Gunsmoke was a popular radio program and later, a legendary television series that featured 635 episodes from 1955-1975. The series featured actor James Arness as the first marshal of Dodge City, Kansas.
In reality the first sheriff and city marshal of Dodge City was my great-great grandfather, Charlie Bassett. He was the uncle to my great grandmother, Missouri Bassett, the mother to my maternal grandfather, Bassett Arthur.
Charles Bassett (October 30, 1847 – January 5, 1896) was one of the founders of the Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City, served as the first sheriff of Ford County, Kansas, as well as city marshal of Dodge City. His deputies included Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson.
Charles E. Bassett was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts to Benjamin Bassett and Julia (née Norton) Bassett.
On February 14, 1865, Bassett enlisted in the Union Army at Frankford, Pennsylvania (now a part of Philadelphia). He received a $100 bounty for signing on for one year as a private in Company I of the 213th Pennsylvania Infantry, a volunteer regiment. Bassett was mustered out of his volunteer regiment in Washington, D.C., on November 18, 1865. He served a little more than nine months, not for the year he had signed. This was most likely the result of an Army cutback after Lee’s surrender in April.
Charles E. Bassett spent the period between late 1865 and early 1873 drifting around the West, serving various stints as a miner, bartender, and buffalo hunter. He was most likely in the neighborhood of what would become Dodge City, Kansas, when his father, Benjamin Bassett died in Philadelphia on January 2, 1872.
Bassett opened the original Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City in late 1872 in partnership with Alfred J. Peacock. Eventually, Bassett and Peacock sold the Long Branch. The saloon changed hands several times until Luke Short became one of the owners. Short’s partnership in the Long Branch would cause one of the high points of Bassett’s life in 1883.
Dodge had turned into an unruly city with little law enforcement, a town that the Hays City Sentinel had christened “the Deadwood of Kansas … Her corporate limits are the rendezvous of all the unemployed scally-wagism in seven states. Her principal is polygamy, her code of honor is the morals of thieves, and decency she knows not … ” The Kinsley Graphic newspaper was somewhat less kind, naming Dodge the “ … the Beautiful, Bibulous Babylon of the frontier.” And it was in Dodge City where Charlie Bassett, Wyatt Warp, and the Masterson brothers would earn their early reputations as lawmen settling this unsettled berg.
On June 5, 1873, the citizens of Ford County, Kansas, chose Bassett as their first sheriff. His headquarters were in Dodge City. Bassett was re-elected twice, serving until 1878.
On September 18, 1877, Sam Bass and his gang robbed a Union Pacific train of $60,000 at Big Springs, Nebraska. The bandits were reported in Kansas and Sheriff Bassett went out after them. Bassett’s posse included Bat Masterson and John Joshua Webb. The group was unsuccessful in their pursuit of the train robbers.
By Kansas law, Bassett could not seek a third successive term as sheriff of Ford County. On November 6, 1877, Bat Masterson was elected sheriff of Ford County, replacing Bassett. One of his first acts was to appoint Bassett as his under-sheriff.
In addition to serving as Bat Masterson’s under-sheriff, Bassett was also serving as assistant city marshal under Bat’s brother, City Marshal Edward J. Masterson. He was still serving as sheriff when he got the appointment during December, 1877. The Dodge City Times reported, “Sheriff Bassett has been appointed by Mayor [James H.] Kelley to assist Marshal [Edward J.] Masterson in preserving order and decorum in the city. Mr. Bassett has had thorough training and is a good man for the place.”
On January 27, 1878, Dave Rudabaugh and four others attempted to hold up a train at Kinsley, Kansas. On February 1, a posse led by Sheriff Bat Masterson captured two of the robbers – Dave Rudabaugh and Edgar West. Charlie Basset assisted his two bosses, Sheriff Bat Masterson and Marshal Ed Masterson, in the capture of two more of the train robbers right in Dodge City.
Ford County encompassed some 9,500 square miles, a large portion of southwestern Kansas. It was a lot of territory into which outlaws could quickly vanish. In their pursuit, Bat called upon Wyatt Earp as well as appointing his younger brother James Masterson and friend Bill Tilghman deputy sheriffs. Dodge City also had its own city marshal, Ed Masterson, and a local police force. Dodge was a tough town, and it needed every lawman it had.
As county sheriff, Bat’s rule of thumb was to buffalo an armed man first and then ask questions later, a technique he had learned from Wyatt in which the barrel of a six-shooter is firmly applied to the head of miscreants. It was a controversial practice but Wyatt and Bat always defended its use. And it was clearly posted on the way into Dodge that no guns were to be worn within the city limits. Often ignored by cattlemen, a great part of every law officer’s duty was to enforce the rule. And at times, with a bunch of liquored up cowboys running rampant, it could be a deadly job.
In April 1878, Ed Masterson was shot at point-blank range doing just that, disarming a drunken cowboy who had openly ignored the rules. Ed returned fire and downed two men before he stumbled across the street and collapsed. He died 40 minutes later.
Marshal of Dodge City
The murder of Marshal Ed Masterson by two Texans named Jack Wagner and Alfred Walker on that April 9th prompted (after Ed Masterson’s funeral) the Dodge City Council to appoint Bassett as city marshal at a salary of $100 a month. On May 12, Wyatt Earp was appointed as Bassett’s assistant marshal at a salary of $75 a month. Bat had not been in Dodge City, the night his brother was murdered.
On July 29, 1878 James “Spike” Kenedy (1855-1884), the son of the wealthy cattle baron Mifflin Kenedy (1818-1895) attempted to shoot Mayor James H. Kelley. He was stopped from doing so by Marshal Bassett. Kenedy paid his fine and court costs and left town. Within three weeks, the young Texan was back in Dodge and in trouble again. According to the court docket for August 17, 1878, Kenedy was again brought into court by Marshal Bassett. This time it was on a charge of being disorderly. After paying his fine, Kenedy was told by Marshal Bassett to get out of Dodge and stay out.
The Killing of Dora Hand
At 4:00 in the morning of October 4, 1878, Kenedy was back in Dodge and fired two shots through the front door of a small frame house usually occupied by Mayor Kelley. One of Kenedy’s bullets killed a 34-year-old woman named Dora Hand. The Dodge City Times noted that “the pistol shot was intended for the male occupant of the bed … who had been absent for several days. The bed however was occupied by the female lodger at the time of the shooting.”
A posse left Dodge City at 2:00 on the afternoon of October 4. Its members were Marshal Charles E. Bassett, Assistant Marshal Wyatt Earp, Bill Tilghman, Sheriff Bat Masterson, and Deputy Sheriff William Duffey. At 4:00 on the afternoon of October 5, the posse caught up with Kenedy at a location some 35 miles from Dodge. The possemen turned loose a volley on Kenedy. Three shots slammed into Kenedy’s horse, while another shot, supposedly from a .50 caliber Sharp’s, shattered Kenedy’s left arm. Three weeks after the killing of Dora Hand, Kenedy was released for a supposed lack of incriminating evidence. Spike Kenedy returned to Texas to manage his father’s 390,000-acre LaParra Ranch. He died from typhoid fever during December 1884.
Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas
On November 4, 1879, the Dodge City Council appointed James Masterson as city marshal, to replace Charlie Bassett, who had resigned. According to the local paper: “Ex-Sheriff Chas. E. Bassett, accompanied by Mysterious Dave [Mather] and two other prospectors, started out last week in search of ‘greener fields and pastures new.’ They went in a two-horse wagon, after the style in the days of 49.”
After unsuccessfully panning for gold in Colorado, Bassett and Mather drifted successively to New Mexico and Texas. Both men were in San Antonio during the early part of 1881.
Mather remained in Texas for the next two years, but Bassett had grown homesick for Dodge City. His return to Dodge was noted by a local paper, which reported, “Charles E. Bassett, ex-sheriff of Ford County, and formerly city marshal of Dodge City – one of the old timers – arrived in the city last Tuesday after an absence of a year and a half. Charley looks as natural as life, wears good clothes, and says Texas is suffering from the dry weather.”
Bassett did not remain in Dodge City for long. He moved on to Kansas City, Missouri, where he became manager of Webster and Hughes Marble Hall Saloon.
The Kansas City Journal reported his arrival by noting, “Hon. C.E. Bassett, a well known cattle man of Kansas and Texas, returned to this city yesterday, after a brief stay in Dodge City. He will remain here for some time.”
On April 28, 1883, the celebrated “Dodge City War” broke out. Luke Short had been run out of Dodge and headed straight for Kansas City, where he looked up Charlie Bassett at the Marble Hall Saloon. Bassett quickly proceeded to re-establish Short in Dodge City. Quick to respond were Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, along with several others.
The Dodge City Peace Commission
The bloodless Dodge City War ended with both sides reaching an agreement in early June 1883. To maintain the shaky truce, the Dodge City Peace Commission was formed, including Bassett. Bassett returned to Kansas City, where he opened the Senate Saloon and obtained the nickname “Senator”. The venture was a failure and Bassett went to work as a bartender in an establishment he did not own.
Bassett suffered from inflammatory rheumatism during his final years. He went to Hot Springs, Arkansas, with the hope that the water would benefit his health, but he died there at age 48 on January 5, 1896.
Movies & TV
Charlie Bassett has been portrayed in many Western movies. Some of the most notable include:
Actor Earl Holliman, who owned the Fiesta Dinner Playhouse in San Antonio back in the 1970s, was cast as lawman Charlie Bassett in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, his first time working with stars Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.
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Thanks for the trip down memory lane for this Brit. I was an avid reader of cowboy stories in comics in 1950s and watching James Arness and his limping sidekick Chester on black and white TV.
On their return from Allentown, Conn, my uncle and aunt brought me a big toy stage coach and horses. So my dad helped me to make a frontage of suitably sized buildings for a street in a wild west town like Dodge!
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What a nice memory! Thanks for sharing.
Now that’s some wild west history. How cool is all that? All of us kids dreamed and wished we could have been cowboys or lawmen back in those tumultuous days. The bad news is, we would have probably been killed. Fort Worth was as bad a place as anywhere in the 1870s. Hells Half Acre was barely survivable. I am told by my Grandmother, Mother, and Aunts that I am related to Belle Starr and Chief Quanah Parker, as well as a famous marshal from Fort Smith, Arkansas. The family historians could never say how I am related, just that we were, and it was nothing to be proud of. Chief Parker is on my Grandmother’s side out of Oklahoma. My grandfather, as a child, lived in Dodge City for a while, even in the late 1800s, it was a rough place.
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Interesting. Ft Smith has the Hanging Judge.
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I remember that. I have the marshall brief history somewhere in a file. I used to know his name, now, I’m lucky if I remember what I had for lunch. Lonesome Dove portrayed that well. You should write more about your old west heritage.
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Thanks. That is what I enjoy writing about but political writing pays my bills. Lol.
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