Texas cattle drives across the Republican

Monday, June 9, 2003
Walt Sehnert

During the Civil War, 1861-1864, a Texas cattle industry, which in Pre-War years had been growing at a fast rate, went largely dormant. Though there was relatively little fighting that went on in Texas, the railroads east of the Mississippi River were in Union hands, and the Port of New Orleans was closed off to the Southerners, so there were no good means to getting cattle to Eastern markets. A number of the large Longhorn herds in Texas went untended during these years. When the war was over ranchers were surprised that the herds had multiplied on their own. It is estimated that by 1866 there were some 6 million Longhorns in Texas.

Longhorn cattle are a very hearty breed. They are descendants of cattle brought to America by Columbus in the 1490s. In the New World they interbred with a number of varieties of native cattle, and were developed into that now familiar breed, in Mexico. They adapted extremely well to their environment, first in Southern Texas, and later, throughout that state.

Marketing Texas cattle was big business. During the years of the Texas cattle drives -- 1866-1886 -- it is estimated that some 10 million cattle, with a market value of some $108 million, were driven over the various trails. Ranchers sought the best way to get their cattle to market. The most practical way, and the cheapest, turned out to be simply walking the cattle to the rail terminals. Early on, the terminus of choice was in St. Louis, but in 1855 Missouri banned Longhorns from passing through the state because state authorities feared that local cattle would be contaminated with Texas Tick Fever, by the longhorns passing through. Tick fever was deadly to northern cattle, yet seemed to have no effect on the Longhorns. Because of the fear of Texas Tick Fever the cattle trails moved to the west, through Kansas.

Another factor that figured in the gradual movement of the cattle trails to the west was barbed wire, used by settlers. Eastern Kansas was rapidly settled after the Civil War, but in Western Kansas, where arid conditions caused settlement of that part of the state to be slow, the most famous of the Cattle Towns emerged. In 1872 Dodge City proudly proclaimed itself the Cow Capital of the Plains, a distinction it did its best to deserve and preserve for the next dozen years. That reputation is richly recorded in western lore to the present day.

In Nebraska, Ogallala, on the UP RR, began to be an important destination for many of the cattle drives in the last half of the Cattle Trails era. Some of the cattle reaching that point were sent off by rail to eastern markets. Others were used to stock ranches, as far away as Montana and Canada. Some cattle were sent to bolster food supplies at western Army installations or at Indian Reservations. Of the 10 million cattle driven out of Texas, perhaps 2 million or more were driven to Ogallala. The Oberlin (Kan.) Herald, of July 3, 1879 reported: "About 80,000 head of cattle have passed up the Trail, 9 miles west of Oberlin." A year later (7/22/1880) that paper reported, "Over 170,000 Texas cattle have passed north over the Trail."

The Trail to Ogallala passed through Trenton, then northward, through Hamlet. In 1935, Trenton's Art Carmody wrote, "The old trail crossed the river about a mile west of Trenton, crossing the present highway (now the old highway) one mile east of the main part of the present town of Trenton. A marker has been placed here by the SW NE Historical Society."

Mr. Carmody adds (in 1935), " Several people are now living in our community who have seen the Republican valley filled with herds of longhorns, that were being rested here before the hard drive to Ogallala."

If Dodge City was the Cow Capital of the Plains, Ogallala had other titles, one of which stands out, "The Gommorah of the Cattle Trails." One saloonkeeper in Ogallala was quoted as saying, "There is only one woman in Ogallala, and she is my wife." The others are 'ladies,' imported from Omaha." Some of the cattle drovers willingly allowed their hands to unwind in Dodge City, but declared Ogallala strictly off limits. Rather than taking offense at such a slight, saloonkeepers in Ogallala took pride in bragging, "Ogallala, The City Too Tough for Texans."

It is interesting to take a look at the make-up of the cattle drives. Ordinarily a Texas rancher would start a cattle drive with his own herd, together with some of his neighbors. More cattle would be purchased, or consigned along the way, making up a herd of 3,000 or more, which stretched out on the trail for two miles or longer. All of the cattle were branded, to make accounting feasible when they were sold. On a usual day a herd would travel 10-12 miles.

The assignment of cowboy personnel on a cattle drive was organized similar to that of a military unit. The Drover, or boss, had the responsibility of setting the date and site of delivery, and seeing the cattle thru to the railhead terminus. On the trail he rode several miles ahead of the herd, scouting for the best route, water and grass, and a look out for Indians. For this he was paid $100 per month or a bit more.

At the front of the herd, which was led by one old "lead steer," rode point riders, one or two on either side, who kept the herd headed in the right direction.

A third of the way back, were the swing riders, who kept stragglers from leaving the herd. Three fourths back were the flank riders, who performed a similar task.

Behind the main herd were the drag riders, whose job it was to pick up stragglers and round up strays---either wild cattle, or ones with questionable brands.

Bringing up the rear were the wranglers tending the "remuda," or the extra horses for the outfit. This was sometimes a rather large herd of horses, 40 or 50, for a normal sized drive. Each cowboy needed six or eight horses, as horses always needed to be fresh, plus a number of replacement horses, as some horses were invariably lost to sickness and theft during the trip.

Regular cowboys received from $20 to $40 per month, depending upon experience. Sometimes that experience was not very much, as some of the cowboys were mere youths, of not more than 10 or 12 years of age. Most cowboys were not more than 18 years old.

Another important member, perhaps most important member of the crew, was the cook. His pay was almost as much as the Drover, but he was probably the hardest worker as well. His job was to travel ahead of the herd, and to have meals ready when the herd stopped. It was very important that the cook not slow down the cattle drive. But the cook was hampered by what he could carry in his chuck wagon, so the meals were not much varied. Beans and biscuits was the usual fare. With all that beef on the hoof, meat was a rare item on the menu. There was no way to keep meat from spoiling, so when a calf or mature animal was killed it was used immediately, usually in a stew, and any unused portions of the critter were buried.

Stampedes were a constant danger on the trail. A herd could break into a stampede at any sudden unusual sound or smell, though lightning was the usual cause. Then all the trail hands were called into play, to attempt to turn the herd from its headlong flight. Even in stampede the herd followed the leader and the trick was to turn the column in a circle, back on itself -- then the cattle would finally begin to calm down and the cowboys could resume control.

It has been said that much of the western lore of books and movies grew out of the Cattle Drives. Skills, developed while working on those drives, are demonstrated at the rodeo today. Tenets of the "Cowboy Code" -- Courage, Loyalty, Perseverance, Pride and Competence were developed on the trail. These qualities have been idealized in the Hollywood Westerns, and certainly exaggerated. Today "Oaters" are objects of ridicule in some "enlightened circles." Yet, in the light of today's movie and TV fare, one cannot help but be a bit nostalgic for heroes of film who possess the qualities of the "Cowboy Code." Just maybe, the Western will come back in favor, and we'll again hear that call from the past, "Head 'em up, and Move 'em out!"

Sources: Art Carmody in the Trenton Centennial, 1885-1985, and also www.mckendricwiskey.com/texastrails

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