The cattle drives in America were carried out for a specific purpose in a specific era. They took place between 1866 and 1886, in a period just after the Civil War and before the development of refrigerated rail transport.


The very first drive was to take cattle from Texas to the nearest railheads for shipment in Chicago, Illinois. A group of Texas ranchers had banded together to get this done, but faced huge opposition from farmers in eastern Kansas, the through route. The farmers were concerned about the animals spreading disease and about their crops being trampled. With a number of drives unsuccessful due to this opposition, the cattlemen went south on the Great Chihuahua Trail, but the market was not as good in Mexico and Chicago and the North remained the goal.


The Chisholm Trail

In those days Oklahoma was Indian country, but with the opening of the railhead Abilene, Kansas, as a through town, the route known as the Chisholm Trail was opened, named after its creator Jesse Chisholm. The trail was a success with over 36,000 cattle processed and shipped it its first year alone. Later trails were expanded to take in other railheads at Wichita and Dodge City. Cow towns were springing up all over the place, leading to the establishment of the cowboy myth that still bears so much fruit today.


The Chisholm trail was about 520 miles long. It went across Oklahoma leading from Fort Worth to Abilene in Kansas. There was a great deal of opposition to the trail because of fears about crops being trampled and tick fever spreading, so soon the trail began to vary in extent. The trail led to facilities being built by one Joseph G. McCoy in Abilene so the cattle could be processed before being loaded as freight.


A new route was created a few years later west of Shawnee and the original Chisholm trail soon dwindled away and was little used after 1871 until 1880 with the opening of the Santa Fe to Caldwell, Kansas, line. This made it possible for the trail to emerge again as one of economic importance and it ran for a few more years until 1886.


Another trail had been established further west so that Dodge City became the chief place from which the Texas cattle would be shipped. This was the Red River trail that crossed at Red River station in Texas.


The Great Western Cattle Trail

The Great Western Cattle trail was used for the movement of cattle to the markets in the east and to the northern states. It was founded in 1874 by Captain John T. Lyte for transporting 3,500 head of cattle. The trail was not just for cattle, but horses too.


Although not as famous as the Chisholm Trail, it was of a greater extent. Also known as the Dodge City Trail, the Western Trail and the Texas Trail, it reached towards Kansas and Nebraska to bring cattle to the railheads there. But the trail also went towards some Canadian Provinces, and the state
s of Montana, Dakota and Wyoming. There were times when it ran close to the Chisholm trail. Within five years it was the most famous trail in America but despite this, the increasing fencing in of land with barbed wire and the spread of ‘Texas Fever’ by ticks meant that by 1885 the trail was in terminal decline. However, this did not mean it had been a failure; on the contrary it was estimated that over six million cattle and one million horses had been exported via the trail.


Life on the Trail

About 1,500 to 2,500 head of cattle were driven along the trail at a time, controlled by about ten to fifteen cowboys, all of whom had three or four horses each. There was a trail boss, and a cook who handled the chuck wagon. Most men had bedrolls and mostly dispensed with tents. The drive was lucky if it progressed more than ten miles a day as the cattle had to be rested and fed if they were to keep up their weight for the market.


The trail was not without its dangers. If a herd of 3,000 cattle went on the stampede they had to be corralled in one big circle until the panic was over. It was not uncommon for men to be trampled to death beneath the hoofs of cattle. Cowboys were alert to anything that could spook a herd and would sometimes have to get up in the middle of the night to deal with a stampede.


They were not helped by the fact that many Native Americans, their way of life destroyed, had been relocated to the Cheyenne-Arapaho Reservation. Although the natives had not been hostile to earlier cattle movements, they began to demand payment, in the form of cattle, from those passing through their lands. Most trail bosses were wise enough to hand over cattle that were clearly destined not to make it to the railheads anyway, thus warding off much hostility. However, they did not give over the numbers demanded.


If tribute was not given, the Native Americans would come in during the early hours and spook the cattle into a stampede. Clearly if this situation could be avoided, then the trail bosses would do so. At times, however, the cattle drives were accompanied by armed soldiers, particularly down at the Washita River, where the Fort Elliot soldiers would defend the cowboys.


Of course it is a fact, much exploited by stories such as my own that cowboys who had been on the trail were spoiling for trouble when they finally came to the cities. These were young, mostly untutored young men with lots of energy and a habit of drinking large amounts of alcohol. So it wasn’t surprising that fights happened not infrequently.

The history of the cattle trails is one of effort and purpose. When the trails were no longer of any use, cowboys became a rare breed, although many of the cow towns remained and became an enduring part of recent American history.

2 comments on “CATTLE DRIVES by Alexander Hawksville”

  1. Pat Gallagher says:

    A very informative and useful article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *