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Cattle Drives

Europe had few cattle drives but in the 16th century the Swiss operated one over the St. Gotthard Pass to the markets in Bellinzona and Lugano and into Lombardy in northern Italy. The drives had ended by 1700 when sedentary dairy farming proved more profitable.

Long-distance cattle driving was traditional in Mexico, California and Texas, and horse herds were sometimes similarly driven. The Spaniards had established the ranching industry in the New World, and began driving herds northward from Mexico beginning in the 1540s.

Throughout most of the 18th and 19th centuries, small Spanish settlements in Texas derived much of their revenue from horses and cattle driven into Louisiana, though such trade was usually illegal. Cattle driving over long distances also took place in the United States, although infrequently.

In 1790 the boy Davy Crockett helped drive "a large stock of cattle" 400 miles from Tennessee into Virginia; twenty years later he took a drove of horses from the Tennessee River into southern North Carolina. Relatively long-distance herding of hogs was also common. In 1815 Timothy Flint "encountered a drove of more than 1,000 cattle and swine" being driven from the interior of Ohio to Philadelphia. The stock in settled areas was gentle, often managed on foot.

Movement of cattle
Cattle drives had to strike a balance between speed and the weight of the cattle. While cattle could be driven as far as 25 miles in a single day, they would lose so much weight that they would be hard to sell when they reached the end of the trail. Usually they were taken shorter distances each day, allowed periods to rest and graze both at midday and at night. On average, a herd could maintain a healthy weight moving about 15 miles per day. Such a pace meant that it would take as long as two months to travel from a home ranch to a railhead. The Chisholm trail, for example, was 1,000 miles long.

On average, a single herd of cattle on a drive numbered about 3,000 head. To herd the cattle, a crew of at least 10 cowboys was needed, with three horses per cowboy. Cowboys worked in shifts to watch the cattle 24 hours a day, herding them in the proper direction in the daytime and watching them at night to prevent stampedes and deter theft.

The crew also included a cook, who drove a chuck wagon, usually pulled by oxen, and a horse wrangler to take charge of the remuda, or spare horses. The wrangler on a cattle drive was often a very young cowboy or one of lower social status, but the cook was a particularly well-respected member of the crew, as not only was he in charge of the food, he also was in charge of medical supplies and had a working knowledge of practical medicine.

Texas roots
Texans established trail driving as a regular occupation. Before Texas broke away from Mexico in 1836, there was a "Beef Trail" to New Orleans. In the 1840s the Texans extended their markets northward into Missouri. The towns of Sedalia, Baxter Springs, Springfield, and St. Louis became principal markets. During the 1850s, emigration and freighting from the Missouri River westward caused a rise in demand for oxen. In 1858, the firm of Russell, Majors and Waddell utilized about 40,000 oxen. Longhorns were trained by the thousands for work oxen. Herds of longhorns were driven to Chicago, and at least one herd was driven all the way to New York.

The gold boom in California in the 1850s created a demand for beef and provided people with the cash to pay for it. Thus, though most cattle were obtained locally or from Mexico, very long drives were attempted. Australians began cattle drives to ports for shipment of beef to San Francisco and, after freezing methods were developed, all the way to Britain. In 1853 the Italian aristocrat Leonetto Cipriani undertook a drive from St. Louis to San Francisco along the California Trail; he returned to Europe in 1855 with large profits.

During the American Civil War before the Union seized the Mississippi River in 1863, Texans drove cattle into the Confederacy for the use of the Confederate Army. In October, 1862 a Union naval patrol on the southern Mississippi River captured 1,500 head of Longhorns which had been destined for Confederate military posts in Louisiana. The permanent loss of the main cattle supply after 1863 was a serious blow to the Confederate Army.

However, in 1865 at the end of the Civil War, Philip Danforth Armour opened a meat packing plant in Chicago known as Armour and Company, and with the expansion of the meat packing industry, the demand for beef increased significantly. By 1866, cattle could be sold to northern markets for as much as $40 per head, making it potentially profitable for cattle, particularly from Texas, to be herded long distances to market.

Illinois
Cattle were driven out of Texas well before the Civil War, and to destinations beyond Louisiana and Missouri. Illinois was a key site during this time, both as an intermediate stop and as a final destination. Many cattle were taken there to be fattened on rich prairie grass or Midwestern corn. Then their journey continued to the major cities of the east. Others ended up at the slaughter houses of Chicago, before railroads crossed the state.

Many men participated during this period. Tom Candy Ponting and George Jackson Squires drove from Texas in the mid-1850s. Isaac Funk and John T. Alexander were fattening cattle on their Illinois farms before sending them to slaughter. Others combined those actions, either on a one-time, or more frequent, basis.

Cattle drive era
The first large-scale effort to drive cattle from Texas to the nearest railhead for shipment to Chicago occurred in 1866, when many Texas ranchers banded together to drive their cattle to the closest point that railroad tracks reached, which at that time was Sedalia, Missouri. However, farmers in eastern Kansas, afraid that transient animals would trample crops and transmit cattle fever to local cattle, formed groups that threatened to beat or shoot cattlemen found on their lands.

Therefore, the 1866 drive failed to reach the railroad and the cattle herds were sold for low prices. By the next year, a cattle shipping facility was built west of farm country around the railhead at Abilene, Kansas, and became a center of cattle shipping, loading over 36,000 head of cattle in its first year.  The route from Texas to Abilene became known as the Chisholm Trail, named for Jesse Chisholm who marked out the route. It ran through present-day Oklahoma, which then was Indian Territory, but there were relatively few conflicts with American Indians, who usually allowed cattle herds to pass through for a toll of ten cents a head. Later, other trails forked off to different railheads, including those at Dodge City and Wichita, Kansas. By 1877, the largest of the cattle-shipping boom towns, Dodge City, Kansas, shipped out 500,000 head of cattle.

At the close of the war Texas had probably five million cattle - but no market. Late in 1865 a few cowmen tried to find a market,, and in 1866 there were many drives northward without a definite destination and without much financial success. Cattle were also driven to the old but limited New Orleans market, following mostly well-established trails to the wharves of Shreveport and Jefferson, Texas.

In 1868, David Morrill Poor, a former Confederate officer from San Antonio, drove 1,100 cattle from east of San Angelo into Mexico over the Chihuahua Trail. This event, the "Great Chihuahua Cattle Drive," was the largest cattle drive attempted over that trail up to that time, but the market was much better in Kansas than in Mexico, so most drives headed north.

In 1867 Joseph G. McCoy opened a regular market at Abilene, Kansas. The great cattle trails, moving successively westward, were established and trail driving boomed. In 1867 the Goodnight-Loving Trail opened up New Mexico and Colorado to Texas cattle. By the tens of thousands cattle were soon driven into Arizona. In Texas itself cattle raising expanded rapidly as American tastes shifted from pork to beef. Caldwell, Dodge City, Ogallala, Cheyenne, and other towns became famous because of trail-driver patronage.

Chisholm Trail
Main article: Chisholm Trail
The Chisholm Trail was the most important route for cattle drives leading north from the vicinity of Ft. Worth, Texas,across Indian Territory (Oklahoma) to the railhead at Abilene. It was about 520 miles long and generally followed the line of the ninety-eighth meridian, but never had an exact location, as different drives took somewhat different paths.

Cow towns
Cow towns flourished between 1866 and 1890 as railroads reached towns suitable for gathering and shipping cattle. The first was Abilene, Kansas. Other towns in Kansas, including Wichita and Dodge City, succeeded Abilene or shared its patronage by riders fresh off the long trail. In the 1880s Dodge City boasted of being the "cowboy capital of the world." Communities in other states, including Ogallala, Nebraska; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Miles City, Montana; and Medora, North Dakota, served the trade as well. Amarillo, Fort Worth, and Wichita Falls, all in Texas; Prescott, Arizona, Greeley, Colorado, and Las Vegas, New Mexico were regionally important.

The most famous cow towns like Abilene were railheads, where the herds were shipped to the Chicago stockyards. Many smaller towns along the way supported range lands. Many of the cow towns were enlivened by buffalo hunters, railroad construction gangs, and freighting outfits during their heyday. Cattle owners made these towns headquarters for buying and selling.

Cowboys, after months of monotonous work, dull food, and abstinence of all kinds, were paid off and turned loose. They howled, got shaved and shorn, bought new clothes and gear. They drank "white mule" straight. Madames and gambling-hall operators flourished in towns that were wide open twenty-four hours a day. Violence and ebullient spirits called forth a kind of "peace officer" that cow towns made famous—the town marshal. Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp were perhaps the two best-known cow-town marshals. The number of killings was, however, small by the standards of eastern cities.

End of the line
By the 1880s, the expansion of the cattle industry resulted in the need for additional open range. Thus many ranchers expanded into the northwest, where there were still large tracts of unsettled grassland. Texas cattle were herded north, into the Rocky Mountain west and the Dakotas. However, continued overgrazing, combined with drought and the exceptionally severe winter of 1886-87 wiped out much of the open-range cattle business in Montana and the upper Great Plains. Following these events, ranchers began to use barbed wire to enclose their ranches and protect their own grazing lands from intrusions by others' animals.

In the 1890s herds were still occasionally driven from the Panhandle of Texas to Montana. However, railroads had expanded to cover most of the nation, and meat packing plants were built closer to major ranching areas, making long cattle drives to the railheads unnecessary. Hence, the age of the open range was gone and the era of large cattle drives were over.

Modern cattle drives
Smaller cattle drives continued at least into the 1940s, as ranchers, prior to the development of the modern cattle truck, still needed to herd cattle to local railheads for transport to stockyards and packing plants. Today, cattle drives are primarily used to round up cattle within the boundaries of a ranch and to move them from one pasture to another, a process that generally lasts at most a few days.

Because of the significance of the cattle drive in American history, some working ranches have turned their seasonal drives into tourist events, inviting guests in a manner akin to a guest ranch to participate in moving the cattle from one feeding ground to the next. While horses are still used in many places, particularly where there is rough or mountainous terrain, the all-terrain vehicle is also used. When cattle are required to move longer distances, they are shipped via truck.

Events intended to promote the western lifestyle may incorporate cattle drives. For example the Great Montana Centennial Cattle Drive of 1989 celebrated the state of Montana's centennial and raised money for a college scholarship fund as 2,400 people (including some working cowboys), 200 wagons and 2,800 cattle traveled 50 miles in six days from Roundup to Billings along a major highway. Similar drives have been sponsored since that time.

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