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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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