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Hamilton Butler Bell

H.B. (Ham) Bell, Deputy U.S. Marshal, Pioneer Sheriff, Mayor of Dodge City and Grand Old Man of the Southwest

by George Laughead, Dodge City, KS

[Photo: Ham
Bell, Ford County Sheriff, Dodge City Mayor, longest living Old West U.S.
Marshal, 1939.]

Hamilton Butler Bell, longest living Old West Sheriff and Marshal, on Boot Hill, Dodge City, KS, 1939. The bell is from the Union Church, the first church building in Dodge City. All rights reserved. FCHS.

There is only one person I know about that both remembered the end of the Civil War and the end of WWII -- and was a Dodge City pioneer and US Marshal in between. That is Hamilton B. Bell, always known as Ham, who in his own words was the "longest living Old West Sheriff and Marshal."

Ham Bell was 12-years old at the end of the Civil War and talked about the victory parades. He had his name on a WWII Army Air Corps plane, giving a short speech as he placed his hand print on the plane in 1943.

He never shot a man--and in his journal wrote about saving some cowboys from the "Earp gang"--and he outlived all of his Western associates. Born in 1853, Bell arrived in Dodge City in 1874, and he lived in Ford County until his death in 1947. Ham was Mayor of Dodge City when my grandfather, George E. Laughead, decades younger, was on the Dodge City Commission in 1911.

Ham arrived in Great Bend, KS first from Maryland and by 19 was working as a deputy there. Ham Bell hunted buffalo awhile, then got a position with a Santa Fe agent whose office was a box-car, worked there until his appointment as assistant marshal under Great Bend Marshal James Gainsford. Once, when someone said he would not shoot, that he was bluffing, Ham gained some fame of a sort by saying, as he looked the ruffian straight in the eye, "A kid will shoot quicker than a man."

One point about his gunplay or lack of it -- a 1931 interview with Bell says the idea that he never drew a gun on a man when he was sheriff here in the early days is all wrong. He never shot a man, Ham said, and that was mainly because he was always careful to draw his gun in plenty of time before the other man drew his. "If I'd never drawn a gun," he said, "I wouldn't have lived a week."

When Ham moved to Dodge City in 1874, he hauled railroad ties for the Santa Fe Railroad, got married and raised a son. He spent five years as a business owner -- south of Front Street during the roughest period of Dodge City's history -- where he introduced Dodge City to the Can-Can dance on the 4th of July, 1878.

Bell was appointed a Deputy U.S. Marshal in 1880, and served 12 years. The fictional character of Matt Dillon in "Gunsmoke" seems drawn more from the life of Ham Bell than it does Wyatt Earp. Of his 94 years, 36 were spent as a peace officer. His terms as Ford County sheriff began in 1888 and ended in 1910.

His record as a businessman reveals an innovator. Ham built a saloon, built a livery stable -- the largest one ever in Dodge City, and with the first women's restroom on the Santa Fe Trail -- and operated a furniture store and mortuary business. Bell owned the first car dealership in SW Kansas, selling REOs, Hudsons, and Chalmers automobiles. He operated an ambulance service and introduced the first motorized ambulance and hearse to Dodge City. In his last years, Ham operated a pet shop. C. Robert Haywood, the late 'Dean of Kansas' history, remembered the pet shop and told me it was the smell of the birds, the monkey, and Ham's soft voice that he recalled.

Ham served two terms as a Ford County commissioner and two terms as Dodge City mayor. Ida Ellen Rath noted one nice detail: "the best thing we remember him for was that he always laid a floral tribute on the casket of anyone who passed away in Dodge City."

Ida also wrote that "Hamilton B. Bell had the bluest of blue eyes and brown hair, was spare of build but broad shouldered. He had a decided Roman nose and a very determined chin."

One other detail -- in addition to asking Ham about the "Earp gang" -- I want to ask him what name he had at birth. Notes written by Rath in the 1930s seem to hint that Hamilton Butler Bell was born as Hannibal Boettler Beltz. Like many pioneers of the Old West, Ham Bell may have reinvented himself as he travelled at age 18 from Maryland to Kansas.

Copyright 2009, George Laughead
Also see: "Ham Bell's Birthday Picnics or Early Day Men, from Rath's Early Ford County
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Site previously maintained at the University of Kansas. Posted: 05 February 2009.