State (antislavery) forces in Kansas. Wild Bill Hickok’s iconic status is rooted in a shootout in July 1861 in what came to be known as the McCanles Massacre in Rock Creek, Nebraska. The incident began when David McCanles, his brother William and several farmhands came to the station demanding payment for a property that had been bought from him. Hickok, just a stable-hand at the time, killed the three men, despite being severely injured.
During the Civil War, Wild Bill Hickok served in the Union Army as a civilian scout and later a provost marshal. Though no solid record exists, he is believed to have served as a Union spy in the Confederate Army before his discharge in 1865. In July, 1865, in Springfield, Missouri’s town square, Hickok killed Davis Tutt, an old friend who — after personal grudges escalated — became an enemy. The two men faced each other sideways for a duel. Tutt reached for his pistol but Hickok was the first to draw his weapon, and shot Tutt instantly, from approximately 75 yards.
Wild Bill Hickok’s legend only grew further when other stories about his fighting prowess surfaced. One story claimed he killed a bear with his bare hands and a bowie knife. The Harper’s piece also told the story of how Hickok had pointed to a letter “O” that was “no bigger than a man’s heart.” Standing some 50 yards away from his subject, Hickok “without sighting his pistol and with his eye” rang off six shots, each of them hitting the direct center of the letter.
In 1869, Hickok was appointed sheriff of Hays City, Kansas. Wild Bill’s less-than-restrained law enforcement methods were deemed necessary. The citizens of Hays City, were tired of the riots and destructiveness of the buffalo hunters and soldiers who took over their town every night. They hoped that “Wild Bill” could restore peace.
When Hickok applied more aggressive methods of enforcing the peace, some Hays City citizens wondered if their new idea wasn’t worse. Shortly after becoming sheriff, Hickok shot a belligerent soldier who resisted arrest, and the man died the next day. They hoped that “Wild Bill” could restore peace. Sheriff “Wild Bill” Hickok responded to a report that a local ruffian named Samuel Strawhun and his drunken buddies were tearing up John Bitter’s Beer Saloon in Hays City, Kansas. When Hickok arrived and ordered the men to stop, Strawhun turned to attack him, and Hickok shot him in the head.
While his brutal ways were effective, many Hays City citizens were less than impressed that after only five weeks in office he had already found it necessary to kill two men. During the November election later that year, Hickok lost the election to another deputy. Hickok had served as sheriff of Hays City, Kansas for just three short months.
In an 1871 account that changed his life, Hickok was reportedly involved in a shootout with saloon owner Phil Coe. In the melee, Hickok caught a glimpse of someone moving towards him and responded with two shots killing his deputy Mike Williams. The event haunted Hickok for the rest of his life. After an inquest where other incidents of Hickok’s brand of “frontier justice” were revealed, he was relieved of his duties.
Hickok never fought in another gun battle.