The Spaniards were the first set of people who drove cattle from one area to another, in the Americas. During the 19th century the scale on which this was done rapidly increased, as Americans began eating more beef than pork. The peak years of cattle driving were between 1866 and 1886, when over 20 million heads of cow were herded from Texas to Kansas, to be shipped to the stockyards in Chicago. The era of cattle drives has played a significant part of the history of the United States, and much of the culture in the west still reflects this influence. Cowboys and cattle ranchers were the first groups of European settlers to live on the Great Plains, adopting many Native American habits in order to survive.
In the 1820s ranching began in Texas, with Mexican cowboys (vaqueros) controlling the majority of the ranches in the area. By 1836, American ranchers had driven them out, and confiscated their cattle. When they were forced to leave in order to join the civil war, which started in 1861, the cattle were left to roam freely in conditions where they thrived. They roamed the plains, eating freely and multiplying rapidly with few people about to limit their movements.
After the war these large herds were rounded up and sold along three main routes: the one leading to western areas such as New Orleans and California; north to Sedalia, Missouri where they were put on trains to Chicago (between the years of 1865 and 1870, when the increase in the demand for beef in the north had risen significantly); and those that were driven to Denver, Colorado to provide beef for the gold miners there.
The Herding Team
When driving the cattle, the team had to be able to balance speed with maintaining the herd’s weight. The cattle needed to be fat enough to ensure a sale at the end of the journey, and it was the crew’s responsibility to monitor their weight gain. Groups moved about 15 miles daily, pausing at mid-day and during the night, for the cattle to graze and the herders to rest. Each herd consisted of an average of 3000 animals, accompanied by:
• The Boss – most of the time this was the owner of the cattle. He would ensure that there was no suspicious activity during the journey, and negotiated a fair price for the animals after.
• Cowboys – at least 10 cowboys, with 3-5 horses each, travelled with each group and worked in shifts.
• The Cook – having many more responsibilities than just the preparation of food for the crew, the cook drove the chuck wagon as well as saw to their medical needs. The chuck wagon was where the bedrolls were kept clean and dry and the field kitchen and medical supplies housed. The cook was also in charge of taking care of the oxen that pulled the wagon.
• Horse Wrangler – the lowest ranked of the entire crew, the horse wrangler’s job was to take care of the extra horses. He could be called upon to assist the cowboys in other ways whenever it became necessary.
Crew members were paid after the journey, when the cattle were sold, and cowboys earned an average of $40 per month.
The Open Range
During the first half of the 19th century, the majority of cattle drives passed through the open range, which was unsettled land where the animals could roam freely. At first, the ranchers and farmers living in the area shared these fields willing. During the 1860s, however, many of them began fencing off their lands, using barbed wire, because the mingling of roaming animals with their stock was facilitating the spread of tick fever and other diseases. In 1867, six states went as far as to make laws against the driving of cattle north, which cause a drastic decline in the number of herds that went through the open ranges. By 1885, as much as half the cattle on the plains had died due to overgrazing, overstocking, drought and severe winters causing the herders to completely avoid this route thereafter.
The Chisholm Trail
In order to overcome the problems that leading the cattle through the open range were causing, Joseph G. McCoy opened a cattle shipping facility in Abilene, Kansas. It was located west of farm country, in order to prevent disputes with those along the route, and close to the Abilene railhead. This facility quickly became the centre of the cattle shipping industry and, in order to make for the quickest journey possible, Jesse Chisholm marked out a trail which ran the 520 miles from Fort Worth, Texas, across modern day Oklahoma to the Abilene railhead.
The Chisholm Trail became the solution to the problems that ranchers and farmers had with the cattle grazing on their land, and is believed to have been the most important cattle trail at the time. Even though it went through the Native Indian territory, the herders were allowed to pass as long as they paid the charge of 10cents per cow.
The cattle industry continued to expand and new trails opened up, many moving westward. In 1871, the Chisholm Trail lost its importance when Dodge City replaced Abilene as the major shipping port. By 1880, however, it regained its popularity which it maintained until the industry decreased significantly as rail shipments began to take the place of trail driving cattle.
In order to ease the pressure of the long journeys that the animals and those accompanying them had to undertake, cow towns developed along the trails to ensure that the groups were able to rest and revive themselves along the way. The majority of these towns thrived during the peak of the era, and the most prominent ones had railheads from which the herds were shipped to the Chicago Stockyards. The first major cattle town erected was Abilene, Kansas, followed by Wichita and Dodge City, which became known as The Cowboy Capital of the World in the 1880s. Other towns, which developed as a result of the cattle drives, were Las Vegas, New Mexico; Amarillo, Texas and Miles City, Montana.
These towns had diverse populations, including buffalo hunters, railroad construction gangs and freighting outfits where the cattle was bought and sold. There were also facilities for the cowboys to enjoy themselves, after months of abstinence and monotony. Each town did its best to provide good food, lots of liquor, beautiful women and 24hr gambling.
In the 1890s, with the expansion of the railroad, meat packing was done closer to where the herds lived and many of the long cattle drives became unnecessary. They have still left a mark on the area and the entire history of the United States. Today, there are a few cattle drives that still take place in the west, and cowboys that live and work in the area, ensuring that the era of the cattle trails still lives on.