Head ‘Em Up, Move ‘Em Out: Texas Trail Drives
As long as cattle have been in America, there have been trail drives to move the animals from Point A to Point B. As settlers moved west, so did their cattle. Great drives ended in Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and anywhere ranching was possible. But those of Western movies and novels were primarily from Texas to the railheads in Kansas.
After the Civil War, the South faced high taxes imposed by the Northerners brought in to rule and many Southerners hadn’t the resources to pay. Other homes had been seized or burned, families had been killed or scattered. Many Southern men were left homeless and drifting. Most went West of the Mississippi looking for a new life.
During the Civil War, ranches were left almost untended while able-bodied men went to fight. Cattle continued to breed, but their progeny went unbranded and scattered. After the war, those cattle belonged to the man who could round them up and brand them. Drives to Kansas began in 1866. According to LONE STAR, T. R. Fehrenbach’s history of Texas, when cattle brought two dollars a head in Texas, they sold for seven dollars a head in Kansas. Cowboys were paid by the month, so it cost the rancher no more to have his men drive cattle to Kansas than to keep them in Texas. At times many ranchers went together for the drive, or one rancher’s hands would drive several combined herds. It was a dangerous journey with long hours for the men. They faced outlaws, Indians, stampedes, swollen rivers, and inclement weather. At the end of the drive, the trail boss sold the herd on a handshake. His honor depended on final head count being what he told the buyer.
In 1867, Charles Goodnight invented the chuck wagon for use on trail drives. It was a modified Army wagon that could carry substantially more and better food than horseback allowed. Other ranchers soon copied him. Cattle move slowly, so the chuck wagon could go ahead of the herd, find the camping place, and set up for supper. Generally there were only two meals a day, breakfast and supper, although that depended on the trail boss.
The era of the large cattle drive was a short one. By the 1880’s, railroads had begun spiderwebbing across America. Barbed wire had been introduced. The combination meant the end of the massive trail drive across several states. Fort Worth became the Texas destination, and their stockyards were immense. Swift and Armour built packing plants on the hill above the stockyards, which meant the beef was processed immediately and shipped out in refrigerated rail cars. Railroads continued to expand, making it possible to ship cattle to market rather than drive them. That is not to say that cowboys were out of work. There are still large working ranches in Texas—the 6666, King Ranch, Matador, Spur, and others—as well as hundreds of large and small ranches all across the West. But by 1890, the era of the trail drive had ended.