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Cattle Trails of the Prairies

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By Charles Moreau Harger in 1892

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In 1860, Texas, as it had been for many years before, was the chief producer of livestock, in the Western States. Upon all its widespread ranges were feeding herds by the thousand, and no other industry approached that of cattle-raising in importance or extent. The few hundred thousand cattle of Spanish blood which had been placed there during the state’s life as a Mexican province, were multiplied until three and a half million head were estimated as Texas’ belongings. They had been somewhat improved in breed, but were still wiry, nervous, long-limbed creatures, with slender, branching horns and restless eyes. They could run like deer, and were almost as wild.


The peculiarly favorable climate of Texas gave the state almost a monopoly of the business. The pastures were green the year around, and the proximity to market, either at points on the Mississippi River, to which herds from the eastern part of the State could easily be driven, or by water from points on the Gulf, gave a distinct advantage.


Mexico had in times past been a valuable consumer, but was now nearly deserted, and the nearer selling-places were able to handle the supply. The fine, hair-like "buffalo grass” that covers the prairies for four hundred miles east of the mountains, and wherever found is as nourishing in winter as in summer, flourished in abundance, and the mesquite was not to be despised as a change of diet for the herds.


Cattle Round-up in South Dakota

Cattle Round-up in South Dakota, 1887

This image available for photographic prints HERE!


The outbreak of the Civil War brought upon the ranch owners a peculiar embarrassment of riches. With the Northern market cut off, and Southern business life demoralized, no disposition could be made of the rapidly increasing herds. Occasional fugitive sales along the Mississippi River became almost the only markets. Prices declined, and for a time two to four dollars a head would purchase the best animals on the ranges. Driving northward had not been much practiced, and now, with the sharp skirmishing along the Kansas and Missouri frontier, there was no opportunity to begin it. Stock was neglected as valueless. Men were "cattle-poor,” and it was a time of discouragement to those who had looked for fortunes in their enterprises.

In 1865 and’ 1866 the ranch owners determined to seek Northern markets at any cost, and thousands of animals were massed in the northeast portion of the state preparatory to driving to Missouri railroad stations. The summer of 1866 saw this movement begin. Fully two hundred and seventy thousand head were pushed northward. There was little regularity in the courses taken. The Rock Bluffs ford, on the Red River, was the starting place for many. Up the Kinishi Valley, across the plains to Fort Smith, Arkansas, then, with a circuitous route among the Ozarks, across southeastern Missouri – that was the line most followed.

Frontier FactBut, a new danger threatened. There had ensconced themselves among the wilder regions of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, bands of outlaws, legitimate successors to the guerrillas of civil War days, who by mere force of advantageous position, levied unmerciful tribute upon all drovers passing through their territory. The tax was an oppressive one, and no matter how shrewd were the movements of the herders, the unwieldy masses of animals were sure to be detected. Should the demands of the outlaws not be acceded to, the drover was in many instances subjected to bodily punishment. At the same time one of the persecutors would ride furiously at the herd, swinging a colored blanket. The timed beeves, bewildered by the unwanted sight, would scurry in every direction, becoming more frightened as they ran, until the herd would be scattered over miles of territory. Days and weeks of search on the part of the cowboys, as the herders who assisted the drover were called, would serve to secure only a portion of the lot.


Fear of Spanish fever was made the pretext for other delays, while the hostility of the Cherokee Indians in the northeastern part of the Indian Territory shut off a more westerly route to avoid the bandits. Many head of cattle were lost on the way by reason of the toilsome track through the Ozark Mountains, and the remainder reached markets in St. Louis and Sedalia in poor condition and brought low prices. The year’s drive was discouraging and unprofitable to the Texas cattle barons and many plans were considered for the disposition of the constantly growing surplus. Northern prices for good stock were flattering; capital was ready for investment in the businesses; nothing was needed but an outlet for the abundance of beef.





Cattle Round-up.The solution of the problem confronting the cattle raisers came through the construction of the railroads across Kansas. In 1867 the old Kansas Pacific Railroad, now the Kansas Division of the Union Pacific, was being built from Kansas City along the valley of the Kansas River due west across the state.


It had reached half way from the Missouri to the mountains before the possibilities it offered became apparent. The country traversed was but sparsely settled; the towns consisted for the most part of a few rude cabins, including the inevitable saloon. But the tide of emigration was pushing westward, and there was a magnificent empire for it to conquer.


One of the first comers was an Illinois stock-dealer, Joseph G. McCoy, to whom is due the honor of originating the Kansas and Texas cattle trails. He was familiar with the situation in the Lone Star State, and conceived the idea of forming a great shipping point on the new railroad. He was encouraged by the officials and arrangements were made for the location of the proper yards at Abilene, a station one hundred and sixty-five miles from Kansas City, situated in the midst of a richly-grassed prairie section, admirably adapted for grazing grounds of incoming herds. The town had less than a dozen houses, and was within less than thirty miles of the end of the road, as then completed. Yards were built and steps were taken to induce the cattlemen to make this a point from which to ship their herds.


A single horseman was dispatched on a lonely ride across Indian-infested prairies to send every herd he could encounter to the new shipping place. He went southwest, crossing the Arkansas River near the site of the present city of Wichita, thence into the Indian Territory. It was some time before he found any of the straggling herds, and when he did he could with difficulty induce the drovers to believe that they would be treated with respect and fairness, so used were they to the violence of the old course. However, many were convinced, and a herd of nearly two thousand head, belonging to some Californians, was the first to break the northern end of a trail over which so many million restless hoofs were destined to travel. About thirty-six thousand cattle, one percent of Texas’ supply, reaching Abilene that season, and every drover went back well pleased with the facilities afforded. The first shipment from Abilene was made September 5, 1867, and was celebrated by an excursion of Illinois stock dealers coming in a special train to see the start. Money was lost on the year’s business, both from damage to the droves by floods and Indian raids, and because of the prejudice in the East against Texas beef, then considered by many too wild for use.


The movement was started, and 1868 saw a general friendliness for the new market among Texas stock owners, and a northward drive that exceeded seventy-five thousand head. But the succeeding year, 1869, showed a greater increase, and one hundred and sixty thousand cattle came tramping up like a horned army from the ranches of the South.


Jesse ChisholmBy this time well defined trails had been located, and for two decades those trunk-lines connecting the great producing and consuming points held their supremacy. The most famous of these was the "Chisholm Trail." It was named after Jesse, an eccentric frontier stockman, who was the first to drive over it. Chisholm lived at Paris, Texas, was a bachelor, and had many thousand head of cattle on the ranges in the southern part of the State. Later he removed to New Mexico, and died a few years ago, leaving almost uncounted droves upon his ranches. There was through Texas, reaching down from the Red River, the irregular "Southern Texas Trail,” ending at the north near Cooke County. From the Red River, Chisholm broke the way to Kansas, riding ahead of his herd and selecting what seemed the most favorable route. He forded the Red River near the mouth of Mud Creek, followed that stream to its head, kept northwest to Wild Horse Creek, to the west of Signal Mountains, and crossed the Washita at Elm Spring. Due north took him to the Canadian River, after leaving which he soon struck the Kingfisher Creek Valley. This was followed to the Cimarron. Touching the head of Black Bear and Bluff Creeks, its next considerable stream was the Salt fork of the Arkansas, which was crossed at Sewell’s Ranch. Sewell was a Government post-trader, who was a favorite with the Indians, and had two large ranches in the Territory.


Coming into Kansas near Caldwell, the course was a little east of north, crossing the Arkansas near Wichita. Here was the famous ‘‘First and Last Chance saloon, with its sign-board facing two ways to attract the cowboys coming up across the Territory and those returning from market. Thence the trail turned northeasterly, striking Newton, and so on over the divide between the Smoky Hill and the Arkansas to the prairies south of Abilene. Following Chisholm's track came thousands of herds, and the trail became a notable course.


From two hundred to four hundred yards wide, beaten into the bare earth it reached over hill and through valley for over six hundred miles (including its southern extension) a chocolate band amid the green prairies, uniting the North and South.




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I wish I could find words to express the trueness, the bravery, the hardihood, the sense of honor, the loyalty to their trust and to each other of the old trail hands.


 -- Charles Goodnight



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