Few images sum up the Cattle Kingdom era like the trail drive. In Hollywood films, it’s usually a vast, moving stream of cattle, with steely-eyed riders alongside, armed with Colt revolvers and ever watchful for trouble—but reality was quite different, though no less dramatic.
For over 25 years after the Civil War, Texans rounded up longhorn cattle and drove them in the summer months along cattle trails, headed for sale at “cow towns” or bound for pastures in distant territories and states. The post-Civil War surge in demand for beef started the big drives of Western legend. In 1867 a frontiersman named Jesse Chisholm blazed a trail from the Red River north across Oklahoma and into Kansas. Soon cattle drives, from South Texas and the Coastal Bend prairies were feeding into larger trails around Victoria and San Antonio, and walking north onto “Chisholm’s trail.” Before long the trace from South Texas clear to Kansas was called the Chisholm Trail.
Texas cattlemen were urged to bring their herds to Abilene, Kansas, now regarded as the first railroad “cow town.” There, along the tracks, were acres of pens for loading cattle into wooden-slat stock cars, bound for Chicago and other meat-packing centers. Other towns sprang up, and by the 1870s, cattle trails led from Texas to New Mexico, Arizona, California, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana—even into Canada. In those years, an estimated five million or more longhorn cattle were driven along the trails out of Texas.
Anywhere from 500 to 1,500 cattle on average were in a trail herd. Trail drives began in early summer. Cattlemen wanted to move their stock to Kansas by summer’s end and sell them to beef companies. It all made for a long stint in the saddle, up to three months (or more) walking a herd, then a somewhat quicker return trip.
There were long days of keeping the herd together. Dry land was challenging and rivers caused more trouble. Longhorns would often follow the first steer into the water, but getting that first cow in was a battle. Sometimes cowboys had to lasso lead animals and drag them into the water. It was exhausting—especially if the herd decided halfway across to turn and go back.
Summer days could be blazing hot, with choking dust stirred by the cattle; or storms could blow up, turning the skies dark, with driving rain in horizontal sheets pelting riders and cattle. Lightning and thunderclaps were almost certain to set off a stampede, which were so dangerous that some trail bosses just let the cattle run until they wore out before trying to round them up. Stopping a stampede meant that somebody had to gallop in front and try to turn the lead cattle. Imagine doing that on a black night with lightning, and several hundred spooked cattle pounding right behind you.
Turning the cattle usually made them slow down, ending the run. If you were lucky, they wouldn’t decide to run again that same night — though some herds ran every night.
Source: Cattle Kingdom: Trail Drives and Chuck Wagons
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