The traffic must have been incredible—a line of three thousand Longhorns, stretching as far as six miles long, led, flanked, and followed by a dozen cowboys. The cattle marched at a steady pace of around ten to fifteen miles a day and traveled for up to one hundred days. It puts an hour-long rush hour commute to shame. But during the late nineteenth century, this kind of massive road trip was a fundamental part of the ranching industry. Today—though the dust has settled and the trails have faded into obscurity—the images of the cowboys, chaps, and chuck wagons of the cattle drive remain an integral part of the Texas myth.
The cattle drive stemmed from basic economics: Texas had beef, and much of the country needed it. Nineteenth century ranchers who wanted to sell their animals in northern markets had to travel by foot. Edward Piper was the first to try such a journey, driving one thousand cattle from Texas to Ohio in 1846. This trip marked the inauguration of what was later called the Shawnee or Kansas Trail and blazed the way for the golden era of the cattle drive.
Shortly after Piper’s trip to Ohio all eyes turned westward. Thousands of fortune-seekers flooded California in 1849, creating new communities nearly overnight. These pioneers had to be fed, and many Texas ranchers took it upon themselves to supply the demand. Entrepreneurial Texans drove cattle to the coast where they fetched up to twenty times the $5 to $10 a head price typical of Texas markets. As miners shifted their attention to the Rockies so did ranchers, sending cattle to Colorado starting in 1858.
Just as those on the trails were beginning to hit stride, the industry encountered an enormous roadblock: the Civil War. A few enterprising Texans trailed their cattle to New Orleans during the war, but for the most part, Texans went to the battlefields and cattle were left out to pasture. When the Confederates came home in 1865, they found their herds had multiplied in the interim. Texas was now home to between three and six million head of cattle.
Meanwhile, the war-torn North had a shortage of beef—a maverick worth $2 in Texas could earn up to $40 or more in Yankee territory. This favorable market led to the greatest cattle trailing period in Texas history, starting with a number of milestones in 1866, the year following the war’s end: Charles Goodnight invented the chuck wagon, which lightened cowboys’ loads by carrying food, utensils, water barrels, and bedrolls; the first Texas drive on the legendary Chisholm Trail headed north out of DeWitt County toward the Kansas railheads; and by the end of year, 260,000 Texas cattle had made their way to markets across the country.
For those headed west, the Goodnight-Loving Trail was one of the first routes blazed after the war. The Goodnight-Loving took a roundabout way to Colorado, initially heading southwest before turning north. While this detour nearly doubled the travel time, it lowered the risk of confrontations with Native Americans, making it much safer than the direct route. For the next decade, the men and women herding cattle up the Chisholm and Goodnight-Loving trails were the stuff of legends.
The average drive involved a twelve-man crew consisting of a trail boss, a cook, and nine or ten wranglers and drovers leading herds of up to three thousand head. Because of the enormity of drives, owners generally stayed home—contracting drovers and wranglers to drive their cattle for them—and drives contained livestock from many different ranchers. Most of these contracted employees were young and white and former Confederate men. African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans occasionally served as cooks or wranglers, and a few women even dressed as boys to hit the trail. After spring roundup, the dozen or so cowhands would “head ’em up and move ’em out” when grass was plentiful and a herd could make the arduous journey north before winter set in.
Despite the glamorous Hollywood image of cowboys and Indians, the true trail lifestyle involved long days, hard work, and questionable food. Wranglers tended extra horses while the drovers monitored the herd through each step of its plodding progress. The image of a six-shooting cowboy was more fiction than fact, as trail bosses were reluctant to allow young drovers to carry guns that might discharge and spook the animals. Because a herd could stretch for miles, drovers communicated by gesturing with hats and through hand signals adopted from the Plains Indian sign language. While the Comanche and the Kiowa were threats on the Western Trail, flooded rivers, stampedes, and drought were far more common concerns. Cowboy cuisine amounted to “chuckwagon chicken” (bacon); “Pecos strawberries” (beans); “sourdough bullets” (biscuits); and “SOB stew” (a concoction made from calf parts).
Because of the many hardships involved in cattle trailing, when new problems and better technologies arrived in the 1870’s, trail traffic began to dwindle. A renewed outbreak of “Texas fever,” a deadly tick-borne fever characterized by lesions of the spleen, led many states to bar entrance of Southern herds—the South Texas Longhorns were immune to and carriers of the fever. Armed mobs in southeast Kansas, southern Missouri, and northern Arkansas waited to greet many unwelcome drives. Opposition to the disease-carrying livestock gradually pushed the cattle drives westward, away from the Sedalia Trail and toward the Western or Dodge City Trail. By 1876, this was the main northern route. The transition marked the beginning of the end for cattle drives.
As settlement encroached upon the Great American Desert, farmers refused to allow Texans to drive herds through their yards and fields. Quarantines on the animals expanded, the use of barbed wire made following trails increasingly difficult, and cattlemen began to employ the growing railroad system as their transportation method of choice. The sound of thousands of footfalls began to fade, and after a twenty-year journey, the Texas cattle drive came to a halt.
Today, the highways may not be filled with bumper to bumper bovine traffic, but remnants of the cattle drives remain in cinema, song, and the classic image of the Texas cowboy.