Early cattle drives headed west to the California gold fields after 1850. Most drives to California took five or six months. These drives slowed by 1857, as the cattle market in California reached a glut. After gold was discovered in the Rocky Mountains, some cattle were driven to the gold fields, starting in about 1858.
Some ranchers held contracts to supply beef to frontier forts and to Indian reservations in West Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, beginning in the late 1850s. From 1866, following the Civil War, ranching and cattle trailing expanded rapidly.
Cattle drives to northern and western markets, and later to railroad-loading facilities, grew significantly. The first cattle drives from Texas on the legendary Chisholm Trail headed north in 1866, crossing Central Texas toward the markets and railheads in Kansas. About 260,000 cattle crossed the Red River.
Also in 1866, Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving joined forces and led their cattle to Denver, over what was later named the Goodnight-Loving Trail.
The peak year on the Chisholm Trail was 1871.
Cattle prices increased fairly steadily from through 1870. As a result, the 1871 drive to Midwestern markets was the largest ever: 700,000 Texas cattle were driven to Kansas alone. But in 1871, the general economy was weak, and half the cattle remained unsold. The financial Panic of 1873 forced some cattlemen into bankruptcy. In some cases, cattle shipped to market that year did not sell for enough to pay shipping expenses.
After interstate railroads came to Texas in the mid-1870s, cattle drives to the Midwest became unnecessary. The Chisholm Trail was virtually shut down by the 1884 season. The drives became unnecessary with the arrival of the railroads and refrigeration in the 1880s.
Source: Cattle Drives Started in Earnest After the Civil War
Copyright 2018 TEXAS STATE HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION.