Historically Speaking: The life of Isom Prentice 'Print' Olive

Kathie Bell
Special to the Globe
The grave marker for the Olive family in Dodge City.

One didn't cross this man if they knew what was good for them. He was a Texan, but he ended up in Dodge City, sort of. His journey from Texas to Dodge City is an interesting one filled with violence yet respectability.

Isom Prentice "Print" Olive was born in 1840 in Mississippi. His family moved to Williamson County, Texas, when he was 3. When he was 21, he joined the Texas Volunteers for the Confederacy, was wounded in the Battle of Shiloh and captured by the North in Vicksburg. After the war, Print and his brothers rounded up longhorns, which they drove north.

Print married Louisa Reno on Feb. 4, 1866. They had four surviving children. The ranching business was lucrative, so he was a good father and provider. Unfortunately, the Olive brothers ranch was a bit too lucrative. Having some of the largest herds in Texas made them a target for rustlers.

The Olives dealt with rustlers harshly. Between 1867 and 1877, the Olives and their employees were involved in numerous injuries and killings. During this time, Print was charged for several crimes but was never found guilty. In 1877, the Olives and most of their crew moved to Nebraska, hoping to flee the violence in Texas.

It was out of the frying pan and into the fire. Again, Print got rich, but was again troubled by rustlers, and violence followed. In 1878, Print's brother Bob, as a deputy sheriff of Buffalo County, attempted to arrest two rustlers, Ami Ketchum and Luther Mitchell. A gunfight ensued; Bob was killed and the two escaped.

A sheriff from a nearby county caught the pair and turned them over to Print after receiving a $700 award. Print and accomplices immediately hung Ketchum and Mitchell and someone burned the bodies. Print was blamed for the burning and was forever called the "Man Burner." Print, along with Fred Fisher, were convicted and received life sentences. After 20 months in prison, Olive got a new trial in his home district and was acquitted.

Broke and reeling from one-third of his cattle being lost over the winter, Print left his surviving brothers when he moved to Kansas in 1882. He ranched north of Dodge City at Sawlog Creek and at the Smoky Hill River south of Wakeeney. Print gained respectability investing in cattle and a meat market, and rose to a directorship in the Western Kansas Stockman's Association. Print and Louisa put down roots in western Kansas and selected a burial plot for their family in Dodge City.

The winter of 1885-86 was bad for Kansas cattle. Print lost 40 percent of his cattle to winterkill. Aggravating the situation, his partner in the meat market absconded with all its assets, leaving Print a $10,000 debt. Furthermore, a quarantine moved the longhorn cattle drives out of Kansas to eastern Colorado. In response, Print moved to Trail City, Colorado, set up stables and became half-owner of the Longhorn Saloon on the new cattle trail.

Drives through Colorado were not very profitable, and Print was distraught about his eldest son, Billy, being wanted for killing a man in Wakeeney in April 1886. In August 1886, Print decided to return to western Kansas. He closed the livery business in Trail City and attempted to collect all its accounts.

On Aug. 16, 1886, fellow Texan and "dance hall" owner, Joe Sparrow, unable to pay a $3.50 debt to Print, gunned him down in his Longhorn saloon. It is rumored that Olive was about to inform Sparrow his debt was forgiven. Sparrow was eventually found not guilty.

Ultimately, Print Olive found the end of his trail at Dodge City. They buried him in his pre-purchased plot, at Prairie Grove Cemetery, Dodge City, which closed soon after his death. He is now interred at Maple Grove Cemetery along with his wife, Louisa, and their four children, including eldest son, Billy, who was murdered in 1887.