25. February 2008 · Comments Off on Texiana and Chisholm Trailing · Categories: Ain't That America?, General, History, Old West, Working In A Salt Mine...

At present I am about halfway through the first draft of Book Three, the Adelsverein Trilogy – or as has been called “Barsetshire with Cypress Trees and a Lot of Sidearms”. I have gotten the various members of the Becker and Richter families up to the making of their various fortunes in the post Civil War cattle trade, when an acute surplus of cattle in Texas met the advancing trans-continental railroad.

Well, not exactly met, since the cattle were in Texas and the railroads were advancing at a good clip west from Chicago and St. Louis; the Union Pacific, the Kansas Pacific, and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. The actual tracks were stretching ribbons of iron track across Nebraska and Kansas, putting the four dollar a head Texas cow a considerable distance away from that forty-dollar a head market in Sedalia, Kansas City or Abilene.

Out of that not inconsiderable distance was born the enduring legend of the long-distance cattle drive. In the twenty years after the Civil War about 10 million cows walked north, most to the Kansas railheads, but a smaller portion went farther north, into Wyoming and Canada to be used as brood stock for ranches that eager entrepreneurs were falling all over themselves to establish.

Trailing cattle out of Texas to profitable markets elsewhere was not, by that time an entirely new phenomenon. Texas longhorns were brought north beginning in the 1840s, along what was called the Shawnee Trail between Brownsville and variously, Kansas City, Sedalia and St. Louis. Another trail, the Goodnight-Loving trail went from west Texas to Cheyenne, Wyoming, following the Pecos River through New Mexico. But the most heavily trafficked trail was the many-branched Chisholm Trail. It’s tributaries gathered cattle from all across Texas into one mighty trunk route which began at Red River Station, on the river which marked the demarcation between Texas and the Indian Territories of present-day Oklahoma. The Chisholm Trail crossed rivers which, thanks to storms in the distant mountains, could go from six inches to 25 feet deep in a single day and skirted established farmlands farther east, whose owners usually did not care for large herds of cattle trampling their crops and exposing their own stock to strange varieties of disease.

Once into Kansas, the trail split again, over time as the railroads crept west. The end of the trail came variously at places like Dodge City, Newton, Ellsworth and Abilene – depending on the year, how far the railway had come, and the exasperation of local citizens with the behavior of young men on a spree after three months of brutally hard work, dust and boredom. The cattle were loaded into railcars, their drovers paid off… and next year, they did it again. The tracks can still be seen from the air, all across North Texas and Oklahoma.

So this is what I have been researching and writing about, these last few weeks – a world not much like that seen in TV westerns and old B-movies. It was a bit more complicated than it looks, watching an old TV show like “Rawhide”, with a great many more interesting characters, a lot more hard work and not nearly as prone to stupid gunplay and bravado. As one of my characters reflects… “The cattle drive was…uncommonly like the Army. The days combined long mind-numbing stretches of tedium interspersed with back-breaking labor and the occasional moment of innards-melting terror; all of it in the open air and in the exclusive company of men, day after day after day.”

Other curious things noted as regards the golden age of western cattle ranching:

The average age of a cowhand/drover was about 24. About one in six or seven was black, about one in six or seven Mexican. The work was seasonal, and most did it for only about seven years before moving on to something that paid a little more, or setting up as ranchers themselves.

They usually did not own their horse. Horses were provided as a necessary tool by the cowhand’s employer, to be swapped out when necessary. Which, depending on the work involved, might be two or three times during the working day.

In fact, at the end of a long trail drive, the horses were usually sold, and sometimes the cook-wagon, too. The cowhands returned to their starting point by rail; a ticket home being provided along with their wages.

In 1854 a drover named Tom Candy Ponting took a herd of longhorns all the way from Texas to New York City.

A French nobleman with a glamorous wife and apparently bottomless funds of money, the Marquis de Mores emerged with a small fortune after building a processing-plant and slaughterhouse… and a whole small town at Medora, in the Dakota badlands. Unfortunately, he had started with a large one. He also nearly fought a duel with Teddy Roosevelt.

Wyoming cattle baron Granville Stuart was married happily and successfully for nearly thirty years to a Shoshone Indian woman, Aubony (or Awbonny) Stuart.

Curiously, there didn’t seem to be all much cattleman-sheep herder warfare in Texas. Many Texas ranchers had stocked their lands with whatever herding animal was likely to make a profit. There was horrific bad feeling between cattle ranchers and ordinary farmers, though. See the Mason County Hoo Doo War, in which the farmer and the cowman were pretty evenly matched.

(more to follow – reposted to allow comments)

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