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So Long, Little Dogies

1890: The era of the great trail drives ends.

By January 1986Comments

Their history was brief, but the trail drives live forever in the myths of the cowboy and the boundless West.
Their history was brief, but the trail drives live forever in the myths of the cowboy and the boundless West.

Erwin E. Smith Collection, Library of Congress

The importance of the trail drives, vast enough commercially, was no less vast psychologically. In Texas in the last half of the nineteenth century, cattle were what oil was to become in the first half of the twentieth: a seemingly infinite resource that quickly bred not merely fortunes but also imagery and identity—though in the realm of the image, oil has never been able to compete with cattle, one reason so many oilmen become cattlemen manqué. Within ten years of its inception, the cattle trade had established an appealing and enduring body of imagery and provided Texans as a people with the reputation for dash and extravagance that they cherish to this day.

Before cattle began to spill out of Texas, what were we, to the nation? Commercially, a minor adjunct to the Cotton Kingdom; politically and psychologically, the American equivalent of the Balkans. The violent animosities that Serbs and Croatians took centuries to refine were, like so much else, spontaneous developments in Texas. Freebooters had only to arrive within our much-disputed borders to become patriots and freedom fighters; they swarmed in like Turks and quickly wrenched the whole state loose from the Indians and the Mexicans.

When the dust of what was, comparatively, a short conflict settled, it was found that cattle were swarming even more prodigally than freebooters in the southern part of what had become the state of Texas.

One of the marvels of American commerce is the rapidity with which certain industries mature. Computers provide an example from our own day: the home-computer business became the behemoth that it is in less time than it takes to wear out a good adding machine. Technologically, the oil business had a fairly slow gestation, but its myth—by which I mean its power to seize and hold the public’s imagination—was established in an afternoon, at Spindletop. Wells are rarely allowed to gush nowadays, but the image of the gusher is still the most potent the oil industry has produced; its undiminished power can be seen in the recent Russian film Siberiade, whose final sequence recalls Boom Town and many other movies on the same subject.

The cattle trade flowered no less suddenly. No one knows how many cattle ran free in South Texas at the time of annexation, but by the 1860’s their numbers had swelled to between three and four million—a free resource, waiting to be exploited.

Despite that extraordinary abundant of product, the beginnings of trail driving as a marketing practice were casual and intermittent. Markets existed, and the early cattlemen knew it. But the markets were very far away, and the routes to them rich in hazard. The arrival of either beasts or masters could not be guaranteed. Nonetheless, a few proto-Texans made drives in the 1840’s; one or two headed for Illinois, but the more reachable markets then were New Orleans and Mobile. Mosquitoes lay thick along the Gulf trails, and many coastal cattlemen preferred to ship from Matagorda Bay rather than drive overland; “shipping” is a term still in use in the cattle business, though what it usually describes nowadays is the movement of cattle by truck from pasture to feedlot.

Certain early drovers, keen for profit, considered no market on the continent beyond the reach of their beeves. Tom Candy Ponting and Washington Malone drove a herd of Longhorns to Muncie, Indiana, where boxcars were secured. In 1854 the cattle were taken to Manhattan, driven through the streets, and sold at the Hundred Street Market. New Yorkers, unflappable even then, seemed to regard the presence of Texas Longhorns in their boulevards as nothing to get excited about.

More remarkable still were the first drives to California. As soon as word of the Gold Rush reached Texas, a man named W. H. Snyder, excited by the thought of all the beefsteak a state full of rich miners could consume, made up a herd and set off at once for San Francisco. He reached it a couple of years later, having decided to go north along the Rio Grande to the Continental Divide before turning west. At about the same time, Jack Cureton crossed a herd along the more difficult southern route. The Apache were not then so angry as they were to become, but the desert was the real problem with the southern route. Raphael Pumpelly, one of the keenest observers to travel the border country of Arizona, left a vivid description of the cattle corpses he passed on a trip through the Sonoran Desert a little more than a decade after Cureton’s drive:

“The routes over these wastes are marked by countless skeletons of cattle, horses, and sheep, and the traveller passes thousands of the carcasses of these animals wholly preserved in the intensely dry air. Many of them dead, perhaps for years, had been placed upright on their feet by previous travellers. As we wound, in places, through groups of these mummies, they seemed sentinels guarding the valley of death.”

Little wonder that the southern route never became really popular, though Cureton was by no means the only cattleman to attempt it.

The drives of the 1840’s and 1850’s were false starts. The markets existed, and the cattle existed, but the difficulty of getting the latter to the former, across such distances, was evidently discouraging. Two years on the trail could exhaust an entrepreneur sufficiently to make him seek less arduous sources of profit. The energies were gathering, but conditions were not ripe. The country was still unsettled, and many of the bolder spirits who were to become pillars of the new industry —Charles Goodnight, for example—had their hands full fighting Indians, clearing out bandits, and generally making the country safe for the settled folk with whom they had so little in common.

The Comanche resistance lasted a good deal longer than anyone expected it to, and before it was blunted the Civil War came, a terrible, exhausting war. The drain on human resources was so great that one might expect that a generation would have been required for full recovery, but the American temper was evidently at its most resilient then. The guns had scarcely fallen silent before the robber barons got to work.

At that same moment, when veterans of the conflict were still straggling home, a flood of Texas cattle began to flow north, initially to Sedalia, Missouri. But Missouri didn’t really welcome the trampling herds; drovers were attacked and harassed by vigilantes. Baxter Springs, Kansas, proved not much better, and the much-advertised threat of Texas fever did nothing to improve the situation for cattlemen.

At that point Joseph McCoy, an aggressive buyer for Chicago packing interests, mounted a strong lobbying campaign in Abilene, Kansas, a community easily reachable from Texas along a trail that had been worked out a few years earlier by a Cherokee trader named Jesse Chisholm. McCoy convinced Abilene that its destiny lay with cattle; facilities on the order of loading pens and drover’s hotels were established, and none too soon, for the cattle were now coming in the thousands.

The annus mirabilis was 1866. Some think as many as a quarter of a million Texas cattle were driven north in that year, some eighty to ninety herds. Kansas felt the brunt of all those hooves—a mixed delight—but Kansas was not alone. In that year Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, with an eye to the Colorado rather than the Kansas markets, made their famous drive across the Pecos and opened the Goodnight-Loving Trail.

No less daring was Nelson Story, who, the same year, defied the U.S. Army and a number of Indian nations and took the first herd into Montana. It was soon apparent that Mr. Story had gotten ahead of his time, or at least of his place. Not for almost a decade and a half, until Custer had fallen and been revenged, did driving cattle to Montana become practical and popular.

From 1866, for slightly more than a score of years, the Great Plains were alive with cattle, most of them Longhorns pushed out of the South Texas brush. Abilene and Dodge City were the Athens and the Rome of that migration, but tributaries of cattle were constantly breaking loose from the central channel, and most of the tributaries flowed north, to the fresh pastures of Nebraska and the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, or into Canada.

Twenty years is not long; the midsixties soon became the mid-eighties, at which point the flow of cattle was unabated. In 1886 John Blocker, the business-minded brother of the famous trail boss Ab Blocker, was said to have an interest in 82,000 cattle, all of them on the move at once, in various herds, along various trails.

A mere four years later it was over. A few herds were trailed north after that, but the activity had already become a romantic anachronism. By 1890—the year of Wounded Knee—trail driving on any serious scale had become as much a thing of the past as Indian fighting. The speedy twentieth century was in sight. Railroads spanned the continent, and barbed wire spanned the Great Plains. The open range, that world of grass of a limitlessness that forever held the imagination of all who saw it, moving observer after observer to oceanic imagery in their attempts to describe it adequately, closed abruptly behind the last straggling herds, never to open again. The golden age of cowboying had passed, and its long silver age began.

The trail drives, and the wide-open cow towns they spawned, were almost solely responsible for the myth of the cowboy—perhaps one should say of the Westerner—which remains potent to this day. (The Westerner merges two figures, the cowboy and the gunfighter, in real life rarely the same breed, though most cowboys wore guns and many gunfighters herded cattle at one time or another.) A hundred years have now passed since the great herds filled the plains. The range closed, the cow towns became sedate; an urban age ensued. Yet even now movie studios are still releasing major westerns. A year or two ago President Reagan presented the first Congressional Gold Medal ever given a writer by our government to Louis L’Amour, author of more than a hundred westerns. Even more recently, Fortune magazine singled out the Marlboro man ads as being, from an advertiser’s point of view, the most successful set of images ever presented to the buying public.

This vigorous and tenacious myth didn’t grow out of ranch life, with its repetitive and largely unromantic round of calving and fencing, feeding livestock and doctoring them. It grew out of those brief years when the West was unfenced and cattle, men, and horses were on the move. Few enough of the tens of millions of words and images that have been devoted in the last hundred years to depictions or dramatizations of Western life describe trail driving per se, but the drives were the generative activity without which most of the words would not have been written or most of those images cast.

Mining was also a potent activity in many parts of the West for many years, and yet the scattering of books and films about mining seem minute when compared with the vast corpus of work that accrued around the cowboys and the gunmen who followed them along the cow trails and into the cow towns.

The growth of the myth undoubtedly owed much to the birth of the film industry even as the range was closing. The eminent film historian Siegfried Kracauer, in his Theory of Film, argues that chases are one of the most intrinsically cinematic of all subjects; in support of his argument he quotes Robert Flaherty, who said, “People never get tired of seeing a horse gallop across the plains.” The success of hundreds of crudely acted, clumsily plotted westerns, offering little more than the innate eye appeal of speeding horses juxtaposed against a vast plain, would seem to bear Flaherty out.

Without the romantic conception of the cowboy engendered by the drives, there would have been less occasion for the careers of William S. Hart, Tom Mix, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and a host of other actors who rode to fame in the westerns. Without the drives we would not have had The Long Trail, John Ford’s silent masterpiece; would have had no Red River, no Rawhide, no Gunsmoke; no Johnson County or Lincoln County war; no gunfight at the OK Corral.

The rich iconography of the gunfighter derived from the marshals and outlaws who filled the cow towns; behind Marshal Dillon were such colorful men as Bear River Tom Smith (first marshal of Abilene), James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, the Earps, Bat Masterson, and others. The romance of outlawry in America owed much to the range wars; Billy the Kid, the Wild Bunch, Tom Horn, and a host of minor banditti whose exploits are all but forgotten left legends that have fed our popular culture for a century now.

Curiously enough, most of the great gallery of cattlemen who peopled the industry in the golden years of trail driving have been largely ignored by the films, the television series, and the pulp westerns. Charles Goodnight’s career would have made a great role for John Wayne—any stage of his career, at any stage of Wayne’s—but it didn’t happen. Little has been done with Shanghai Pierce, Charles Siringo, Teddy Blue, Uncle Dick Wootten, the Marquis de Mores, or Teddy Roosevelt’s cowboy years. That colorful talker Ab Blocker, who in the judgment of his contemporaries drank water out of more cow tracks and pointed more cattle toward the North Star than any other man, survives only in a short sketch by J. Frank Dobie and a few brief tributes in The Trail Drivers of Texas—by far the most important collection of firsthand narratives by the trail-driving cowboys.

The places, or at least the place names, have fared better. Some fairly ordinary rivers and some distinctly meager villages have enjoyed a resonance, in legend, far out of proportion to their size or appeal. Place names are all in the way of poetry that many people ever experience, much less create, and the West produced some wonderful ones: the Pecos, the Cimarron, the Purgatoire (or, to many cowboys, the Picketwire), the Red, Powder River, Crazy Woman Creek, the Stinking Water, Dodge City, Abilene, Ogallala, Deadwood, Tombstone, and many more. Whoever thought up “Boot Hill” as a name for a cemetery had the poetic spark. The power of place names is a mostly unstudied literary phenomenon, but writers from Homer on have felt it; in this regard, if in no other, western writers are well equipped.

In attempting to assess how it is that the trail-driving experience produced a romantic model—the Westerner—whose potency lasted a century, we should hearken for a bit to the trail hands themselves. What did they think about their time on the trail? Almost unanimously, they regarded it as the happiest and most satisfying experience of their lives. Over and over again, in memoirs, they speak of how wonderful it was: the beautiful, unspoiled country, the excellent horses, their fine comrades; they mention the loyalty they felt for their outfits, the excitement of crossing the endless plains, the trivial nature of their hardships in the light of all the fun they had, the thrill of arriving at some prairie Sodom where their small wages were usually quickly squandered.

Few of these memoirists were eloquent; instead they were grindingly sincere, even sanctimonious. The last quality particularly irked Teddy Blue, never sanctimonious himself. He thought the cowhands who contributed to The Trail Drivers of Texas sounded like a bunch of preachers, which was not how he remembered them. Just reading the table of contents of that book reveals the sober attitude with which the contributors approached their task: “A Thorny Experience”; “Seven Trips up the Trail”; “The Good Old Cowboy Days”; “Made a Long Trip to Wyoming”; “Trail Driving to Kansas and Elsewhere”; “Preferred to Take Older Cattle up the Trail.”

For all the sobriety of its short, prosaic accounts, the book is irreplaceable, and invariably the most eloquent passages in the, for the most part, homely literature of the trail are expressions of regret that it all ended, that the open range closed, that the settlements came, that their comrades are gone. Teddy Blue’s valediction at the end of We Pointed Them North (1939)—in my view the single best book about the trail-driving experience—is better-put than most but identical in its imagery to many others on the same theme.

“A man has got to be at least seventy-five years old to be a real old cowhand. I started young and I am seventy-eight. Only a few of us are left now, and they are scattered from Texas to Canada. The rest have left the wagon and gone ahead across the big divide, looking for a new range. I hope they find good water and plenty of grass. But wherever they are is where I want to go.”

Many of the trail-driving cowboys were, in Olaf Stapledon’s phrase, last and first men; that is, the last to do the work they did and also the first to do it. Most of the cowboys were poor teenagers from Texas or other Southern parts, youths whose prospects were dim until the cattle drives saved them from the slavery of the plough. Those who went at fifteen or sixteen with the drives of ’66 or ’67 were only in their thirties when, twenty years later, the life began to die. Some of them saw both the beginning and the end, and then lived for forty or fifty years in the shadow of what they felt to be an unmatchable experience. For their male children, the shadow of that experience was often heavy. No matter how skilled they got as cowboys, they could never go up the trail. The primal experience of their craft—and it was a craft they cherished deeply—had also been, in some haunting way, a terminal experience.

Extremely intense experience is almost by definition brief, and so it was with trail driving. The cowboys well knew that the open country couldn’t last. They saw the railheads moving west, saw the settlers moving with them. The paradox of their experience—a paradox of which the more thoughtful among them were keenly aware—was that in entering the open range they hastened its closing. It was indeed their fate to be the men who killed the thing they loved.

Of course the plains were only virgin in their eyes; the Indians had lived on them for many generations. But by the time the trail drives were finished, so too were the Indians, and the movement of people and animals on the Great Plains would never again be easy and unobstructed as, for so long, it had been.

The movement of people and animals is evidently a pleasing thing to be part of, also a pleasing thing to contemplate and to watch. Robert Flaherty’s simple remark, that people never get tired of watching a horse galloping across the plains, is surely one of the keys to understanding the vitality of the Western myth. The cowboys didn’t walk those cattle north. They were not true nomads, but they benefited from the romance that attaches to nomadism, particularly if the nomads are horse people. The identification of cowboys with horses was immediate; in 1874 Joseph McCoy wrote that “the reputation of Texas for horsemanship is national and needs no eulogiums in this place.” The cowboy swiftly joined the ranks of renowned horse people, which include the Huns, the cossacks, the bedouin, and the Plains Indians, all of which have been good box office in romantic art, fiction, and film.

The trail drives produced a body of imagery that speaks of movement without constraint. Images of movement on horseback suggest a degree of freedom for which a great many hemmed-in people yearn. There is no evidence that cowboys were more free or more emotionally effective than anyone else; in many respects they were patently ineffective and not at all free. But that is realism, and the cowboy belongs to romance. However they may have felt as living men, they function in our urban and suburban culture as symbols of freedom, of a simpler, more satisfying, less constrained way of life. As the cities spread, urban figures—space cowboys à la Star Wars, superagent gunfighters à la James Bond—may partially replace them. But the replacement will only be partial. The trail drives only began to end one hundred years ago. The thunder of all those hooves, the jingle of all those spurs, has not entirely faded. For a while yet the cowboy, his hat thrown back and his spurs still a-jingling his face filled with a “glow and a glee” as he contemplates the sea of grass, will go on riding through our lives.

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