By Brad Courtney

“Prescott has five churches and two school buildings, 18 saloons, two breweries, a City Marshal, is the Capital of the Territory, county seat of Yavapai, and is soon to be lighted with gas,” read the Miner on March 10, 1882. The “City Marshal” listed here as one of Prescott’s sources of pride was James Dodson.

It’s fascinating how some Wild West characters became legends— Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and a host of others—while others, perhaps worthier, did not. Dime story novelists and hagiographers were often the means to this end, but they were conspicuously absent in Old West Prescott during the 1870s and ‘80s, even though Prescott’s place in Western history is vital.

James Dodson’s life, a substantial portion of which was lived in Prescott, is the stuff of legends, yet he’s never listed as one of the great men of the West. Yet, he was the right man at the right time for early Prescott and Whiskey Row, and was revered as such while living and working in Prescott.

James Dodson served as deputy sheriff, city marshal or chief of police, and even tax collector between the years 1877 and 1890. Those years coincided with an era of relative law and order, as well as growth and prosperity for Prescott.

The Miner said of him: “Politically he differs with the MINER, but in sense of duty is in perfect accordance. Through his firmness Prescott is saved many riotous scenes. James is genial and kind in his everyday intercourse with his fellow man, but when it comes to duty he knows no one, and in this particular he is a perfect brick.”

Another report stressed that he made “bad characters understand there is a God in Israel.”

Much of the hope for the future of young Prescott was entrusted to Dodson. For thirteen years, Prescottonians and Whiskey Row regulars stood behind him like school children being shielded from playground bullies.

Because of Dodson—who “seldom permitted a row to ripen”—Prescott never became as continually lawless as some other frontier towns such as Deadwood or Dodge City. But make no mistake, Prescott hosted just as many if not more dubious characters. Young Prescott was a whiskey and gambling town. That combination eventually attracted shady personalities and germinated trouble.

Dodson’s life before Prescott was extraordinary in itself. For starters, Dodson family history validates that he was the great-grandson of folk hero Daniel Boone.

Dodson grew up in Clay County, Missouri, and was the childhood friend of future outlaw icons Frank and Jesse James. Dodson told a close friend that the sawed-off .45 Colt revolver he carried while fulfilling his duties in Prescott was a present from the James boys’ sister, Susan, given to her by Jesse to tote in her dress pocket for protection. On his belt was a silver-sheathed, pearl-handled Bowie knife. Dodson used both articles on more than one occasion along Whiskey Row to enforce law.

During the Civil War, he joined the infamous, pro-Confederate Quantrill’s Raiders, riding and bushwhacking with them along the Missouri-Kansas border. By the time Dodson accepted positions of law enforcement in Prescott, however, if he’d ever known racial prejudice in his life, as he surely did, he certainly overcame it when he served in Prescott. He protected those of different ethnicity as vigorously as those of his own race.

The Old West of the 1870s and ‘80s was a time when chiefs of police, sheriffs and marshals didn’t delegate deputies to quell situations threatening the peace while remaining out of harm’s way. They went to the scene themselves, and often alone. Dodson almost always chose the latter course of action.

By 1881, Dodson was the hero of Prescott and the source of stories of gallantry and triumph that people loved to hear. In late November of that year Dodson was seen walking Prescott’s streets with a bandaged hand. Upon seeing this, a zealous young Miner reporter ran up to him asking how he’d come to be so injured. The fledgling reporter was chagrined to learn that Dodson’s injury came by a clumsy accident: “such is the fate of a poor orphan struggling to make his mark in the journalistic world.”

Brad Courtney is a Prescott historian and the author of “Prescott’s Original Row.” This article is a preview of a presentation he will make at the Fourteenth Annual Western History Symposium that will be held at the Prescott Centennial Center on August 5th. The Symposium is co-sponsored by the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral and is open to the public free of charge. For more details, call the Museum at 445-3122 or visit the sponsors’ websites at www.sharlot.org and www.prescottcorral.org.

 

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com for information.