Do you have the theme song to Rawhide running through your head yet?
Who can forget Clint Eastwood and the show that launched his career?
But, that’s not my topic. Just wanted to get you fired up. Cattle drives are on my mind, that period in American history when cowboys drove large herds from Texas to points north. Though most people know that trail drives lasted from 1867 to 1881, few are aware that cattle were driven to markets in Kansas and Missouri as early as the 1840’s over the Shawnee Trail.
The Shawnee Trail began in San Antonio, Texas. It ran northward through Austin, Waco, and Dallas and crossed the Red River near Preston, Texas at a place called Rock Bluff. The trail divided north of the Red River with part of it veering sharply eastward through Arkansas while the other branch ran due north. The final destination led to rail heads in Baxter Springs and Westport in Kansas and Kansas City, Sedalia, and St. Louis in Missouri. The route passed by a Shawnee village in north Texas and went near the Shawnee Hills in Indian Territory. Many settlers traveled this road in their migration west. At times it was referred to as the Texas Road. But in the 1850’s farmers in Missouri became angry when the herds of Longhorns infected their cattle with a tick-borne disease called Texas fever. The farmers began turning back the drovers and left them with few choices. They could either take them elsewhere or back home to Texas. In 1859 and 1860 violence erupted when drovers encountered stiff resistance and tried to push through the blockades anyway. Then, the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 stopped traffic on the Shawnee Trail north of Indian Territory.
Once the war was over, Jesse Chisholm blazed the Chisholm Trail and herds were taken up from Texas to the Kansas cow towns of Dodge City, Caldwell, Wichita, Newton, Ellsworth, and Abilene. More than half the cattle driven north followed the Chisholm Trail. It was by far the best known and probably the longest at 1,000 miles.
The Goodnight-Loving Trail was developed by Texans Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving. Larry McMurtry brought their lives to the big screen in Lonesome Dove. The Goodnight-Loving Trail started in central Texas, headed due west across the Pecos River into New Mexico and Colorado before reaching a destination in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
The Texas/Western Trail started in San Antonio and headed due north through Texas and Indian Territory in Oklahoma to Dodge City, Kansas. Eventually it continued north to Ogallala, Nebraska. There it split into the Texas Trail with one branch continuing to Dakota Territory and other extending west to Cheyenne before turning north again past Fort Laramie through the Powder River Basin and on to Montana Territory.
A lesser-known route was the Chisum Trail that was established by John Chisum. It began in central Texas and traveled west into New Mexico ending at Fort Sumner.
A herd could easily travel 15 miles a day. Any farther than that and the Longhorn would lose their weight. A normal trip lasted three to four months.
The average size of a herd was around 3,000. And with the going price per head at $40 that was quite a hefty profit. Even after paying the fifteen to thirty cowboys it took to drive the Longhorns to the rail head a cattleman came out way ahead. By the way, an ordinary cowboy only earned about $40 to $50 a month on the cattle drive. Sometimes they received a bonus though at the end of the trail if the drover felt they’d earned it.
Here are some surprising statistics:
In 1867, 35,000 head of cattle went up the trails.
By 1869, that figure increased to 350,000.
The peak year was 1871 when cowpunchers moved 600,000 head. Wow!
The last major year was 1881 when 250,000 longhorns were moved out of Texas so that was quite a decrease and was attributed to significant expansion of the railroad.
Cattle had a road brand burned into their hip for the trip so cowboys could tell which herd was whose, since many herds followed the same trails at the same time. At the end of the drive, cattle owners rebranded cattle with a permanent brand if they weren’t to be slaughtered.
Can you imagine spending 6 months of a year away from home and on the road? That’s what the drovers and cowpunchers spent on an average cattle drive-three months there and approximately three back home. Their families probably missed them terribly. And just think about all the things a man got left out of. I’m a homebody down to my bones and wouldn’t want to go through this experience. It’d be too tough. What about you? Are you adventuresome?