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Jeffery Robenalt

"A Glimpse of Texas Past"

The Era of the
Texas Cattle Drives

by Jeffery Robenalt
Jeffery Robenalt
No other image brings Texas to the minds of Americans as effectively as the cattle drive. For well over a century, award-winning western authors like Elmer Kelton and Ralph Compton, and actors such as the legendary John Wayne in the western classic Red River and Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall in the revered television mini-series Lonesome Dove, have romanticized the life of the Texas cowboy and his heroic efforts on the long trail drive.

Cattle have been an integral part of the Texas landscape since the mid-18th century, when the first Spanish explorers drove herds of longhorns across the Rio Grande to serve as a food supply for their early Catholic missions. With horn spreads of six feet or more, the lean and rangy longhorn cattle thrived in the wiry brush and thorny chaparral that grew thick along Texas river bottoms. However, during the days of the Republic and early statehood, raising cattle was considered a small scale industry in Texas. In fact, most cattle were slaughtered for their hides and tallow, since methods had not yet been developed to preserve the meat.
Texas Longhorn
Photo courtesy Ken Rudine
Early Texas cattle drives headed mainly east to New Orleans following the old Opelousas Trail or, after 1850, west to California, where cattle worth no more than five dollars a head in Texas would fetch nearly twenty times as much in the Sierra Madre gold fields. Most California drives began in San Antonio or Fredericksburg and took five or six months to reach the Pacific coast. The drives usually followed a southern route through El Paso to San Diego or Los Angeles and then on north to San Francisco. Unfortunately, by 1857 the cattle market in California had reached a glut. After that, only a trickle of Texas cattle reached the West Coast.

Cattle ranching came to a virtual halt during the Civil War years, as the western frontier of Texas steadily retreated under the constant pressure of Comanche attack, but the number of cattle continued to multiply. With the war’s end, the Lone Star State possessed as many as six million wild unbranded mavericks that were worth as little as two dollars each locally. However, the cheap cattle would prove to be a boost to the Texas economy since, in the North, which had been largely denuded of its livestock by the demands of the war, the same cattle commanded a price of forty dollars or more a head. In the spring of 1866, Texans drove more than 260,000 cattle to test various markets, including eastward to Louisiana where the animals were shipped by boat to St. Louis and Cairo, Illinois. During the same year, veteran cattleman Oliver Loving and his young partner Charles Goodnight inaugurated the famed Goodnight-Loving Trail, when they drove a heard west through Comanche and Apache territory to New Mexico. They sold the cattle for a good profit at both Fort Sumner in New Mexico and at the gold mines near Denver, Colorado.

Although the above markets proved to be profitable, the vast majority of Texans who drove cattle north during 1866 followed the more familiar Shawnee Trail through Indian Territory to either Kansas City or Sedalia, Missouri. Either of these destinations provided railroad facilities for transshipment of the cattle eastward to the meatpackers in Chicago. Most drives along the Shawnee Trail were feast or famine, with some drovers finding profitable markets where cattle sold for as much as sixty dollars a head, while others encountered armed and hostile farmers, especially in Missouri where outbreaks of Texas fever caused widespread panic. Other states, including Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Illinois and Kentucky, either banned or strictly limited the trailing of Texas cattle across their borders.

In light of the controversial quarantines by the above states, many Texas cattlemen resolved to quit trailing cattle north, and postwar cattle driving may well have come to an end had not Illinois cattle buyer Joseph G. McCoy established a new marketplace well away from any settled area. After carefully selecting Abilene, Kansas because it stood near the center of the mostly uninhabited Great Plains, McCoy convinced Kansas Pacific Railroad officials to construct the necessary cattle pens and loading sidings in the small town. He also persuaded Kansas officials not to enforce the state’s quarantine laws in Abilene and successfully lobbied the Illinois legislature to permit the entry of Texas cattle that had been quarantined in Kansas for the winter. In an effort to publicize his new railhead, McCoy posted handbills all across Texas, and the cow town of Abilene remained the principal destination for Texas cattle until 1873, when the Kansas quarantine was reestablished.

The principal cattle trail from Texas to Abilene was the Chisholm Trail, named for Indian trader Jesse Chisholm, who in 1865 blazed a cattle trail between the North Canadian and Arkansas rivers. The trail was eventually expanded further to the north and south by other drovers. Far from one fixed route, segments of the Chisholm Trail often originated wherever a drive began and ended up wherever a market was found for the cattle. Roughly, the main branch of the Chisholm Trail ran from the Rio Grande near Brownsville, crossed the Colorado River near Austin, ran through Kimball’s Bend on the Brazos, crossed the Red River into Indian Territory and continued north to Abilene. More than a million cattle were driven over the Chisholm Trail from Texas to Abilene in the years between the Civil War and 1873.

Most cattle drives began after a spring roundup when plenty of fresh grass was available and ample time existed to move the herd north before winter set in. Since trail herds usually included cattle from several different owners, seeing that all the animals were properly branded was a vital part of the roundup. Early Spanish settlers first brought the practice of cattle branding to Texas, and before the widespread use of fencing, branding and earmarks remained the only reliable method for cowmen to identify their own cattle. Burning a brand into the hides of the animals and cutting a distinctively shaped piece out of each cow’s ear ensured that the marks would last for the lifetime of the animal. After the cattle were branded and marked, each of the owners provided the trail boss with documentation noting the owners’ brand, particular earmark, and the number of cattle. All of the cattle that made up the trail heard would then usually be branded with the same road brand.

A typical trail drive consisted of around 3,000 head of cattle and employed eleven or twelve people. Two-thirds of these individuals were usually white cowboys twelve to eighteen years old who were available for seasonal work as waddies, as trail hands were then often called. Wages for waddies usually ran from $25 up to $40 dollars a month depending upon the experience of the individual. Two of the more experienced young waddies rode at the point, two rode on the flank and two or more rode drag, that dust-eating position often reserved for greenhorns or as a means of punishment. Trail bosses or ramrods were almost always white and a little older than the waddies, often in their mid-twenties. They were usually paid $100 or more a month and often shared in the profits. The remainder of the crew was usually made up of mature minorities ? blacks, Hispanics, and Indians ? who served as wranglers or as the trail cook. Fifty dollars a month was considered the standard for good wranglers who managed a remuda of 8 to 10 spare horses per man.

Other than the trail boss, the most important member of the crew was the cook who earned $60 to $75 a month and was responsible for treating minor injuries and illnesses in addition to preparing the food. A good cook usually meant a contented trail drive. During later drives, the cooks worked out of a chuckwagon invented by the legendary Charles Goodnight. The chuckwagon, usually drawn by teams of mules or oxen, carried food, utensils, water barrels, tools, and the trail hands bedrolls. The canvas-topped wagon had a fold-out counter at the rear supported by hinged legs that was used for food preparation and several shelves and large drawers, with a “boot” or storage compartment underneath. The cook typically served beef or bison steaks, SOB stew made from calf parts, bacon known as “chuckwagon chicken,” beans known as “Pecos strawberries”, biscuits known as sourdough bullets, and thick rich coffee.

Historical recreation of a chuckwagon
at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Expo in Austin

Wikimedia Commons

The chuckwagon and any equipment wagons, closely followed by the wranglers and the remuda, led the way each day of the trail drive to the next suitable campsite. Further behind, the cattle, rather than trail in a closely packed herd, tended to string out in long lines that followed several natural leaders. The herd sometimes stretched for several miles and communication between the cowhands was usually accomplished by hand signals or gestures with waving hats. Most days were uneventful; a plodding, leisurely pace of ten to fifteen miles that allowed the cattle to graze their way to market in about six weeks. Occasionally, the brutal monotony of the trail drive was shattered by violent weather, treacherous river crossings, attacks by outlaws or hostile Indians, and much dreaded stampedes. Contrary to the gun-toting image of cowboys, few trail bosses permitted the young waddies to carry pistols, which were prone to accidentally discharge and cause stampedes.

Stampedes, the dread of all trail drives, had many other causes. Lightning was the major cause, but a herd could be spooked by any number of sights, smells and loud noises, such as the rattle of pots and pans falling from the back of a chuckwagon. At the first terrified lurch of the cattle, the waddies would be up and in the saddle, riding hard for the front of the stampede. The object was to turn the lead cattle to the right, forcing the herd to move in on itself in a big clockwise circle. The cattle would then be forced into tighter and tighter circles until they eventually tired and began to walk and mill around. The danger was in the mad gallop to reach the front of the herd through a dark, storm-filled night, when the first stumble of your horse could bring instant death from the thousands of hoofs that followed. Most times the herd could not be turned in spite of the heroic efforts of the young waddies, and the cattle would run until they were exhausted and found a stream or river to spread out along. The hands would then spend a day or two bringing the herd together again and counting their losses before moving on.

The situation began to change in 1873. By then, much of the Chisholm Trail traversed settled farm land, and the farmers strongly objected to cattle being driven over their ripening fields. Various tribes in Indian Territory also increasingly demanded grazing fees from the drovers for the privilege of trailing their cattle across reservation land, and Texas herds capable of carrying Texas fever were quarantined from Abilene, Ellsworth and Wichita, forcing drovers to trail their cattle further to the west. In 1874, contract drover John Lytle opened the Western Trail to Dodge City, but instead of immediately following the newly blazed trail, most of Lytle’s contemporaries waited until the conclusion of the Red River War in 1876, when the Comanche and the Kiowa had been disarmed and forced onto reservations. From then until 1885, when Kansas and other northern states totally quarantined Texas herds, and the use of barbed wire became widespread, the Western Trail to Dodge was the principal route over which nearly 6 million cattle were eventually trailed to market.

Though the era of the great cattle drives spanned only twenty years, from the end of the Civil War until the coming of the railroads to Texas eliminated the need to trail cattle, the era left an indelible impression on the American psyche that has continued over the generations. The young sun-browned cowboys, the swirling choke of trail dust kicked up by a bawling herd of longhorns on the move, the creak of well-worn saddle leather, the musical jingle of harness, the mournful lowing of the cattle soothed by a gentle ballad, and the jagged flash of lightning followed by the thunderous roar of a runaway stampede; all of these are the legacy of trail drive images that still remain with us today.

© Jeffery Robenalt, January 2, 2014 Column

More "A Glimpse of Texas Past"

Sources for "The Era of the Texas Cattle Drives"

  • Beckstead, James H., Cowboying: A Tough Job in a Hard Land, (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1991).
  • Dale, Edward Everett, The Range Cattle Industry, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1930).
  • Haley, J. Evetts, Charles Goodnight, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1936; new ed.; Norman” University of Oklahoma Press, 1949).
  • Hunter, J. Marvin, Trial Drives of Texas (2 vols., San Antonio: Jackson Printing, 1920, 1923; 4th ed., Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985).
  • Skaggs, Jimmy M., The Cattle Trailing Industry: Between Supply and Demand, 1866-1890, (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1973).
  • Skaggs, Jimmy M., CATTLE TRAILING,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://tshonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ayc01, accessed November 10, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
  • Smith, Julia Cauble, “LOVING, OLIVER,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://tshonline.org/handbook/online/articles/flo38, accessed November 10, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

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