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Updated by Demetrius Atkins on Feb 07, 2017
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Texas Cattle Trails: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

Historical Links and Images of Texas Cattle Trails

Chisholm Trail Trad'in Post

Photograph of a Chisholm Trail Trad'in Post mural in Meridian, Texas. The mural shows two cowboys on horseback leading a cow.

Map showing Cattle Trails from 1866 to 1895

Map of the cattle trails throughout Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, and Texas, used to travel northward to markets and shipping points. The map also includes state boundaries, major towns, bodies of water, and areas of elevation. Relief shown in hachures.

Cattle Bunching

Photograph of a group of men on horseback, with a group of Texas Longhorn Cattle.

The Red River rolled by at full flood, its muddy waters looking more like the Mississippi than the stream the Texas cowboys had hoped to find. Like most of the region’s rivers, the Red might rise suddenly and dangerously–as much as 25 feet in a day. Despite the currents of the swollen river, one trail boss was determined to get his herd of Longhorn cattle across. ‘Old Man’ Todd knew the dangers of herds as big as his getting backed up at a ford, waiting for the river to go down. With as many as 25,000 cattle from a dozen herds bunched up in a few square miles of rolling terrain, a full-blown stampede could be disastrous, and in any case the ground would soon be overgrazed.

The great Texas cattle drives started in the 1860’s because we had lots of longhorn and the rest of the country wanted beef. (We get beef from cattle.) From about 1865 to the mid-1890's, our vaqueros and cowboys herded about 5 million cattle to markets up north while also becoming famous legends that made Texas proud.

Cattle drive

A Cattle drive involved cowboys on horseback moving herds of cattle long distances, usually to market. It was a major economic activity in the frontier stage of the American southwest, especially 1866-95, when 10 million cattle were herded from Texas to railheads in Kansas for shipments to stockyards in Chicago and points east. Because of extensive treatment in fiction and film the cowboy became the worldwide iconic image of the American.

  No single endeavor has marked the image of Texas in the national mind more than the cattle drive. For more than a century, writers have romanticized the work and the life of the cowboy. Cattle have been raised in Texas from the time the Spanish attempted to establish missions and domesticate the Indians, beginning in the mid-18th century.

Texas Cattle Drives

The
era of the great cattle drives began right after the Civil War. 
Cowboys originated in Spanish, CA and Mexico then adapted to the Texas drives in the 1870s and 1880s

Early cattle drives were initiated by Nelson Story and Charles Goodnight. 
Cattle were driven across the Chisholm and other trails to cow towns such as Abilene and Dodge City.

Life on the open range changed forever with the invention of barbed wire. Fences, combined with the back to back
killer winters of 1886 and 1887, changed the cattle industry forever.

TEXAS FEVER. Readers of the Veterinarian, an English journal, were informed in June 1868 that a "very subtle and terribly fatal disease" had broken out among cattle in Illinois. The disease killed quickly and was reported to be "fatal in every instance." The disease was very nearly as fatal as the Veterinarian claimed. Midwestern farmers soon realized that it was associated with longhorn cattle driven north by South Texas ranchers. The Texas cattle appeared healthy, but midwestern cattle, including Panhandle animals, allowed to mix with them or to use a pasture recently vacated by the longhorns, became ill and very often died. Farmers called the disease Texas fever or Texas cattle fever because of its connection with Texas cattle. Other names included Spanish fever and splenic or splenetic fever, from its characteristic lesions of the spleen. The disease is also known as hemoglobinuric fever and red-water fever, and formerly as dry murrain and bloody murrain. To protect their cattle, states along the cattle trails passed quarantine laws routing cattle away from settled areas or restricting the passage of herds to the winter months, when there was less danger from Texas fever. In 1885 Kansas entirely outlawed the driving of Texas cattle across its borders. Kansas, with its central location and rail links with other, more northern markets, was crucial to the Texas cattle-trailingqv business. The closing of Kansas, together with restrictive legislation passed by many other states, was an important factor in ending the Texas cattle-trailing industry that had flourished for twenty years. (see SHAWNEE TRAIL.)

Texas History; Cattle Drives in Early Texas along the Chisholm Trail, actual stories and photos from Texas trail drives

[Biographical Sketch of Manuel Orgain]

Biographical summary of Manuel Orgain, a "Negro cowman" who drove freight wagons and herded cattle and livestock through several trails across Texas, and to other states. It recounts several specific events, including a story about the 1869 flood on the San Gabriel River, and other storms.

The cowboy of Western mythology rode the range during the heyday of the long cattle drives in the l860s and 1870s. Despite the individualism emphasized in myth, most cowhands were employees of Eastern and European capitalists who raised cattle as a corporate enterprise to serve a growing appetite for beef in the U.S. Cowboys were overworked hired hands who rode in freezing wind and rain or roasted in the Texas sun; searched for lost cattle; mended fences; ate monotonous and bad food; and suffered stampedes, quicksand, blizzards, floods, and drought. The work was hard, dangerous, and often lonely; pay averaged from $25 to $40 a month. Many became cowboys for lack of other job opportunities; one of every three cowboys was an African American or Mexican. Reminiscing in the 1930s for an interviewer from the Federal Writers Project, cowboy George Martin recalled the tough work, rough conditions, and long days required to keep up with the demands of cattle raising in Texas.