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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Texas longhorn cattle trail

Monday, October 10, 2011

In 2011, because of the severe drought in Texas and the Southwest, there has been a huge influx of Texas cattle into the (relatively) greener pastures of Nebraska, a movement not seen, perhaps, since the great cattle drives in the last quarter of the 19th Century.

In 1836, the Texicans declared their independence from Mexico and Texas became, for a short time, an independent country. At independence time, the vast area, spreading from the Rio Grande to the Nueces River, south and west of the present city of San Antonio, was the domain of Mexican ranchers, who oversaw large herds of cattle on their rancheros.

The Texas Revolution saw the Mexican ranchers driven from their homes, back to Mexico, south of the Rio Grande, leaving most of their cattle behind. The new Texas government declared that all unbranded cattle were to become public property, leading to the branding of large herds of cattle by the Texans. Even so, because of the small value of cattle at the time, many, if not most of the abandoned Mexican Longhorn cattle (which breed originated in Spain) reverted to a wild state. Between 1836 and the Civil War these cattle multiplied -- did they ever. It is estimated that there were some 100,000 head of Longhorns in this area in 1830. By 1865 that number had grown to over 5 million! And by that time the cattle spread over a good portion of the central plains region of the Lone Star State.

These wild cattle gave rise to a new industry in Texas. Because of the large number of cattle, prices were very cheap in Texas -- as little as $3 per head, while in Chicago, for instance, they were worth 10 times as much. Shipping of cattle, by rail from Texas, was not an option -- As late as 1866 there were but 300 miles of rail in the entire state of Texas.

Nevertheless, early entrepreneur/adventurers gathered cattle in droves of 300 to 1,000 head and drove them to New Orleans, where they were shipped to Cuba and other destinations. Other cattle drives went to Missouri and Chicago. After the discovery of gold in California, in 1849, California, Arizona, and New Mexico were destinations for Texas cattle.

For, who knows how many millennia, vast herds of buffalo roamed the Great Plains, from Canada to Texas. Where there were buffalo there were Indians. The buffalo represented subsistence, and a way of life for the Indians. And where there were Indians, there could be no real cattle industry on the Great Plains.

The removal of the buffalo coincided with the advancement of the railroad across the plains in the 1870s. With the disappearance of the buffalo the Indians likewise went, and the movement of the southern cattle to Midwest railway terminals began to grow. The great northern Texas Cattle Drives really began in 1866, when a number of Texas Ranchers banded together to drive a large herd of cattle to the railhead at Baxter Springs, in Southeastern Kansas, for shipment to Kansas City and St. Louis, and ultimately, Chicago. As the railroads extended westward other Kansas towns became the northern destination for the cattle drives, Abilene, Newton, Dodge City.

By the late 1870s, free-roaming buffalo were a thing of the past in the eastern Plains, but were still roaming in large numbers in the West. As farming took over range land in Eastern Kansas, as quarantines were enforced against Texas cattle, and as railheads on the Union Pacific Railroad, such as at Ogallala in Nebraska, offered better rates than the Kansas Pacific line, cattle trails from Texas north moved further and further west. The Texas Trail, between Culbertson and Trenton, to the rail junction in Ogallala, thence to markets in Montana, or via rail to Chicago was one of the last of the important cattle destinations of Longhorn cattle from Texas, with some 100,000 head per year coming to Ogallala in the decade from 1874-84.

The organization of a cattle drive, with its accompanying rituals was quite strict. Cattle drives generally began in the spring, when grasses were lush and there was no longer danger from snow and cold weather. The cattle normally covered some 12 or 15 miles per day. At first they were "shoved," that is they were driven quite rapidly, to accustom them to travelling, and to tire them, diminishing the likelihood of a stampede.

Cattle on the trail were not herded in a group, rather they followed one after another, behind a natural leader. The line of a 1,000- head herd could extend for a mile or two. For a herd of 2,000 or 3,000 there would be a crew of some 12 cowboys. Drovers (the cowboys who kept the herd moving) worked in pairs, one on either side of the line of cattle. The best riders were stationed toward the front of the line. They were called "point men" or "lead riders."

The riders who followed were called "swing men," or "flank riders." Those who brought up the rear, watching for stragglers, were called "trail riders." Following the herd was a man in charge of the "remuda," or the horses that were not at the time being used by the riders.

The "remuda" was a sizeable herd, as 10 horses were generally used by each cowboy during the drive. One man cooked for the outfit, and drove the chuck wagon, which contained utensils and supplies for preparing meals for the men. Another man drove the wagon which carried the calves which were born on the trail, for the first few days of their lives. At the head of the entire operation was the "Foreman," who had much the same status as a ship captain. His word was law.

At night, the cowboys stood guard duty, two men to a two-hour shift, throughout the night. In case of a storm, especially a lightning storm, the entire crew might be called out for duty. There were no tents. Each man carried his own blanket. Using his saddle for a pillow, he slept out on the ground. The clothes he wore were his only clothes. In case of rain, he carried a waterproof "slicker," and wrapped his blanket in a waterproof sheet. It was no wonder that a hot public bath at the barbershops at the end of the trail was an anxiously anticipated event.

Sometimes, crossing a swollen stream, losses were incurred in the herd. Yet, swollen streams were preferable to "dry camps," where, in periods of extreme drought, there was no water. At these times the cattle tended to stray and required greater vigilance.

Still, a carefully managed trip with a herd would frequently end up with more animals than had started the trip, due to strays rounded up along the trail and the calves birthed during the trip.

The entire Texas cattle drive phenomena lasted a bare 20 years, but that was an era of importance in American history, which gave rise to, and glamorized the life and times of the cowboy, in the folk-lore of our written literature and in the movies -- to be constantly relived by new generations of Americans (and a surprising number of Europeans), yet today.

Source: Texas State Almanac; H.P Waites unpublished manuscript


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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By