The Cattle Trails

  By Emerson Hough in 1918

Cattle Trail

Cattle Trail

The traditional method of studying history using a series of events and dates is not the method 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. 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 enormous 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 the environment, very few have cared to go. They, 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 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 downstream. 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 River 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.

Crossing the northern range soon after the Civil War, the iron trails 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 wildlife 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 20 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 Stillwater Valley, 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…

Thus, far down in the vague Southwest, at some distant time, in some distant portion of old, mysterious Mexico, there fell into line the hoof prints which made the first faint beginnings of the Long Trail, merely the path of a half nomadic movement along the line of the least resistance.

The Long Trail began to deepen and extend. It received then, as it did later, a baptism of human blood such as no other pathway of the continent has known. The nomadic and the warlike days passed, and there ensued a more quiet and pastoral time. It was the beginning of feudalism of the range, a barony rude enough, but a glorious one, albeit it began, like all feudalism, in large-handed theft and generous murdering. The flocks of these strong men, carelessly inter-lapping, increased and multiplied amazingly. They were hardly looked upon as wealth. The people could not eat a tithe of the beef; they could not use a hundredth of the leather. Over hundreds and hundreds of miles of ownerless grasslands, by the rapid waters of the mountains, by the slow streams of the plains or the long and dark lagoons of the low coast country, the herds of tens grew into droves of hundreds and thousands and hundreds of thousands. This was really the dawning of the American cattle industry.

Chips and flakes of the great Southwestern herd began to be seen in the Northern States.  As early as 1857, Texas cattle were driven to Illinois. In 1861 Louisiana was, without success, tried as an outlet. In 1867 a venturous drover took a herd across the Indian Nations, bound for California, and only abandoned the project because the Plains Indians were then very bad in the country to the north. In 1869 several herds were driven from Texas to Nevada. These were side trails of the main cattle road. It seemed clear that a great population in the North needed the cheap beef of Texas, and the main question appeared to be one of transportation. No proper means for this is offered. The Civil War stopped almost all plans to market the range cattle, and the close of that war found the vast grazing lands of Texas covered fairly with millions of cattle that had no actual or determinate value. They were sorted and branded and herded after a fashion, but neither they nor their increase could be converted into anything but more cattle. The cry for a market became imperative.

Meantime the Anglo-Saxon civilization was rolling swiftly toward the upper West, and the Indians were being driven from the Plains. A solid army was pressing behind the vanguard of the soldier, scout, and plainsman.

The railroads were pushing out into a new and untracked empire. They carried the market with them. The market halted, much nearer, though still some hundred miles to the north of the great herd. The Long Trail tapped no more at the door of Illinois, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, but leaped north again definitely, this time springing across the Red River and up to the railroads, along sharp and well-defined channels deepened in the year of 1866 alone by the hoofs of more than a quarter of a million cattle.

In 1871, only five years later, over 6,000 cattle crossed the Red River for the Northern markets. Abilene, Newton, Wichita, Ellsworth, Great Bend, and Dodge City, Kansas flared out into a swift and sometimes evil blossoming.

Cattle Roundup

Cattle Roundup

Thus the men of the North first came to hear of the Long Trail and the men who made it, although really it had begun long ago and had been foreordained to grow.

By this time, 1867 and 1868, the northern portions of the region immediately to the east of the Rocky Mountains had been sufficiently cleared of their wild inhabitants to admit a gradual though precarious settlement. It had been learned yet again that the buffalo grass and the sweet waters of the far North would fatten a range broad horn to a stature far beyond any it could attain on the southern range. The Long Trail pushed rapidly even farther to the north, where “free grass” and a new market still remained. The territorial ranges needed many thousands of cattle for their stocking, and this demand took a large part of the Texas drive, which came to Abilene, Great Bend, and Fort Dodge. Moreover, the Government was now feeding thousands of its new red wards, and these Indians needed thousands of beeves for rations, which were driven from the southern range to the upper army posts and reservations. Between this Government demand and that of the territorial stock ranges there was occupation for the men who made the saddle their home.

The Long Trail, which had previously found the black corn lands of Illinois and Missouri, now crowded to the West until it had reached Utah and Nevada, and penetrated every open park and mesa and valley of Colorado, and found all the high plains of Wyoming.

Cheyenne and Laramie became common words now, and drovers spoke as wisely of the dangers of the Platte as a year before they had mentioned those of the Red River or the Arkansas. Nor did the Trail pause in its irresistible push to the north until it had found the last of the five great transcontinental lines, far in the British provinces. Here despite a long season of ice and snow, the uttermost edges of the great herd might survive, in a certain percentage at least, each year in an almost unassisted struggle for existence, under conditions different enough, it would seem, from those obtaining at the opposite extreme of the wild roadway over which they came.

The Long Trail of the cattle range was done! By magic, the cattle industry had spread over the entire West. Today many men think of that industry as belonging only to the Southwest, and many would consider that it was transferred to the North. Really it was not transferred but extended, and the trail of the old drive marks the line of that extension.

Today the Long Trail is replaced by other trails, a product of the swift development of the West, and it remains as the connection, now for the most part historical only, between two phases of an industry which, despite differences of climate and condition, retain a similarity in all essential features. When the last steer of the first herd was driven into the corral at the Ultima Thule of the range, the pony of the American cowboy squatted and wheeled under the spur and burst down the straggling street of the little frontier town. Before that time, and since that time, it was and has been the same pony and the same man who have traveled the range, guarding and guiding the wild herds, from the romantic to the commonplace days of the West.


By Emerson Hough, 1918. Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated December 2021.

Excerpted from the book The Passing of the Frontier, A Chronicle of the Old West, by Emerson Hough, Yale University Press, 1918. The text, as it appears here, has been edited for clarity and ease of the modern reader. Emerson Hough (1857–1923) was an author and journalist who wrote factional accounts and historical novels of life in the American West. His works helped establish the Western as a popular genre in literature and motion pictures. For years, Hough wrote the feature “Out-of-Doors” for the Saturday Evening Post and contributed to other major magazines.