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Texas | Columns | Lone Star Diary

Life On The Trail

by Murray Montgomery
Murray Montgomery

The cowboy legacy is very much alive in Texas and it has been that way for a long time. After the Civil War, times were tough in Texas and throughout the South. Men returning from that devastating conflict found it hard to make a living. Texas, it seemed, was short on everything; everything that is, but cattle.

It has been said that the Texas trail drivers literally saved this State from financial disaster in those years following the Civil War. The Gonzales Inquirer reported that the vast herds of cattle in the Gonzales County area alone brought in well over a million dollars between the years 1867-1895.

The Hollywood movies have always glamorized life on the trail and would have folks believe that every cowboy was totin' a gun. Fact is, the work was anything but glamorous. According to The Handbook of Texas, most days were uneventful; a plodding, leisurely pace of ten to fifteen miles a day allowed cattle to graze their way to market in about six weeks.

Cowboy & cattle trail
Cattle round-up in Matagorda County
TE photo 2000

And many trail bosses would not allow their men to carry pistols for fear that the weapon would discharge accidentally, or otherwise, and cause a stampede. Day-to-day boredom on the trail was occasionally interrupted by stampedes, dangerous river crossings, and violent weather. But an encounter with hostile Indians was a rare occurrence.

The ordinary cowboy made from $25 to $40 a month. Horse wranglers would get about $50 or more. The cooks and ramrods would earn about $75 monthly while the trail boss would take in around $100. Some outfits even had a sort of profit sharing program for the trail bosses.

It must have been a hard way to make a living. The cowboy was in the saddle from dawn till dusk, never knowing what he might have to face before the day was over. If he got on the bad side of the trail boss, he might spend the day riding drag at the rear of the herd and eating dust all along the way.

Men driving the chuck and equipment wagons fared much better. They led the herd and were always on the look out for suitable campsites. And on the brighter side, they didn't have to eat as much dust as that poor old boy riding drag.

Cowboy on the trail
Tall in the Saddle - Taller Grass
TE photo 2000

Much has been written over the years about the Texas cowboy. And in 1923, The Gonzales Inquirer put out a special edition celebrating the paper's 70th anniversary. In that edition they included an Old Trail Drivers section honoring those men who drove cattle up the trail from Gonzales County.

During a reunion of the Texas Trail Drivers Association, held in Gonzales in 1923, more light was shed on the life of the cowboy.

Mr. George B. Saunders, president of the TTDA, spoke at the meeting. He said the average person did not conceive of the volume of business done through the work of the old trail drivers. He claimed that the trail drivers deserved the most credit for the development of Texas after the Civil War.

Another speaker at the meeting, J.B. Wells, gave his account of life on the trail. Wells said he had driven cattle in years when practically every stream was dry. And other years when every stream was flowing with so much water that the men had to swim across with the cattle.

Wells described another exciting event on a drive through Indian country: One day a band of Indians swooped down on us and rode around the edge of the herd, shouting, in an effort to stampede our cattle. Mr. Wells was quick to point out that they offered the Indians all their supplies to take the savages' minds off their cattle. We very generously turned over to them all the beans, bacon, coffee, sugar and other eatables we had, he said.

They were left in uninhabited country without food for several days until they reached a place where they could buy supplies. They had no money and had to trade cattle for provisions.

On one of his drives, J.B. Wells spoke of seeing a man named Hardin kill three men in a drunken brawl on the trail. He didn't give the man's first name, so one can only speculate as to if it was John Wesley who did the killing.

One old cowboy, L.D. Taylor, gave an account of his adventures on the trail. He spoke of being in the saddle for 24 hours without food or sleep. Taylor told of trying to hold the herd in check during blinding thunder and hail storms. "You never knew when you would be run over and killed," he said.

But despite the pain and hardships, the trail drivers continued to send large numbers of cattle up the trail to the northern markets. According to The Gonzales Inquirer, the following herds were driven from Gonzales County in 1878. G.W. Littlefield, 6,000 head; Littlefield and J.D. Houston, 8,000; Lewis & Dilworth and R.A. Houston, 4,000; Lewis & Dilworth and Parramore, 2,500; Lee Kokernot, 2,000; Jesse McCoy and R.H. Floyd, 2,500.

At the time these herds went up the trail, prices for cattle varied from six to fifteen dollars per head. That was big money back then and it was those dollars that put Texas back on solid financial ground.

The old trail drivers drove their last herds and secured a place in history years ago. But the tradition of the cowboy way of life in Texas will live forever.


© Murray Montgomery February, 2001 column
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Readers' Comments:
I would have made 475 a month as a cook, but I'm a leader sometimes so I may have made $100 a month as a trail boss. - Mike

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