Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
Hays City had started with tremendous rush of success in August 1867. Benefitting from the possession of the Union Pacific Railroad, Eastern Division (UPRR-ED), terminus, Hays City became the commercial center of the west as gold from California and the Colorado Territory, silver and wool from the southwestern territories, and migrants headed west poured through the town. Traffic along the Butterfield Overland Dispatch and the Santa Fe Trails was considerable between August 1867 and June 1868. The profitable trade of Hays City, however, soon slowed to a dismal trickle as quickly as it has blossomed when the UPRR-ED moved its terminus farther west to the new town of Sheridan in June 1868. The population of Hays declined to one-fourth of its peak number (300 by January 1869 as opposed to 1,200 in June 1868). Until the advent of commercial agriculture in Ellis County in the mid 1870s the principal source of revenue for the remaining populace of Hays was For Hays, the sprawling military post located one half mile to the south of town. This dependency of Hays City upon the money spent by the military was not without its drawbacks. Teamsters employed by the Fort Hays Post Quartermaster were a tough lot of frontiersmen who contributed their share of trouble for Hays City law officers. Clashes between soldiers and civilians were also frequent and occasionally lethal. Bloodshed was common in Hays in the early years of its existence. Between August 1867 and December 1873 there were over thirty known homicides in and around the town. Hays City developed (and deserved) the reputation of being one of the most violent of the Kansas frontier settlements. The most violent year in hays city was 1869. In that year duly constituted law enforcement was replaced with vigilante rule. During the vigilante period of July 1868 to December 1869 there were fifteen homicides directly related to trouble arising out of vigilante rule in Hays. At least seven of the victims were killed by the vigilantes. Caught up in the violence of 1869 were two men: James B. “Wild Bill” Hickok and James Curry. Hickok was a frontiersman of long standing with two homicides already to his credit before 1869. As the bogus Sheriff of Ellis County that year, following his appointment by the vigilantes, Hickok was responsible for two deaths. James Curry, however, was the opposite of Hickok. Curry had committed no know homicides before 1869, and his alleged killing of Edward Estes that year is based upon unsubstantiated claims. Evidence also indicated that Estes’ character may have contributed to his demise rather than simply being the act of a murderer if Curry did indeed kill him. In fact, Curry had participated as a scout in the historic Indian fight at Beecher Island in Colorado in September 1868 when newspaper accounts spoke favorably of his courage. He was also employed for over ten years on Kansas and Texas railroads as a train engineer and once held the temporary position of Deputy United States marshal in Texas. Yet in the stories of vigilante rule in Hays City in 1869, Curry is pictured as the devil incarnate while Hickok shines as the savior of decency who established law and order in the violent town. The reason for the difference in the portrayal of Curry and Hickok came about for several reasons. Curry in 1879 killed an actor and wounded another during a drunken frenzy in Marshall, Texas. The wounded man was Maurice Barrymore, and actor of national reputation as was the deceased actor Benjamin Porter. The shooting of the two actors allowed the editor of the Hays City Sentinel to blame three of the homicides of the vigilante period upon Curry. Stories of his alleged ruthless activities in hays City that developed over the years neatly explained away the bloodshed generated by the vigilante takeover by making Curry the convenient scapegoat for blame. Stories concerning Hickok’s activities in hays city in 1969 are directly opposite to Curry’s for identical reasons: they neatly explained Hickok’s role as enforcer for the vigilantes as necessary to the establishment of law and order (while at the same time justifying vigilante rule) and placed the events of July to December 1869 into an acceptable story for public consumption. Reality, however, runs contrary to the generally accepted depiction of the vigilante period. The vigilantes were responsible for the end of duty constituted forms for the legal administration of Hays City and were responsible for the deaths of seven people as they implemented their control over the town. Due to the growth of stories favorable to the vigilante movement as it occurred in 1869, James Curry, a man who deserves recognition for his bravery, became branded as a murderer for crimes actually committed by various vigilantes.
Copyright 1983 James Drees
Drees, James, "The Hays City Vigilante Period, 1868-1869" (1983). Master's Theses. 1877.