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The Winchester Quarantine

by C. F. Eckhardt

From the late 1860s into the 1870s, Texas was, in effect, divided into two armed camps. The divisions weren’t Yankees against Southerners, Indians against Whites, Mexicans against Anglos, or even loyalists against scalawags. The division was Texans against Texans—and the dividing line was the 36th parallel of latitude, running east to west roughly through Waco. The battlers were south Texas cattlemen who needed to drive their cattle north to the railheads in Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri—and north Texas cattlemen, joined by cattle raisers in the Indian Nations, Kansas, and Nebraska, who stood ready, with rifles if necessary, to stop the drives.

The argument wasn’t economic in the sense that there wasn’t enough market to go around, for there certainly was. Meatpacker buyers at the railheads were clamoring for cattle and they didn’t care where they came from as long as they could be shipped to Chicago and slaughtered to feed the ever-increasing Eastern demand for beef and leather. The dispute was economic in another sense. South Texas cattle brought death to northern herds.

Texas Fever

South Texas cattle didn’t die of the disease. They didn’t even show signs of it. Within weeks after south Texas herds passed northern herds sickened, began to pass red urine, and then—in 95 cases out of 100—died. It was called Redwater Fever from the red urine, or simply Texas Fever. Nobody knew what caused it, but everybody knew what it did. It spelled ruin for cattlemen within 10 miles or so either side of the passage of a south Texas herd.

There was a preventative, but it wasn’t one south Texas cattlemen felt they could live with. If a south Texas herd was taken north in the fall and wintered over in an isolated pasture north of the quarantine line—that magic line passing through Waco—then driven north the following spring, no animals in its vicinity developed the fever.

South Texas cattlemen had several objections to this. First, there weren’t that many isolated pastures where they could winter their stock. Second, the procedure required establishing what was, in essence, a second ranch headquarters north of the line with a full complement of cowboys to hold the cattle all winter. Third, those northern winters were hard on south Texas cattle. A lot of them would be lost to weather. Fourth, a lot of cattle would be lost to thieves. Fifth, the arrangement would force many south Texas cattlemen to miss a year’s drive to the railheads, which would put them in bankruptcy since they’d be unable to meet their financial obligations.

A second solution was proposed, this time by south Texas cattlemen. A national cattle trail should be declared, surveyed, and fenced—a strip 20 miles wide, with good grass and water, going as straight north as possible from the south Texas cattle ranges to the railheads. To this the north Texas cattlemen objected. Such a strip would cut their own country in half, cut off access to much water, and cut up many ranches. Besides, who would pay for establishing and maintaining it—south Texas cattlemen?

No satisfactory solution seemed to be forthcoming. South Texas cattlemen said “We’re going to drive.” North Texas, Indian Territory, Kansas, and Nebraska cattlemen said “We’re going to stop you.” Everybody figured there was going to be blood on the ground before it was all over. In fact, there was blood on the ground—some of it cattle blood as northern cattlemen tried to stop the southern herds by shooting the cattle, and some of it human as the Southerners tried to protect their herds. Still, while everybody knew what the problem was—Texas Fever—nobody knew what caused it.

Hundreds of suggestions were offered, some of them fantastic and some fairly practical. One such idea was that Texas Fever was caused by the feces of south Texas cattle. The suggestion was that each south Texas herd should include a wagon filled with coal oil. Every cow pie dropped by south Texas herds should be soaked with coal oil and burned—all the way from Live Oak County in deep south Texas to the railheads.

Into the fray stepped the budding science of biology. Microscopic examination of the blood of infected northern cattle revealed tiny creatures—microbes, as such critters were called in those days. All Texas-Fever-infected northern cattle showed an infestation of the microbe. Uninfected northern cattle showed no such infestation. Healthy south Texas cattle, when tested, always showed infestations of the microbe in like quantities to those which were killing the northern cattle. The south Texas cattle, however, showed no symptoms of Texas Fever at all. South Texas cattle, when injected with the blood of infected north Texas cattle, showed no reaction—but when uninfected north Texas cattle were injected with the microbe-laden blood of south Texas cattle, they immediately developed Texas Fever and, in 95 cases out of 100, died.

Obviously, then, this tiny germ was what caused Texas Fever and, over the years, south Texas cattle developed a natural immunity to the disease it carried. Northern cattle, having no such immunity, died when infected with the microbe. But how did the microbe get from one animal to another? South Texas cattle, wintered over north of the line, still had bloodstreams full of the microbe, but they could graze side by side with northern cattle and the northern cattle showed no signs of the infection, nor did their blood show any trace of the microbe.

Obviously, then, something—a third factor—was transmitting the microbe from the infected cattle to the uninfected ones. What was it? The recognition that a third factor was involved—today called a vector—was a first in the history of medical science. Never before had medical science realized that an infection could be carried from an infected creature to an uninfected one by a third agency which, itself, was not part of the disease cycle.

The culprit turned out to be a bug no larger than the nail on your little finger. It was a tick—the Texas Fever tick. The discovery that a tick was the vector for Texas Fever was arguably the single most important medical discovery of the 19th century, comparable to the discovery in 1929 of the first antibiotic, penicillin. With the realization that vectors could be involved in the spread of disease, pioneered by Texas Fever research, Col. Leonard Wood identified the anopheles mosquito as the vector for malaria. Within a few short years insect vectors were identified for most of the great ‘plague’ diseases, including yellow fever and that most dreaded of all scourges, bubonic plague—the Black Death.

Identifying the cause and vector of a disease is one thing. Doing something about the disease is something else entirely. The Texas Fever tick was endemic to south Texas—and to much of Mexico and the American south as well.

Modern insecticides simply did not exist. Most insecticides were either petroleum based or arsenic based. Petroleum based insecticides—which included kerosene and naptha (modern cigarette-lighter fluid) killed not only insects but vegetation and small animals as well, and were a fire hazard to boot. Arsenic based insecticides also killed much vegetation and small animals, and occasionally killed cattle when they ate grass on which the insecticide was spread. What were south Texas cattlemen supposed to do—go around with a brick in each hand, catching the bugs and smashing them one by one?

Research developed an arsenic based insecticide that would kill the ticks without killing plants unless the plants were saturated with it. The formula was stated as “To 500 gallons of water, add eight pounds of powdered white arsenic, 24 pounds of carbonate of soda, and one gallon of pine tar.” As soon as a rancher could do so, his herd was divided in half and his pasture into thirds. One third of the pasture was then sprayed with the arsenic solution and no cattle were pastured there for six weeks. One half the cattle were sprayed with or dipped in the solution (typically dipped by running the cattle neck-deep through concrete-lined trenches called ‘dipping vats.) The dipped cattle were then turned loose on the sprayed pasture. The area on which they had been held was sprayed. Six weeks later the rest of the herd was dipped and turned loose on the second sprayed pasture. The remaining pasture was sprayed. From then on the cattle had to be rotated every four or five months and re-dipped about as often.

This didn’t set well with the south Texas cattlemen. They weren’t having any problem with cattle dying. All this nonsense about li’l bitty bugs in a cow’s blood an’ ticks carryin’ them from one cow to ‘t’other’n was just that—nonsense. Nobody’d ever heard of such trash afore. ‘Sides, all this dipping and spraying was expensive. Who was going to pay for it? If the northern cattlemen wanted the cows dipped and the pastures sprayed, let them pay for all that arsenic and carbonate of soda and such truck, and pay to build the dipping vats and the men to run ‘em, and pay the costs of having steam-powered spraying machines mounted on wagons to cover 40 or 50 thousand acres three times a year.

The practical financial arguments were not the only ones advanced against dipping and spraying. As in every case in which a new advance is made, there are those demagogues who raise prophesies of doom. “This,” it was alleged, “is nothing but a Yankee plot. Arsenic’s a poison. You use it to kill weeds and wolves. You pour that stuff in a creek, it’ll kill every fish, turtle, and lizard in it. If birds eat the dead, it’ll kill them, too. If we spray our pastures it’ll kill the grass and it’ll take three or four years for the pastures to recover. In the meantime, if the dipping doesn’t kill the cattle outright, it’ll poison the meat, just like it poisons the meat of the fish. The Yankees are trying to get us to poison our land and our livestock so we’ll go broke and get out of the cattle business so they can hog the market, and the Texas cattlemen north of Waco are going along with it.”

Such arguments were very effective. South Texas cattlemen rose in resistance against the dipping of their cattle. Lawmen who came to urge dipping were fired on. Dipping vats were dynamited. Spray rigs were set afire or blown up with dynamite. And, of course, to the north cattlemen loaded their Winchesters in determination to stop any un-dipped cattle from crossing the Brazos at Waco.

Not only did the Texas cattlemen north of Waco prepare to stop un-dipped cattle, the state of Kansas passed a law that every Texas herd, regardless of its geographic origin, had to be certified disease-free to enter Kansas. Shortly Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory followed suit. The Texas cattle industry was on the verge of total collapse if the Texas Fever problem was not dealt with quickly.

The Texas Legislature passed, and the governor signed, a law requiring all cattle in the state to be tested for the Texas Fever microbe and all infected cattle to be dipped. No cattle could be driven or shipped without being certified disease-free. The cost of testing and dipping was to be paid by the owner of the cattle. Special inspectors, most of them more or less scientific types, were hired to insure the law was obeyed.

These inspectors were not lawmen and had no real enforcement powers beyond saying ‘you can’t move these cattle.’ To that a cocked sixshooter or Winchester and the reply “You wanta live, you’ll get outa the way while I move ‘em “ was an effective counter. Something, obviously, had to be done to bring the south Texas cattlemen into compliance.

Into the fray stepped a number of hard-eyed, grim looking gentlemen who wore their hardware like men who knew how to use it. They were Texas Rangers, and their orders were “Get the cows dipped and the pastures sprayed, and if anybody gives you any lip about it, use whatever means you have at hand to put a stop to it.” Rangers had—and still have—a reputation for being able to put a stop to lip—and much else. Slowly, then in increasing numbers, south Texas cattle began to be dipped and south Texas pastures began to be sprayed.

The eradication of Texas Fever and its host and vector, the Texas Fever tick, was a long and involved process. From the time the vector was first identified in the latter quarter of the 19th Century until the 1950s, dipping vats and cattle dipping were part and parcel of south Texas ranching. Over the years the insecticides that could be sprayed on the pastures improved—but the constant spraying had a secondary effect. Literally dozens of species of birds and animals that had once been common in south Texas all but disappeared. Among those was a small black and white eagle known as the Crested Caracara, which is presently making a comeback in south Texas. Another was the water turkey or Cahinga, a cormorant-like bird that swims with only its neck out of the water. A third was the chicken-sized Chacalaca, which today is reentering its old homeland through the Rio Grande valley. In addition, spraying may have been instrumental in driving out the south Texas population of jaguars and jaguarundis, beautiful spotted cats once fairly plentiful south of San Antonio. How many other creatures were wiped out completely by the spraying and dipping, which continued in Texas into the mid-1950s, no one really knows.

In spite of ecological damage a major threat to livestock—and to people, since Texas Fever has been known to infect humans—was wiped out in Texas by the mid-1950s. There remained, however, a threat from across the border. Mexico still harbored Texas Fever ticks and Mexican livestock still carried the disease across the Rio Grande. A massive US government organized and financed fever-tick eradication program in the 1940s and 1950s substantially reduced, though did not eliminate entirely, the Texas Fever threat from Mexico.

Much may be said—and no doubt will be said—about the ecological damage done to south Texas by Texas Fever eradication. Those of us who know our history realized that, for well over a century, New England apple growers regularly dusted their trees with white arsenic to keep worms out of the fruit. Every buffalo hide pulled on the plains during the great buffalo slaughter of the 1870s—upwards of 50,000,000 of them by some estimates—was dusted with five pounds of powdered white arsenic to keep bugs off, much of which ended up on the ground. Every cotton and tobacco field in the south was dusted several times during the growing season with Paris Green, an arsenic-based insecticide, to keep the boll weevil and tobacco horn-worm away. Every 500 gallons of Texas Fever dip for the approximately 75 years a billion head of cattle per year were dipped contained eight pounds of powdered white arsenic, not to mention all the arsenic-containing insecticides that were sprayed on the pastures. The fact that the research methods used to control Texas Fever led to the control of malaria, yellow fever, bubonic plague, and many other diseases would tend to excuse any errors made in ecological ignorance.

© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas" July 5, 2009 column

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