The legacy of the cattle drives: Pop culture or integral innovation
By Stuart Estes
The term “cattle drive” often conjures up iconic images of rugged cowboys and longhorn cattle in the mind of the hearer, and while these images have long been the hallmarks of the cattle drives of old, perhaps, it is time to think of the cattle drives in a new way.
Nearly 150 years in the past, the cowboys and the cattle they drove are long gone, yet the drives that brought beef from Texas to the rest of the country still hold an important place in the history of American agriculture as the initial innovators of what are the present-day beef and meatpacking industries.
The Civil War and better cattle prices
After the U.S. Civil War in the mid-1860s, much of the southern half of the country had been decimated as a result of the war. But where the land may have been damaged it seemed that the economy was damaged even worse.
“The big reason (for the cattle drives) was after the Civil War the economy all over the south was basically tanked,” said Jeff Sheets, director of the Dickinson County Historical Society in Abilene, Kan.
Cattle drives began in earnest in the late 1860s after the Civil War, as Texas ranchers saw they could fetch a better price for their longhorn cattle in the more northern and eastern parts of the country.
“They (the cattle) were worth about $3 per head in South Texas,” said Stacy Moore, a historian at the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center in Duncan, Okla.
Because of the large number of cattle in Texas, prices were significantly lower than in other parts of the country. According to Moore, the same cattle that brought nearly nothing in Texas could fetch up to $40 in eastern markets.
During the Civil War, beef became a staple in the diets of many soldiers. This fact helped to bolster the desire for beef in places where it had once not been so prevalent.
“After the Civil War, people of the East wanted beef,” Moore said, noting that beef was a primary source of protein for soldiers during the Civil War. Subsequently, when soldiers returned to civilian life, they had developed a taste for beef.
To highlight the profitability of the drives for the Texas ranchers, Sheets mentioned one cattleman, M.A. Withers, who drove 600 head of steers to Abilene in 1868. After selling his herd for $28 per head, he was left with a profit of $9,000, which would be worth present-day value of approximately $146,000.
The cattle and the trails
Typically, the cattle that were driven from Texas northward were Longhorns, a hardy breed of cattle known for its resilience to the hot climate of Texas.
“Most of them were Texas Longhorns,” Sheets said, noting that as the years progressed other crossbreeds of cattle began to be more prevalent on the drives.
Cattle that were moved along the trails usually met one of two fates—being taken to new, expanding ranches in the northern territories or being loaded on railways that led to packing plants farther east.
“Actually the greater majority of them were herded to other places,” Sheets said. “It was a way to expand the beef industry in the U.S.”
During the 19th century, there were four major trails used to move cattle north: The Shawnee Trail, the Goodnight-Loving Trail, the Chisholm Trail and the Western Trail. Listed earliest to latest, each of these trails represented a different period of the cattle drive era.
“They originally tried to go to Sedalia, Mo.,” Sheets said, but less-than-friendly incidents with Missouri landowners and farmers forced the cattle drives to move west.
Innovation is often the effect of necessity, and as the cattle drives were forced west one man saw an opportunity to even further revolutionize the industry.
“Joseph McCoy, in 1867, came up with the idea of going out to Kansas,” Sheets said. McCoy relocated the drive to Abilene, Kan., which would become the stopping point for one of the most famous drives—The Chisholm Trail.
McCoy worked vigilantly to establish Abilene as a major point of attraction for the drives.
“He sent riders down into present-day Oklahoma,” Sheets said, to search for herds of driven cattle and cowboys that could be convinced to bring their animals to Abilene.
Cause for change
In an effort to be closer to the receiving points of the drives, famous stockyards like those in Kansas City, Mo., got their start as a result of trying to accommodate the cattle drives.
“The Kansas City Stockyards were started because of the cattle drives,” Sheets said, to allow for better railroad shipping prices for the cattle buyers who were purchasing from the drives in places like Abilene.
The cattle drives fueled not only the packing industry in places like Kansas City, but railroad expansion and innovation across the nation as well. The advent of refrigerated cars greatly aided in the transport of cattle carcasses.
“With refrigerated cars they could ship cattle east,” Sheets said.
In addition to the growth in the packing and railroad industries, towns across the west experienced the economic benefits of the cattle drives.
“The drives themselves brought a lot of money to the community,” Sheets said, speaking about Abilene.
Sheets noted that over the course of two months in 1870, one Abilene bank saw $900,000 pass through its coffers; in terms of present-day value this would equate to approximately $16 million.
Of the money the cowboys earned for their cattle, a substantial portion was added back to the local economy of places like Abilene.
According to Sheets, the grocery, clothing and entertainment businesses in communities along the trails experienced booms as a result of the drives.
Populations also experienced a boom in the towns that were in contact with the cattle drives. Over the course of the five years that the Chisholm Trail fed money and cattle into Abilene, the town experienced large growth, growing from a town of little more than 300 to 3,000 over the period.
As they moved millions of head of cattle, the drives were a precursor to the beef industry that is known today.
“The concept of moving cattle from where they were raised to where they would be slaughtered was a new concept,” Moore said. “It definitely had an impact on the beef industry today.”
The centralization of feedlots in western Kansas and Colorado can indirectly be traced back to the cattle drives as well.
“The first steps toward that (feedlot) concept were because of the cattle drives,” Moore said. “The concept of gathering multiple herds together in one place was new.”
Don’t forget the cowboys
Of course, the iconic American image of the cowboy was forged on the cattle drives.
Cowboys spent around 100 days traveling along the Chisholm Trail, moving from Texas to Abilene, Kan., and earned about $1 per day, according to Moore. And for the jobs they did, this may have been a meager wage.
“These were tough jobs,” Moore said about the tasks that cowboys dealt with while on cattle drives.
“They dealt with everything you could think of,” Moore said, including extreme weather, unfriendly settlers and Native Americans and the occasional stampede.
Cattle drives were normally led by a trail boss, whose job was to make sure the cattle made it to market.
“His job was to wrangle the cattle and keep those cowboys in line,” Moore said. According to Moore, many cowboys were young men who had never been away from home before embarking on a cattle drive.
Driven out by progress
But with innovation comes progress, and as the United States continued to expand westward cattle drives were forced to relocate.
The cattle from Texas often brought Texas fever to the cattle of the more northern stops along the drives. Texas fever in cattle is characterized by high fever, emaciation, anemia and bloody urine.
“The Texas cattle were immune to it,” Sheets said. Texas fever was actually transmitted through ticks the Texas cattle brought north that served as hosts for a parasitic protozoan that caused the disease.
The lack of barbed-wire fences also caused problems as the cattle on the drives pastured freely on the resident landowners’ properties.
“Cattle were pasturing wherever they could find pasture,” Sheets said.
These two factors eventually led to conflicting interests between the cattlemen and the resident farmers along the trails.
“There was a lot of animosity between farmers and cattlemen,” Sheets said.
Eventually, legislation preventing the movement of Texas cattle through more northern states along the trail effectively brought an end to the cattle drives.
“There was a movement in 1880 to establish a national corridor,” Sheets said. This corridor, had it been created, would have served as the only route for drovers to move their cattle northward.
Just as quickly as they came, it seemed as though the cattle drives ended.
“The railroads got to Texas,” Sheets said. “Barbed wire came into effect.”
Along with the legislation, these two advents put the final nail in the cattle drives’ coffin.
A lasting legacy
As time has passed, the appreciation of the important influence the cattle drives had on the history of the present-day beef and meat-packing industries has weakened in the minds of the public. Having been highly romanticized and oftentimes taking on pop-culture status, the cattle drives of the 1800s have become somewhat of a novelty.
And yet the fact still remains that the cattle drives hold an undeniable place of importance in the history of American agriculture. Perhaps modern-day agriculture will only catch a glimpse of the future as it looks back on the past.