Cattle drives moved large herds of livestock to market, to shipping points, or to find fresh pasturage. The practice was introduced to North America early during European colonization. As early as 1540, Spaniards established a cattle industry and began driving herds northward from central Mexico, as they looked for good pasturage. The cattle culture of the early American Southwest borrowed heavily from the South American and Central American cowboys, who were called "gauchos." These gauchos developed the chaps, spurs, saddles, and the techniques of horsemanship and cattle handling associated with the cowboy. By 1690 cattle were brought as far north as Texas. Having little commercial value, cattle were left to roam freely in the open range, and by the early 1800s hundreds of thousands of wild longhorns populated the region.
Cattle drives were also known in the newly established United States. Cattle were driven several hundred miles from Tennessee to Virginia in the 1790s. It was not until the 1830s, however, that cattle driving became a steady occupation. Drives took place from Texas to the port at New Orleans. Further west, some herds were even driven from California to Oregon in the 1830s. In the 1840s, most drives continued to originate in Texas, bringing beef northward to various Missouri market points. They even extended to California to feed the gold miners following the Gold Rush of 1849. With the outbreak of the American Civil War (1861–1865), the focus of Texas cattle drives shifted dramatically to feed Confederate troops in the South.
After the Civil War the market for Texas cattle vanished and ranchers were left holding several million head. Drives toward the north began again in 1866, but with little financial gain. Fortunately for the cattlemen, the close of the Civil War also marked a major transition in U.S. meat–consumption patterns. A national preference for pork abruptly gave way to beef. Cattle worth four dollars a head in Texas might be sold at 40 dollars a head in Missouri or Kansas. In addition, a ready workforce was already in place: the de-commissioned horsemen of the Confederate cavalry plus freed ex-slaves and Mexican gauchos combined to provide a ready supply of skilled horsemen. Responding to the demand for beef, James G. McCoy established a cattle market in Abilene, Kansas in 1867, and the era of massive cattle drives began. Soon others saw the wild Texas herds as a ready means to tap into the lucrative northern market with little start–up capital.
The famous Chisholm Trail became a major route. The trail was established in 1865 by Jesse Chisholm and ran 600 miles from San Antonio, Texas, to Abilene, Kansas. More a corridor than a trail, the route was as much as 50 miles wide in some stretches. Typically rivers and Indian lands had to be crossed, but good grazing, relatively level terrain, and higher prices waiting at the destination made the hazards worthwhile. Drives were cost–effective too—a drive of two thousand or more cattle usually required only a trail boss and a dozen cowhands.
In 1867 the Goodnight–Loving Trail opened markets for Texas cattle in Colorado and New Mexico. The booming demand for beef drew many more settlers to Texas and the Southwest. Cattle ranching had become big business and attracted Eastern investors. In 1869 more than 350,000 head of cattle were driven along the Chisholm Trail. By 1871 more than 700,000 head were driven along the route. The practice of branding made it easy to identify the owners. The extermination of buffalo on the Great Plains during the 1870s opened more grasslands for livestock grazing and the Texas longhorn was the first to fill the void. Local economies of towns along the frequently used routes benefited substantially. Fort Worth, Texas, served as a provisioning stop on the Chisholm Trail. Merchants would send out individuals with gifts to entice cowhands into to town to spend their money.
In the mid–1870s farming crept westward and barbed wire fencing threatened the cattle drives. The Chisholm Trail detoured 100 miles westward to Dodge City, Kansas. Cattlemen petitioned Congress to designate a National Cattle Trail. Envisioned as a several mile wide strip from the Red River to Canada, the proposal never came to fruition.
The longhorn was the preferred trail–herd breed for cattle drives until the late 1880s. A descendent of Andalusian cattle that the Spaniards had let run wild in the Southwest, the lean, hardy, lanky animals were the product of three centuries of interbreeding. They thrived on buffalo grass and needed less water than other species. Though often dangerous in a herd and not good beef producers—their meat was stringy and tough—the longhorn was readily available and provided a means to establish a cattle industry in the more arid Southwest. Eventually as cattle drives became less frequent, longhorns were interbred with Durhams and Herefords to create more plump and docile varieties.
By the mid–1880s the great days of the cattle drives were about over. The farmers and their barbed wire were blocking the right–of–way of the drives. Even with branding, the presence of cattle rustlers lowered the profit margin and made the drives more dangerous. The herds sometimes suffered from "Texas Fever," a disease transmitted by ticks. Also, the extension of railroad tracks in the south and west largely did away with the need for drives. In addition, abnormally harsh winters during 1885–1886 and 1886–1887 devastated the cattle industry. The drives continued into the 1890s with herds being driven from the Texas panhandle to Montana, but by 1895, the era of cattle drives finally ended as new homestead laws further spurred settlement. With the decline of the open range cattle industry, Southwest ranches became large, fenced livestock farms safe from the westward expansion of civilization.
Some communities, such as Fort Worth, became points where herds were assembled for shipping by rail. Packing plants were built and stockyards grew at the turn of the century. The cattle drive lives on in western legend, however, and remains integrally associated with the economic history of Texas.
See also: Barbed Wire, Chisholm Trail, Cowboy, Cow Towns, Longhorn Cattle
Beckstead, James H. Cowboying: A Tough Job in a Hard Land. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1991.
Eggen, John E. The West That Was. West Chester, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1991.
Hamner, Laura V. Short Grass and Longhorns. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1943.
McLoughlin, Denis. Wild and Woolly: An Encyclopedia of the Old West. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1975.
CATTLE DRIVES. Contrary to popular conception, long-distance cattle driving was traditional not only in Texas but elsewhere in North America long before anyone dreamed of the Chisholm Trail. The Spaniards, who established the ranching industry in the New World, drove herds northward from Mexico as far back as 1540. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Spanish settlements in Texas derived most of their meager revenue from contraband trade of horses and cattle driven into Louisiana. In the United States, herds of cattle, horses, and pigs were sometimes driven long distances as well. In 1790 the boy Davy Crockett helped drive "a large stock of cattle" four hundred miles, from Tennessee into Virginia. In 1815 Timothy Flint "encountered a drove of more than 1,000 cattle and swine" being driven from the interior of Ohio to Philadelphia.
Earlier examples notwithstanding, Texans established trail driving as a regular occupation. Before 1836, Texans had a "beef trail" to New Orleans. In the 1840s they extended their markets northward into Missouri. During the 1850s emigration and freighting from the Missouri River westward demanded great numbers of oxen, and thousands of Texas longhorn steers were broken for use as work oxen. Herds of longhorns were driven to Chicago and at least one herd to New York.
Under Spanish-Mexican government, California also developed ranching, and during the 1830s and 1840s a limited number of cattle were trailed from California to Oregon. However, the discovery of gold in California temporarily arrested development of the cattle industry and created a high demand for outside beef. During the 1850s, although cattle were occasionally driven to California from Missouri, Arkansas, and perhaps other states, the big drives were from Texas.
During the Civil War, Texans drove cattle throughout the South for the Confederate forces. At the close of the war Texas had some 5 million cattle—and no market for them. In 1866 there were many drives northward without a definite destination and without much financial success. Texas cattle were also driven to the old, but limited, New Orleans market.
In 1867 Joseph G. McCoy opened a regular market at Abilene, Kansas. The great cattle trails, moving successively westward, were established, and trail driving boomed. Also in 1867, the Goodnight-Loving Trail opened New Mexico and Colorado to Texas cattle. They were soon driven into Arizona by the tens of thousands. In Texas, cattle raising expanded like wildfire. Dodge City, Kansas; Ogallala, Nebraska; Cheyenne, Wyoming, and other towns became famous because of trail-driver patronage.
During the 1870s the buffalo were virtually exterminated, and the American Indians of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains were subjugated. Vast areas were left vacant. They were first occupied by Texas longhorns, driven by Texas cowboys. The Long Trail extended as far as Canada.
In the 1890s, herds were still driven from the Panhandle of Texas to Montana, but by 1895 trail driving had virtually ended because of barbed wire, railroads, and settlement. During three swift decades it had moved more than 10 million head of cattle and 1 million range horses, stamped the entire West with its character, given economic prestige and personality to Texas, made the longhorn the most historic brute in bovine history, and glorified the cowboy throughout the globe.
Gard, Wayne. The Chisholm Trail. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1954.
Hunter, J. Marvin, compiler and ed. The Trail Drivers of Texas: Interesting Sketches of Early Cowboys. 2d ed. rev. Nashville, Tenn.: Cokesbury Press, 1925.
Osgood, Ernest Staples. The Day of the Cattleman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1929. New ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
Worcester, Don. The Chisholm Trail: High Road of the Cattle Kingdom. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980.
J. FrankDobie/f. b.