By Edgar Beecher Bronson in 1910
One of the thriftiest of the pioneer cow-hunters, he was the first to realize that if he would profit by the fruits of his labor he must push out to the north in search of a market for his cattle. The Indian agencies and mining camps of northern New Mexico and Colorado, and the Mormon settlements of Utah, were the first markets to attract attention. The problem of reaching them seemed almost hopeless of solution. Immediately to the north of them, the country was trackless and practically unknown. The only thing certain about it was that it swarmed with hostile Indians. What were the conditions as to water and grass, two prime essentials to moving herds, no one knew.
To be sure, the old overland mail road to El Paso, Chihuahua, and Los Angeles led out west from the head of the Concho to the Pecos; and once on the Pecos River, which they knew had its source indefinitely in the north, a practicable route to market should be possible.
But the trouble was to reach the Pecos River across the 90 intervening miles of waterless plateau called the Llano Estacado, or Staked Plain. This plain was christened by the early Spanish explorers who, looking out across its vast stretches, could note no landmark, and left behind them driven stakes to guide their return. An elevated tableland averaging about one hundred miles wide and extending four hundred miles north and south, it presents, approaching anywhere from the east or the west, an endless line of sharply escarped bluffs from one hundred to two hundred feet high that with their buttresses and re-entrant angles look at a distance like the walls of an enormous fortified town. And indeed it possesses riches well worth fortifying.
While without a single surface spring or stream from Devil’s River in the south to Yellow House Canyon in the north, this great mesa is nevertheless the source of the entire stream system of central and south Texas. Absorbing thirstily every drop of moisture that falls upon its surface, from its deep bosom pours a vitalizing flood that makes fertile and has enriched an empire, — a flood without which Texas, now producing one-third of the cotton grown in the United States, would be an arid waste. Bountiful to the south and east, it is niggardly elsewhere, and only two small springs, Grierson and Mescalero, escape from its western escarpment.
A driven herd normally travels only 12 to 16 miles a day and even less than this in the early Spring when herds usually are started. It, therefore, seemed a desperate undertaking to enter upon the ninety-mile “dry drive,” from the head of the Concho to the Horsehead Crossing of the Pecos, wherein two-thirds of one’s cattle were likely to perish for want of water.
Oliver Loving was the first man to venture it, and he succeeded. He traversed the Plain, fought his way up the Pecos, reached a good market, and returned home in the Autumn, bringing a load of gold and stories of hungry markets in the north that meant fortunes for Texas ranchmen. This was in 1866. It was the beginning of the great “Texas trail drive,” which during the next twenty years poured six million cattle into the plains and mountains of the Northwest. Of this great industrial movement, Oliver Loving was the pioneer.
At Fort Sumner, New Mexico, situated on the Pecos about four hundred miles above Horsehead Crossing, was a large Government post, and the agency of the Navajo Indians, or such of them as were not on the war-path. Here, on his drive in the Summer of 1867, Loving made a contract for the delivery at the post the ensuing season of two herds of beeves. His partner in this contract was Charles Goodnight, later for many years the proprietor of the Palo Duro ranch in the Texas Panhandle.
Loving and Goodnight were young then; they had helped to repel many a Comanche assault upon the settlements, had participated in many a bloody raid of reprisal, had more than once from the slight shelter of a buffalo-wallow successfully defended their lives, and so they entered upon their work with little thought of disaster.
Beginning their round-up early in March as soon as green grass began to rise, selecting and cutting out cattle of fit age and condition, by the end of the month they reached the head of the Concho with two herds, each numbering about two thousand head. Loving was in charge of one herd and Goodnight of the other.
Each outfit was composed of eight picked cowboys, well drilled in the rude school of the Plains, a “horse wrangler,” and a cook. To each rider was assigned a mount of five horses, and the loose horses were driven with the herd by day and guarded by the “horse wrangler” by night.
The cook drove a team of six small Spanish mules hitched to a mess wagon. In the wagon were carried provisions, consisting principally of bacon and jerked beef, flour, beans, and coffee; the men’s blankets and “war sacks,” and the simple cooking equipment. Beneath the wagon was always swung a “rawhide”–a dried, untanned, unscraped cow’s hide, fastened by its four corners beneath the wagon bed. This rawhide served a double purpose: first, as a carryall for odds and ends; and second, as furnishing repair material for saddles and wagons. In it were carried pots and kettles, extra horseshoes, farriers’ tools, and firewood; for often long journeys had to be made across the country which did not furnish enough fuel to boil a pot of coffee. On the sides of the wagon, outside the wagon box, were securely lashed the two great water barrels, each supplied with a spigot, which are indispensable in trail driving. Where, as in this instance, exceptionally long dry drives were to be made other water kegs were carried in the wagons.
Such wagons were rude affairs, great prairie schooners, hooded in canvas to keep out the rain. Some of them were miracles of patchwork, racked and strained and broken till scarcely a sound bit of iron or wood remained, but, all splinted and bound with strips of the cowboy’s indispensable rawhide, they wobbled crazily along, with many a shriek and groan, threatening every moment to collapse, but always holding together until some extraordinary accident required the application of new rawhide bandages. I have no doubt there are wagons of this sort in use in Texas today that went over the trail in 1868.
The men need little description, for the cowboy type has been made familiar by Buffalo Bill’s most truthful exhibitions of plains life. Lean, wiry, bronzed men, their legs cased in leather chaparejos, with small boots, high heels, and great spurs, they were, despite their loose, slouchy seat, the best rough-riders in the world.