Charles Rath, frontier trader, merchant, and buffalo-hide buyer, was born in 1836 near Stuttgart, Württemberg, the second of eight children of Johann (John) Christian and Philomene Bertha Rath. In 1848, when Charles was eleven, he and his family, with the exception of his baby brother Adolph, immigrated from Stuttgart to Philadelphia. Soon afterward John C. Rath settled them on a farm near Sweetwine, Ohio, now a suburb of Cincinnati. About 1853 Charles ran away from home, made his way west, and joined William Bent's trading empire in Colorado, where he worked as an independent freighter hauling supplies and trade goods across Kansas. He wrote glowing letters to his family about the rolling Kansas plains, and late in 1854 his older brother, Chris, joined him. In 1858 the brothers constructed a gristmill on Mill Creek, near present Alma, Kansas, but it was washed away by a flood in June of that year. Undaunted, the Raths continued trading and freighting. They set up a ranch and stage stand on the military road between forts Hays and Riley, near present Ellinwood. In 1860 Charles Rath took over the trading post of George Peacock on Walnut Creek, near the Great Bend of the Arkansas river, after Peacock and five others were massacred by Kiowa warriors led by Satank. Three years later Rath and several partners formally gained title to the place, which they incorporated as the Walnut Creek Bridge Company, a name that referred to a toll bridge they had built across the creek. In addition, Rath operated a sutler's store at nearby Fort Zarah and in November 1860 was elected constable of Peketon County. Eventually, other Rath family members came out to Walnut Creek and put down roots in Kansas.
Almost from the time he first came west, Rath had established trading contacts with the Southern Cheyennes, who became his favorite customers, as well as with the Kiowas and northern Comanche bands. In 1860 he cemented his alliance with the Cheyennes by marrying a woman whose name meant Making-Out-Roads, or Roadmaker, reportedly a younger sister of Bent's two wives, Owl Woman and Yellow Woman. Their daughter and only child, Cheyenne Belle, was born in August 1861. In 1863, however, as tensions between Indians and Whites mounted, she allegedly persuaded Rath, for his own safety, to divorce her in simple Indian fashion. Although Rath tried to maintain peaceful relations with his Indian customers, not even his Walnut Creek post was immune to raids, and once in 1864 he was compelled to transport his goods to Council Grove for safekeeping. On May 17 of that year Indians stole several of his horses and mules. Throughout the late 1860s he and his hired teamsters hauled freight for the military posts along the Santa Fe Trail and hunted game for the railroad crews building into Kansas. He also freighted for the troops and government agencies in western Indian Territory and began investing in Kansas real estate. In 1869 he made a return visit to the home of his youth in Ohio. There he met Caroline Markley, daughter of an old family friend, whom he married on April 26, 1870. They lived briefly in Topeka, then at Osage City, where Rath established a mercantile and continued his freighting business and real estate interests. Charles and Caroline had three children. In the early 1870s Rath brought Andrew Johnson into his employ. Rath was among the first to take advantage of the growing buffalo-hide trade. Even before moving his family and mercantile to the new rail town of Dodge City in September 1872, he had begun hunting, freighting, and marketing the hides for a high profit. Often the hideyard of the Rath Mercantile Company was filled with 70,000 to 80,000 hides at one time. As the buffalo slaughter moved south into the Panhandle of Texas, Rath and a business partner, Robert M. Wright, post sutler at Fort Dodge, made plans to erect a combination store and restaurant at Adobe Walls, near the site of William Bent's old outpost. Late in April 1874 Rath and several employees freighted some $20,000 worth of goods to the new location near the Canadian River, where they arrived on May 1. James Langton, who had one-third interest in the venture, was set up as chief clerk and George Eddy as bookkeeper, while William and Hannah Olds were to manage the kitchen and restaurant. Under Johnson's supervision the Rath and Company crew erected a facility, chiefly out of sod, consisting of a three-room store, corral, and outhouse. On May 20, when the building was about finished, Rath and most of his crew returned to Dodge City, leaving Johnson, Langton, Eddy, and the Oldses to mind the store. He thus missed the Indian attack on June 27, and in late July Langton supervised the removal of some 40,000 hides and other company merchandise back to Dodge City; years later, in October 1892, Rath and his old associates filed a claim against the United States government for their losses suffered in the second battle of Adobe Walls.
In 1875, after the Red River War, Rath and another associate, Frank E. Conrad, opened a branch store and hideyard on a hill overlooking the Flat at Fort Griffin, in Throckmorton County. At about the same time he and Wright established a trading post on Sweetwater Creek at Mobeetie, originally called Hidetown, the new settlement that had sprung up near Fort Elliott. Here they sold supplies to buffalo hunters and bought and shipped hides. Late in the fall of 1876 Rath, in partnership with William McDole Lee and E. E. Reynolds, took a wagon train of merchandise south to the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos in what is now Stonewall County, where they established a trading post and hide agency in sight of the Double Mountains. Called variously Rath City, Camp Reynolds, and Rath's Store, the post, built of poles and buffalo hides, did a booming business for two years, during which Conrad bought out the Lee and Reynolds interests. In 1878 Rath and Conrad built a new store on the Flat at Fort Griffin, across the street from the Beehive Saloon. By 1879, however, the buffalo supply was exhausted. Although Rath and his associates profited briefly from the bones their crews hauled away and sold for fertilizer, he finally abandoned Rath City and moved his equipment to Camp Supply in the Indian Territory.
As the buffalo-hide trade dwindled, Rath sold his interest in the Fort Griffin store to Conrad and later bought out Wright's interests. In Mobeetie he established a partnership with Henry Hamburg, who later became a successful rancher near Canadian. Though he bought several small freighting lines in Kansas and enjoyed profits from trade with area settlers and Indians from the reservations during the early 1880s, Rath's fortune soon decreased as his debts from unsuccessful land speculations mounted. In 1885 he filed for a divorce from his wife, Caroline, claiming charges of neglect, abuse, and fault-finding. Although the settlement granted her large sums of money for herself and the children, Rath never was able to support them fully. Soon after the divorce he married Emma Nesper, sister of his associate Henry Nesper; they had a son. Emma left Rath in 1896, since he had failed to produce another fortune, and returned with the boy to her home in Philadelphia. There the boy, Morris, grew to manhood; he later won notice as a major-league baseball player and sporting-goods merchant. As Mobeetie gradually declined, Rath's expenses exceeded his income. Finally he sold out his remaining holdings in the Panhandle and Kansas and moved to Los Angeles, California, where his sister Louisa and her husband ran a dairy. Rath was plagued with an asthmatic condition during his last years. He died on July 30, 1902, of "mitral insufficiency" and was buried in Rosedale Cemetery, Los Angeles. His half-blood Indian daughter, Cheyenne Belle, who married twice, served her mother's people many years as a teacher and interpreter; she produced the only grandchildren Rath ever saw during his lifetime. His son Robert became successful in the mercantile business in Kansas, and his daughter-in-law, Ida Ellen Rath, founded the Dodge City Writers' Guild in 1929. In 1961 she published a biography of her father-in-law, The Rath Trail. See also BUFFALO HUNTING, BONE BUSINESS.