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.
|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
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
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
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
of a chuckwagon
at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Expo in Austin
| 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
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.
January 2, 2014 Column
for "The Era of the Texas Cattle Drives."
Glimpse of Texas Past"
People | Texas Towns | Columns
by Jeffery Robenalt - Order Here:
for "The Era of the Texas Cattle Drives"
James H., Cowboying: A Tough Job in a Hard Land, (Salt Lake City:
University of Utah Press, 1991).
Everett, The Range Cattle Industry, (Norman: University of Oklahoma
Evetts, Charles Goodnight, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1936; new
ed.; Norman” University of Oklahoma Press, 1949).
Marvin, Trial Drives of Texas (2 vols., San Antonio: Jackson Printing,
1920, 1923; 4th ed., Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985).
M., The Cattle Trailing Industry: Between Supply and Demand, 1866-1890,
(Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1973).
M., CATTLE TRAILING,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://tshonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ayc01,
accessed November 10, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical
Cauble, “LOVING, OLIVER,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://tshonline.org/handbook/online/articles/flo38,
accessed November 10, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical
by Jeffery Robenalt