Olé, Olé,Olé: Dodge City Hosts America’s First (and Only?) Professional Bullfight

Family History
15 May 2014
Four of Dodge City's matadors (Image: Kansas Historical Society)
Four of Dodge City’s matadors (Image: Kansas Historical Society)

Dodge City, Kansas was “Queen of the Cow Towns” after the Civil War. Thousands of cattle from Texas passed through this boomtown that boasted more famous gunfighters than any other town in the West — along with the requisite saloons, brothels, and gambling halls.

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But by 1883, Dodge City was starting to transition from rough-and-tumble cow town into a more civilized, agricultural city. According to the Kansas Historical Quarterly, saloon keeper and former mayor A. B. Webster was one of many Dodge residents who wanted to hang onto Dodge’s glamorous and violent Old West reputation. So he organized what would be the nation’s first — and last — true bullfight on July 4 and 5, 1884.

Though the traditional Spanish and Mexican style of bullfighting exhibited in Dodge City is illegal in the United States, today California does allow a form of bullfighting that does not involve piercing the bulls — but only for religious festivals. Inspired by “bloodless” Portuguese bullfighting, this California hybrid involves sheathing the bull’s horns, attaching Velcro to its body, and then shooting it with Velcro darts rather than piercing its skin.

But what Dodge organized was a true, bloody bullfight. Webster raised $10,000 — about $255,000 in today’s dollars — to build an arena, procure bulls, and hire “genuine Spanish bullfighters.” Scottish lawyer W. K. Moore found the matadors in Mexico and became their manager and press agent. The toughest of those jobs was press agent, since many didn’t want bullfighting in their town, calling it cruel and barbaric. There’s even an unverified rumor that the U.S. attorney’s office sent a telegram saying bullfighting was against the law, to which the mayor supposedly replied, “Hell! Dodge City ain’t in the United States!”

After a series of arguments about the bullfight with the governor, the town began to take pride in taking the national spotlight as a wild cowboy outpost. Doc Barton, the first man to drive cattle from Texas to Dodge, procured 12 of the most ferocious bulls he could find for the event. The newspaper published a list of the bull’s names and pedigrees, and people began to place bets. Though the cattlemen admired a bullfighter’s nerve, their loyalties seemed to lie with the bulls as they did battle for the honor of cattle country.

Once the five matadors arrived the Sunday before the fight, all signs of protest stopped. One of the bullfighters carried a 3-foot-long, double-edge sword. One was descended directly from Spain’s most renowned matador. One was an artist. Two were musicians. None of them would touch a drop of liquor, which impressed the townsfolk as both serious and professional.

"Bull Fighting in Kansas." New York Times, 6 July 1884 (Image: Newspapers.com)
“Bull Fighting in Kansas.” New York Times, 6 July 1884 (Image: Newspapers.com)

By the morning of July 4, Dodge’s dance halls, saloons, and gambling places were filled. Locals were packed elbow to elbow with hundreds of visitors from the East and correspondents from metropolitan newspapers. A grand parade of local dignitaries, musicians, and fight promoters led the brightly clad matadors to the arena, which filled with a crowd of 4,000.

The first bull charged madly at the bullfighters, allowing each to display his skill. The matadors plunged decorated darts and lances into the bull’s skin, but remained unharmed themselves. The crowd went wild. However, when the second, third, and fourth bulls didn’t engage with the bullfighters (one actually ran away to hide), the crowd began to call for the first rambunctious bull to be brought back into the ring.

Organizers had promised that the last bull of the day would be “put to the sword” by the most famous of the bullfighters. The crowd insisted that only the spirited first bull was a “worthy” opponent, and he was loosed back into the arena for a final showdown.

The cape-swinging bullfighter escaped the beast again and again, but then the bull had him, driving him hard against a wall, leaving the man bruised with several broken ribs. But it wasn’t enough. The matador ended the contest with a thunderous strike that downed the bull in one stab from his sword.

The next day brought another round of bullfights. But despite the same pomp and pageantry, everyone in the town agreed that nothing compared to the excitement of the first day’s bouts. The other bulls were killed later, as part of the ceremonies.

Reaction from the press, which influenced outsiders’ opinions of Dodge, was mixed. Some papers reveled in the action. Others said there wasn’t enough excitement. Still others decried the barbarism of the sport. But Dodge secured its reputation as a wild and brutal cowboy outpost … if only for a little while. By 1886, the saloon keepers, brothel owners, gunfighters, gamblers, and cowboys had moved further west, and Dodge City became another sleepy, little Kansas town.

But not before adding one more violent chapter to its legendary history.

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