For no good reason that I have ever been able to figure out – the figure of the cowboy remains about the most dominant figure in our mental landscape of the Wild West – the version of the 19th century American frontier that the public usually knows best, through novels, movies and television. The version of the Wild West which most people have in mind when they consider that period is post-Civil War as to time frame and available technology, and most often centered on aspects of cattle ranches, cow-towns, and long-trail cattle drives – and the hired men who performed the grunt work involved – or those various forces arrayed against them; homesteaders, rustlers and assorted other stock baddies. The long-trail drives actually took place over a fairly limited time; about ten or fifteen years, but those few years established an undying legend, especially in the minds of people anywhere else or at any other time. The realities of it all, of course, are a bit more nuanced, a bit more complicated, and perhaps a bit more interesting.
It all came about through a confluence of technology – represented by the steam engine and the steel rails of the Transcontinental Railroad … and a disease called tick fever, which was unfortunately endemic in Texas cattle by the end of the Civil War. The tough longhorn breed was fairly resistant; while exposed as calves, they could throw off the worst effects. Which was to the good, for all during the war, Texas had been cut off from their regular market for cattle in the North, and those men of Texas who had been called to fight in it had other matters at the top of their to-do list than to conduct round-ups and convey their property to their usual markets. Before the war, Texas cattle had been profitably supplied to the Army to feed Federal garrisons across the west, driven to markets in Louisiana, or shipped by sea to New Orleans, north to the jumping-off places for emigrants heading west, or to Sedalia for shipment by rail to slaughterhouses in Chicago. Some daring stockmen had even attempted driving herds across the hazardous southern route to California to feed hungry gold-miners. Nearly all that mildly profitable business had been shelved during the war and by the end of it, there was an abundance of cattle. They had bred – if not like rats, then at least energetically and in numbers to so suppress the local market for beef at the end of the war that the going rate was $1.00 – $2.00. Not per pound, per the whole darned cow. The market revived, somewhat, after peace descended – but only to $3.00-$5.00. At that rate, there was more money to be had in their hides and tallow than in beefsteak.
When Texas cattle drovers – desperate to recover some kind of post-war economic stability after years of impoverishment and blockade – tried driving their herds north to their usual markets in the spring and summer of 1866, they inadvertently spread tick fever in their wake. Farmers along the Sedalia trail and other pre-war commerce routes in Missouri, Kansas, Tennessee and Illinois saw their own cattle die from it, en masse, while the Texas cattle were unaffected. Herds were stampeded deliberately, and drovers threatened with violence as they came into the settled districts. By the next year state legislatures across the Midwest passed laws restricting the passage of Texas cattle over their boundaries. But the Kansas legislature made an exception; Texas cattle were allowed to pass a certain portion of the southern or western border, and go as far as the projected route of the Union Pacific railroad.
And that was the fortunate technological aspect; construction on the Transcontinental Railway. The secession of most of the Southern states had cleared the way for the central route favored by Northerners, which roughly followed the Platte River trail established by emigrants, Argonauts and Mormons. Construction on the Central Pacific end, beginning in Sacramento and going east – a project which faced the barrier of the Sierra Nevada mountain range – had begun even before the war ended. The Union Pacific commenced building west from Council Bluffs, Iowa in 1865 – and that proved to be the savior of the Texas cattle ranchers, as well as establishing a taste preference for beef on supper tables all across America, whereas previously it had been for pork.
The man who saw the opportunity presented at the confluence of these two situations was an enterprising Illinois-born entrepreneur and businessman who had dabbled a little in transport and in cattle: Joseph McCoy, whose career may have given rise to the popular expression, ‘The Real McCoy.’ The Union Pacific had reached out far enough into relatively unsettled territory; why not establish stockyards along the line where Texas cattle could be brought and shipped east without endangering northern cattle? McCoy had credible experience and a good reputation; he was able to strike an agreement with the president and executive board of the Union Pacific. He would front the money to build the necessary stockyards – and the railway would build a switch to it. They needed the business, after all. After a bit of research, McCoy settled on a tiny Kansas hamlet called Abilene in 1867. He built it, widely advertised the availability of his facility to cattlemen and brokers alike – and they came. Abilene became only the first of the cattle boom towns. As the railway advanced, the terminus for the great drives moved to Ellsworth, Wichita and finally Dodge City. The cow towns themselves became successively settled, and respectable residents tired of the four-month long sprees by rowdy young men paid off for a season of brutally hard and comfortless work involved in escorting the cattle north along the many-branched Chisholm Trail. (They also tired of the gambling halls, saloons and the red-light districts which sprang up to accommodate the cattle drovers, once the district had attracted sufficient permanent settlers and more respectable businesses to sustain a town.)
Over the next ten or fifteen years it has been estimated that over ten million cattle walked north to the Kansas railheads, or later into Montana and Wyoming to establish new ranches there. The trails that their hoofs made can still be seen from the air. In the trail season there would be so many herds moving along the established trails that they seemed like beads on a string. They were gathered from across Texas, assembled into herds which converged at Red River Station for the crossing of that river and the long haul across Indian Territory. Joseph McCoy, who had seen the possibilities and steered them into happening, wrote a classic description of the cowboy in his memoir, Historic Sketches of the Cattle Trade of the West and Southwest: “The life of the cowboy is one of considerable daily danger and excitement. It is hard and full of exposure, but it is wild and free, and the young man who has been long a cowboy has but little taste for any other occupation. He lives hard, works hard, has but few comforts and fewer necessities… loves danger but abhors labor of the common sort; never tires riding; never wants to walk, no matter how short the distance…He would rather fight with pistols than pray; loves tobacco, liquor and women better than any other trinity…”
That summed it up in a nutshell, really – and those words and the life they described were expanded on by dime novels, more literary works by Owen Wister and Zane Grey, then by shows like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West extravaganzas, and eventually into movies and television shows. I expect that it has a lot to do with the appeal of a man on horseback – that aspect of the knightly chevalier. The freedom of the open range and the outdoors, and not being tied to the unending routine of farm labor, a factory production line or a shop-keeper’s counter, under the close supervision of a boss must also have had considerable appeal.
(I touched on a lot of this in the third volume of the Trilogy, where the stock-trailing enterprise was based on the experiences of Charles A. Schreiner of the Y O Ranch near Kerrville, Texas; he started with a small general store and bank, and diversified into a number of different enterprises.)