The Civil War has just ended. The North is experiencing a boom of industrialization and growth, and an expansive market has opened up for beef. Meanwhile, down in Texas, there are between 3 and 5 million wild cattle roaming the hills—not the docile cattle found in other parts of the country. These were Longhorns, mainly known for the four to seven foot spread of their horns and their less than calm temperament.
Longhorn numbers had been good before the war. But, as untended herds had multiplied and the Union blockade had cut off any market outlets, there were so many cattle that Texas ranchers were looking at herds that were bringing no more than $4 to $5 a head. However, if they could get the cattle to the markets in the north, they knew they could get easily ten times that amount. Longhorns would also be well suited to the trail; their long legs and hard hooves would help them weather the distance much better than other breeds.
And so began the era of the cattle drives of the west, an event that is almost iconic in nature.
Cattle drives were in existence before 1866. A man named Edward Piper is credited with the first cattle drive of any size when he took 1,000 cattle from south Texas to Ohio in 1846. In 1850, the California Gold Rush created a demand for beef, and ranchers that were getting $5 to $10 a head in Texas would garner as much as $100 a head in San Francisco. However, the risks were great. The distance from San Antonio to San Francisco was more than 1700 miles across rugged mountains and desert and the drive itself took between five and six months. Eventually, a glut of beef in California slowed the market, and, by 1857, there were virtually no drives headed in that direction any longer. Once the Civil War broke out, the frontier retreated and cattle ranching virtually came to a halt. But, starting in 1866, ranching resumed and cattle trailing expanded at an extraordinary rate.
Typically, moving a herd of 3,000 cattle would require about 11 -12 men. Of these 12 men, the top authorities would be the trail boss and ramrods, usually men in their 20s, and the cook. Roughly two thirds of the rest of the crew were young boys, aged 12 to about 18 and called “waddies”. The remaining men on the crew were typically Mexican, black or Indians—mature men who would serve as wranglers responsible for the remuda or spare horses or additional trail hands, if needed.
With chuck and equipment wagons leading the way to the next stop on the trail with and the wranglers and remudas close behind, the waddies would ride in one of three positions: on “point” or near the head of the herd, on “flank” or on the sides of the herd to keep it from spreading out too much, and on “drag” or in the rear to keep the herd moving. The riders on drag would pretty continuously “eat the dust” of the cattle and were either the greenhorns or put there as some form of punishment. The job was not always the exciting experience it was often portrayed to be. The herd would typically be staggered out over several miles, and the job was primarily a battle against fatigue and boredom while fighting off flies and trying to keep from eating too much dust. Wages ranged from $25-$50 per month for waddies, $50 for wranglers, $75 for cooks and $100 for trail bosses. Despite how Westerns might have portrayed the cattle-driving cowboy, few of the waddies were allowed to carry pistols. They discharged too easily and could stampede the cattle.
In the event that there was the dreaded stampede, the riders on point were in a crucial position. Cattle will tend to follow the leaders at the front of the herd; consequently, if a stamped broke out, it was up to the riders on point to guide the herd leaders in a circle tightening up the herd until the herd could literally no longer be on the run. If the cattle were allowed to get their lead, they could be scattered out over country foreign to both cow and man and be ultimately lost.
As a preventative measure, prior to going on the trail, cattle received a road brand—a brand that would identify the cattle should they be separated from the herd. Branding was already a common practice; most of the West, at this time, was open range. Ranchers already branded and ear tagged their cattle and then turned them loose to graze. When round-up time came, cattle would be sorted out by brand so that ranchers could collect their herds.
Ranchers wanting to take their cattle north could follow one of several legendary trails, depending on where they wanted to sell their cattle. However, in reality, there were no fixed routes. As one historian noted, “Trails originated wherever a herd was shaped up and ended wherever a market was found. A thousand minor trails fed the main routes.”
Nonetheless, there were some legendary trails that included the famous Chisholm Trail, which originated in Brownsville, Texas and initially went all the way to Nebraska with various spurs along the way. Later on, when Abilene became a major shipping point, the Chisholm went there, as well. Another famous trail was the Shawnee that went from San Antonio to Kansas City, Kansas.
However, as would become an increasingly larger problem, cattle from South Texas became known for carrying the “Texas Tick” which caused “Texas Fever”, an infection Longhorns were immune to but cattle in other parts of the country were not. The “fever” was not taken lightly; it had the capacity to wipe out an entire herd. As it became clear that cattle from South Texas brought the fever with them, ranchers along the trail began to block their way, either fining trail bosses as much as $1,000 if their cattle were found grazing on local land, stopping the passage of the herd or, in more extreme cases, impounding or killing them. This became such a problem that the Shawnee Trail was no longer being traveled. As more and more settlers came further west, so did the trails, making sure to stay ahead of the settlements.
Another famous trail was the Goodnight-Loving Trail, formed when veteran cattleman Oliver Loving and young Colonel Charles Goodnight met by accident and decided to combine their herds and trail them to Colorado. The Goodnight-Loving essentially started in Central Texas and followed the Pecos River, heading south, at first, before sweeping to the west (in what’s called “Loving’s Bend”) and ultimately to the north, moving through dangerous country until reaching the market in Denver. Loving and Goodnight trailed cattle along this route a number of times. Then, Loving was injured during an attack by Comanche Indians and ultimately died from his wounds. In later years, Goodnight tried a different route to Denver.
Kiowa County was the site of several lesser known cattle trails. Supposedly, after the loss of Loving, Goodnight had taken a herd through the county and cut a second spur of the original Goodnight-Loving trail. Also, there was the Potter-Bacon cattle trail that spurred off the Western trail and took a shorter, more direct route to Denver. After following this trail for the first time, Potter reported back to the owner of the herd he was trailing that it was a much more difficult trail due to the barren landscape and shortage of water. The owner didn’t care; saving the time was worth the risk. As a result, others followed his suit and chose the faster, albeit riskier, trail.
With more farms being cultivated and the “Texas Fever” more of a concern, by 1876 much of the previous land used for trailing cattle was no longer available, and drovers were forced further west to areas not yet settled. But the writing was on the wall. As the railroad came further and further west, often bringing settlers with it, most of the trails were abandoned. Ranchers were now able to access rail lines to move their cattle for much less time and cost, and the railroads had ample lines to haul the cattle directly to Chicago and other cities that had opened large packing plants. By 1890, cattle drives were largely a thing of the past.
However, for the roughly 2 decades that it lasted, the heyday of cattle drives was a glorious time demonstrative of a country on the move. Even if much of what we now believe about the drives is more myth than fact, it’s a fiction that has inspired a genre that is uniquely lasting and American.