The Cattle Trails

  By Emerson Hough in 1918

Cattle Trail

Cattle Trail

The customary method of studying history by means of a series of events and dates is not the method which we have chosen to employ in this study of the Old West. Speaking generally, our minds are unable to assimilate a condensed mass of events and dates; and that is precisely what would be required of us if we should attempt here to follow the ways of conventional history. Dates are at best no more than milestones on the pathway of time; and in the present instance it is not the milestones but the road itself with which we are concerned. Where does the road begin? Why comes it hither? Whither does it lead? These are the real questions.

Under all the exuberance of the life of the range there lay a steady business of tremendous size and enormous values. The “uproarious iniquity” of the West, its picturesqueness, its vividness–these were but froth on the stream. The stream itself was a steady and somber flood.

Beyond this picturesqueness of environment very few have cared to go, and therefore sometimes have had little realization of the vastness of the cowboys’ kingdom, the “magnitude of the interests in his care, or the fortitude, resolution, and instant readiness essential to his daily life.” The American cowboy is the most modern representative of a human industry that is second to very few in antiquity.

Julius Caesar struck the note of real history: Quorum pars magna fui–“Of which I was a great part.” If we are to seek the actual truth, we ought most to value contemporary records, representations made by men who were themselves a part of the scenes which they describe. In that way we shall arrive not merely upon lurid events, not alone upon the stereotyped characters of the “Wild West,” but upon causes which are much more interesting and immensely more valuable than any merely titillating stories from the weirdly illustrated Apocrypha of the West. We must go below such things if we would gain a just and lasting estimate of the times. We ought to look on the old range neither as a playground of idle men nor as a scene of hysterical and contorted human activities. We ought to look upon it from the point of view of its uses to mankind. The explorers found it a wilderness, the home of the red man and the buffalo. What were the underlying causes of its settlement and development?

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There is in history no agency so wondrous in events, no working instrumentality so great as transportation. The great seeking of all human life is to find its level. Perhaps the first men traveled by hollowed logs down stream. Then possibly the idea of a sail was conceived. Early in the story of the United States men made commercial journeys from the head of the Ohio to the mouth of the Mississippi River by flatboats, and came back by keelboats. The pole, the cordelle, the paddle, and the sail, in turn helped them to navigate the great streams which led out into the West. And presently there was to come that tremendous upheaval wrought by the advent of the iron trails which, scorning alike waterways and mountain ranges, flung themselves almost directly westward across the continent.

The iron trails, crossing the northern range soon after the Civil War, brought a market to the cattle country. Inevitably the men of the lower range would seek to reach the railroads with what they had to sell–their greatest natural product, cattle on the hoof. This was the primary cause of the great northbound drives already mentioned, the greatest pastoral phenomena in the story of the world.

The southern herds at that time had no market at their doors. They had to go to the market, and they had to go on foot. That meant that they must be driven northward by cattle handlers who had passed their days in the wild life of the lower range.

These cowmen of course took their character and their customs northward with them, and so they were discovered by those enthusiastic observers, newly arrived by rail, whom the cowmen were wont to call “pilgrims.”

Now the trail of the great cattle drives — the Long Trail — was a thing of tremendous importance of itself and it is still full of interest. As it may not easily be possible for the author to better a description of it that was written some twenty years ago, that description is here again set down.

Cattle Roundup

Cattle Roundup

The braiding of a hundred minor pathways, the Long Trail lay like a vast rope connecting the cattle country of the South with that of the North. Lying loose or coiling, it ran for more than two thousand miles along the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains; sometimes close in at their feet, again hundreds of miles away across the hard tablelands or the well-flowered prairies.

It traversed in a fair line the vast land of Texas, curled over the Indian Nations, over Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana, and bent in wide overlapping circles as far west as Utah and Nevada; as far east as Missouri, Iowa, even Illinois; and as far north as the British possessions.

Even today you may trace plainly its former course, from its faint beginnings in the lazy land of Mexico, the Ararat of the cattle-range. It is distinct across Texas, and multifold still in the Indian lands. Its many intermingling paths still scar the iron surface of the Neutral Strip, and the plows have not buried all the old furrows in the plains of Kansas. Parts of the path still remain visible in the mountain lands of the far North. You may see the ribbons banding the hillsides today along the valley of the Stillwater, and along the Yellowstone River and toward the source of the Missouri River. The hoof marks are beyond the Musselshell, over the Bad Lands and the coulees and the flat prairies; and far up into the land of the long cold you may see, even today if you like, the shadow of that unparalleled pathway, the Long Trail of the cattle-range. History has no other like it.

Cowboy Leading Horses

Cowboy Leading Horses

The Long Trail was surveyed and constructed in a century and a day. Over the Red River of the South, a stream even today perhaps known but vaguely in the minds of many inhabitants of the country, there appeared, almost without warning, vast processions of strange horned kine–processions of enormous wealth, owned by kings who paid no tribute, and guarded by men who never knew a master. Whither these were bound, what had conjured them forth, whence they came, were questions in the minds of the majority of the population of the North and East to whom the phenomenon appeared as the product of a day. The answer to these questions lay deep in the laws of civilization, and extended far back into that civilization’s history. The Long Trail was finished in a day. It was begun more than a century before that day, and came forward along the very appointed ways of time….

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