Established in 1867, Ellsworth's history began as a cattletown with a reputation for a thriving cattle market. Ellsworth dominated the cattle market from 1871-1875, but along with the prosperity came a rich history of wild cowboys, gamblers, outlaws, and unruly women.
Like other Kansas cowtowns, Ellsworth quickly gained a reputation as a wild and wooly place, becoming the scene of numerous killings following shootouts between drunken cowboys. In its early days, the area was besieged by a gang led by two men named Craig and Johnson. Making frequent robberies and bullying the townspeople, the citizens finally organized a vigilance committee and hanged the two near the Smoky Hill River.
In 1873, Ellsworth geared up for the largest drives of Longhorns to date. Expecting trouble, they hired additional police officers to control the rowdy cowboys. They would be needed when a dispute arose on August 15, 1873, between Texas gambler, Ben Thompson and another player named John Sterling in Nick Lentz’s Saloon. When City Marshal, “Happy Jack” Morco sided with the other player against Texan Ben Thompson, a known gunfighter Ben and his drunken brother Billy moved out into the street and called out to their opponents to meet them.
Instead of Morco, Ellsworth County Sheriff Chauncey Whitney stepped into the street with the Thompsons and soon convinced them to have a drink with him at Joe Brennan’s Saloon. However, before they could get there, Marshal Morco charged down the street, guns drawn. Thompson then wheeled and fired his rifle at Marco, narrowly missing him. Billy, on the other hand, stumbled and discharged his shotgun, mortally wounding Sheriff Whitney.
The rich history is celebrated today with the annual Ellsworth Cowtown Days, including a reenactment of this accidentally shooting of Sheriff Whitney, and a range of activities for family and community. We invite you to join us for Ellsworth Cowtown Days 2022, bigger and better than ever!