Cattle Trails of the Prairies

But it was the height of the wave. Prices fell off, wet weather and cold winds injured the cattle’s condition, and the so-called Spanish fever, always a terror to the Northerners, and which seemed ineradicable from the Texas cattle’s blood, was causing more trouble than usual The herds were held on the grazing grounds until fall, in the hope of better prices, but to no purpose. Finally, shipping was stopped entirely, and over 300,000 cattle were unsold. Every year there had been some carried over, either because they could not be sold, or as has been so general in late years, to fatten on the Northern corn; but this number was unprecedented. The drovers took their stock westward to the buffalo grass region, it being impossible to procure hay and corn in central Kansas for the great throng.

At the beginning of winter of 1871-72 came a storm of sleet, putting an icy coat over the sod, and thousands of cattle and hundreds of horses died of cold and starvation. Some of the carcasses were skinned, but the majority were left for food for the wolves. About 100,000 hides were shipped from three stations after the storm. The winter was severe throughout, and it was estimated that less than 50,000 cattle lived through it. From herds of 60,000-70,000, only a few hundred survived. Like other booms in which the West has overreached itself, this one had its collapse.

Abilene’s prestige was gone. Ellsworth, forty miles further west, became the shipping point on the Kansas Pacific. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, being nearly completed through the southern portion of the state, began to compete for the trade. Newton, where the road crossed the trail to Abilene, stopped many of the herds, and with Ellsworth, divided the claim to the title Abilene had held for several years, “The wickedest town in the West.”

Dodge City, Kansas 1876

Dodge City, Kansas 1876

This description was afterward appropriated by Dodge City, and then, with the opening of the mining regions of Colorado, passed from the state and became the property of Leadville, and Deadwood, South Dakota. It was of the new shipping point that another picturesque saying became popular, “There is no Sunday west of Newton and no God west of Pueblo.” Wichita, too, claimed attention from the drovers, and 80,000 head went from there in 1872, while three times as many were shipped from the other towns combined. In 1873, 450,000  head were shipped from Kansas, and then again came a back-set in prices and weather conditions, but not equal to that of two years previous.

Soon after, Dodge City, on the Chisholm Trail’s western offshoot to Ellsworth, being reached by the Santa Fe Railroad, took the more northern station’s trade as Newton had absorbed Abilene’s, and for 12 years was the acknowledged shipping center for Texas cattle in the state. While the drives never reached such proportions as in 1871, they continued to be extensive until the building of the railroads across the Indian Territory and the establishment of shipping points in Texas itself. Even then, they did not wholly cease, and many thousand head came straggling across the line each year, being marketed for Dodge City, Wichita, or other railroad points.

The opening of Oklahoma, in 1890, made another barrier, however, and the season of 1891 saw the last of the bovine exodus that, through more than two decades, had furnished employment and profit for a large portion of the West’s workers. Neither advantage nor convenience was now found in that method of marketing, and henceforth, the only herds to wind their slow length over the once populous thoroughfares would be the young stock taken leisurely through the season from the warm climate of the Gulf region up northwesterly, skirting the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, to reach, after a six months’ journey, the highland feeding grounds of Wyoming and Montana. A year or two later they would go to market, sturdy and hard – fleshed beeves, ready for the export trade.

The task of the drover and his assistant cowboys in getting the herds from the Southern ranches to the Northern shipping points was one involving both skill and daring. Only a man of unflinching courage and quick movement could succeed in handling animals whose characteristics were rather those of the wild beast than of the creature bred for the sustenance of man. The Texas steer is no respecter of persons. For the man on horseback, he had a wholesome fear; he seemed to have something of the savage’s conceit that the combination is irresistible. Separately, neither man nor horse has any more chance in a herd fresh from the range than among so many wolves or jackals. With their long, sharp-pointed horns these steers rendered an enemy with ease, and the fights among themselves have all the ferociousness of contests in the jungle.

Branding Cattle, 1891

Branding Cattle, 1891

The first contact between the cowboys and the cattle was at the annual round-up when the whole territory, over which the owner’s herds range is gone over and the cattle gathered for branding. The offspring were given the mark of the mother, and the ranch owner possesses a brand as exclusively as does a manufacturer a trade-mark. After the young have been lassoed, held, and had their flesh burned with the red-hot branding-iron, leaving a scar in the form of a letter, figure, or combination design that will last for life, they are turned loose and no human hand is laid on them until they become “beeves,” that is, four years old and ready for market. The cowboys lived in cabins near the water-courses and watched the stock from day to day, sometimes having the herds 10 or 20 miles away. Should any “mavericks,” that is, unbranded stock over one-year-old, get with the herd, they become the property of the person branding them, hence no inconsiderable addition was frequently made to a herd by this means.

The cattle barons in the palmy days of the cattle trade lived like princes. They did not reside on the ranch, but in some of the Texas cities, or spent their time in luxurious traveling while their wealth increased at a ratio beyond their capacity for spending it. Many of them did not know how many cattle they owned.

Texas Longhorns

Texas Longhorns

Their career was one of extravagance and display. Diamonds, carriages, and banquets made their life brilliant while it lasted. When, in the later 1870’s and the early part of the decade following, their power and wealth were at the highest point, they practically owned the Lone Star State. From No Man’s Land (present-day Oklahoma Panhandle) to El Paso, Texas, their cattle grazed; prices were high and capital was flowing in for investment. But the agriculturist came, too, and farms drove out the ranches.

The first owners did not always send the cattle to market. Drovers made a business of going from ranch to ranch and purchasing the marketable beeves. “Dogies,” “sea-lions,” and “longhorns” were favorite nicknames for the cattle, and size, as well as title, depended on the latitude. The southern Texas stock was smaller, and from 4000-6000 were driven at a time. Of northern Texas stock, 1500 to 3000 made a good-sized “drive.”

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