Supply! Demand! The cattle business was as simple as that. Texas had the beef; the rest of civilized America had the appetite. Thus the cattle drive was born. When the cattle drive was born so was the cowboy.
Cattle, almost beyond count, roamed wild in central Texas in the mid-1800s, feeding on the grassy prairie like all the other game animals. And south of San Antonio still more wild cattle foraged freely, having been abandoned by their Mexican owners after the Texas War and constant border fighting. In 1845 the cattle running loose were almost beyond count.
Crafty visionaries, and as mercenary a lot as there ever was, like Charles Goodnight, C.C. Slaughter, John Wesley Iliff, Dudley Snyder, The Marquis De Mores, three dozen entrepreneurs in all, recognized the opportunity instantly and found the solution just as fast. Each in his own devious manner gobbled up more than twenty-million acres of raw Texas dirt, private and public and, without the blink of an eye, owned all the land and all the beef that was grazing on it.
Buying and selling cattle became a way of life. By legal means or not, cattle barons stockpiled beef on the hoof as fast as their insatiable avarice for money would allow. America was learning to savor sirloin, porterhouse, T-bone and filet, so it became imperative that all the cattle in Texas be brought to market because it represented instant money, and a lot of it to be had. A cow roaming wild on the range was worth $4. At market the same cow brought $40 without argument.
Railheads in Colorado, Kansas and Missouri beckoned. Towns like Dodge City, Hays, Ellsworth, Wichita and Newton, Kansas became boom towns in short order once the cows were delivered to the railheads there. Kansas City, Sedalia, even St. Louis, Missouri were also waiting, as were Denver and Pueblo, Colorado. In later years, vast areas of the Wyoming, Montana and the Dakota Territory became delivery points of herds sent there not to be slaughtered but to breed.
The process of delivery was evolutionary, yet elementary. The cattle simply had to be walked from Texas to the railheads. It was a walk of seven hundred to a thousand miles, through blistering heat, threatening thunderstorms, sub-zero winters, raging rivers and hostile Indian country. In the blink of an eye all of this would be accomplished by a bunch of young, adventuresome kids, irrepressible, but instantly energized by the enormous challenge.
They were called cowboys because they were boys leading cows. Eventually, 40,000 young men took to the trails and became, yep, bona-fide cowboys. One out of three was Negro or Mexican. They sat proudly on horseback twelve hours a day and endured six months of torturous, tedious, dangerous work. For all their toil and sweat they earned one hundred dollars, more or less, depending on how much they borrowed from the trail boss during the trek.
Most of Texas was far from an arid, dust-ridden prairie or the cattle barons would never have staked themselves to such a profitless, pointless endeavor. Covering the vast, alien prairies were the sweet and nutritious gamma and buffalo grasses appearing like lush, emerald carpets spread out over the rolling hills. The vast landscape flourished with verdant feeding grounds. Cattle on the march savored every step of the way, eating all they could, even though the trek ended up as a one-way trip to Del Monaco's Steak House for the tastiest parts of them.
Water was the other vital necessity during this grand march to Valhalla. Though not as plentiful as the abundant grasslands, water could always be found. At least six major rivers had to be forded for the cattle to be brought to market. Dotting the way, were streams, lakes and ponds that provided fueling stations for these hungry and thirsty bovines. The object of the entire trail drive principle was to bring each cow in to the slaughterhouses weighing substantially more than they did when the drive started. Payment was made at the end of the drive based on poundage.
Four major trails were chiseled out of the southwestern prairie. Each giant pathway led to different parts of the railway system that ran from Chicago, through Missouri and Kansas to Denver. Drop-off points dotted the way for the many herds that made the trek.
Charles Goodnight teamed up with Oliver Loving, two of the early cattle barons, to forge one of the first and the most prominent trails. In their typical lack of modesty, they named the trail after themselves. It coursed its way due west from central Texas to avoid marauding and hostile Indians in the North. Once the herd crossed the Pecos River the trail headed due north to Pueblo, Denver and Cheyenne. When it reached there it was safe from at least one element of danger for the drovers and their paychecks.
The Chisholm Trail was the most complex and the widely used by the drovers. A Scotch-Cherokee trader named, Jesse Chisholm, forged it. In five years it carried more than a million head and carved a path that was sometimes 400 yards wide. This trail eventually carried more than half of all the beef that was trail shipped north. It had many starting points, some as far south as Brownsville, Corpus Christi and Victoria, but all converged at the Red River Station and followed a straight route north to Ellsworth, Wichita, Newton or Abilene, Kansas. Here hundreds of thousands of cows were penned, awaiting the impatient palates of royalty and rabble.
The Shawnee Trail also started at Brownsville, the southernmost point in Texas, traveled past Dallas north, northeast to Kansas City, Sedalia or St. Louis, to the railheads there.
The Western Trail began in the area of San Antonio. It took a straight route north; northwest all the way to the Dakota, Wyoming and Montana Territories, mostly to bring herds there for breeding purposes.
All but the Goodnight-Loving trail had to pass through hostile Indian country, and each had to forge five or six giant, sometimes raging rivers on the way. Natural enemies like these created unforgettable experiences for the young cowboys. Many never made it to the end of the trail and payday.
The process of organizing a trail drive team developed into an extremely efficient machine in a short space of time. The first drives assumed that it would take one cowboy to handle 200 head of cattle. In no time, the uncanny wit and native ability of the young drover proved that he could easily handle twice as many. That became the general ratio used on all succeeding drives.
A trail boss, always called Mister by his subordinates, led the drive. He spent much time far ahead of the herd, searching for water and good pasture land. As the herd stretched out into almost single file, two point men held the lead steers in tow. Behind them a swingman rode on each side of the long line of beef and behind them two flank men kept the stragglers on the move.
There were usually three drag men who had the worst job of all. All day long they sucked in the powdery, red Texas dust that the thousands of hoofs churned up. These poor cowpokes always wore bandannas in an effort not to eat too much dust. But it was a dismal and fruitless task.
Only the cook, who rode alongside the herd in his chuck wagon drawn by two horses or Jennies, and the wranglers were spared drag duty. The wranglers, who often became the cook's helpers, maintained a very large remuda of healthy horses under control somewhere near the tail end of the herd.
There were sometimes as many as eighty horses in the remuda because even the best mount could only last four or five hours before it had to be rested. Every morning all the drovers picked out fresh horses from the remuda to start off their days' work. They made sure to allow their mounts plenty of rest during the journey, hence the need for so many fit and ready steeds standing by.
A goodly percentage of drovers attached themselves to the large ranches they worked for. They worked in the line camps during the off-season, mostly winter. They set up shacks every six or eight miles where cowboys stayed for months on end to separate branded cattle, search out strays and round up all the cattle when branding time came around.
The line camp was a lonely life for the cowboy. Most, apparently, enjoyed the solitude as opposed to the violent nature of trail driving. When they went to their line camp shacks, cowboys brought books to read, that is, if they could read at all, tobacco and, most important of all, pets. Cats proved to be the favorite pet for the two cowboys who shared their small bunkhouse together.
The drover's trail food fare was simple. Beans, sowbelly, syrupy coffee and, on rare occasions when a cow had to be slaughtered, the cook made sonofabitch stew. It consisted of beef heart, liver, sweetbreads, brains, testicles, marrow gut and was almost always flavored with Louisiana hot sauce, quite possibly to kill the foul taste of all the other ingredients
But beans, and more beans were the conventional fare. Some cowboy with some semblance of backhouse humor fondly called them Pecos Strawberries. The name stuck. Sowbelly, or bacon, was called, of all things, overland trout. The cook made sourdough biscuits if he was in a good mood and, rarely, he would concoct vinegar pie. He held all the men in good stead with whatever slop he served them. The cook was, after all, the second most important drover on the trail drive. All the cowboys looked out for him. In turn, he fed them, doctored them, listened kindly to their troubles and consoled them, mostly with a slug of hard cider or whiskey.
His kitchen was a wooden wagon driven by two Jennies or horses. It was a sideboard wagon with a high cabinet in back called the chuck box that housed flour, sugar, dried fruit, coffee beans, pinto beans other food stuffs as well as medicine, utensils and whiskey.
It traveled mostly as a convertible although there were steel bows over which a canvas cover could be stretched in case of foul weather. The cowboys stowed all their gear in the bed of the chuck wagon, usually not more than a bedroll and a small bag of personal items.
Most of a cowboy's possessions were carried on his back. He never went anywhere without a hat. It was wide brimmed to protect him from the fierce, merciless prairie sun. The sugar-loaf sombrero, with its high peak, was the most popular. It made even the shortest cowboy appear much taller. A cowboy almost always wore chaps over his trousers whenever he was in the saddle. These provided protection against dense and prickly brush, rope burns, even horse bites. All cowboys wore boots. They couldn't get a job without them. And spurs were an integral part of his boots. The working cowboy wore the simplest kind although there were many types, plain and fancy. It was called a work spur. It did its intended job and didn't injure his horse's flanks if used properly and wisely.
He usually had his own saddle and kept it polished like a prideful owner should since he spent much of the day in an intimate position with it. All cowboys wore bandannas. No one could be without them. In summer the cowboy soaked his bandanna at a water hole, and then wrapped it around his neck. It kept him cool. It was his air conditioner.
In winter, he wrapped it around his ears to keep them from freezing, or he wore it over his nose and mouth to hold in his warm breath. And he used it constantly when he drew drag duty to protect him against the cursed dust.
In truth, all cowboys hoped that their four to six month ride would be uneventful. If not, driving cattle could be a harrowing experience. The cowboy unknowingly faced grave dangers. The most horrifying was a stampede. The small-brained cow could be frightened into running by nothing more than a prairie dog crossing its path.
Other natural elements, though, were more serious. Thunder, lightning, even gentle raindrops could spook a herd into running through hell and high water. Hail was a guaranteed threat, because prairie hailstones are sometimes enormous. Cowboys jumped off their mounts during a hailstorm and covered their heads with their saddles.
If the herd became spooked and began to run, all the drovers had a specific job to do. Getting a drover to gallop next to the lead steers and try to turn them into themselves and form a circular formation was the fastest and best way to snuff a stampede. But this wasn't always easy. Steers were stubborn when they were frightened. A foolhardy drover trying to change their direction put his very life on the line.
His mount could be easily gored and he and his horse would surely be trampled to death. There are many tiny grave markers along the lonesome trail that gave testimony to the dangers that faced hard-nosed, adventurous boys playing out a man's game.
Fording rivers were always among the most dangerous parts of the journey north. The trail boss always rode ahead looking for the safest place to turn the herd into the rushing water. It was at these places that most of the cattle were lost. Some got mired in mud and were left behind to die. Others were simply washed downstream to drown. Worst of all was the bottleneck at river entry. Hapless cattle drowned when they were pushed to the bottom of the river by frightened cows climbing over them.
All were chaotic situations, none more harrowing than crossing the Red River into hostile Indian Territory. In the beginning the savages stampeded herds and attacked drovers who were vainly trying to quell the wildly galloping mass. The Indians then killed as many drovers as they could and usually stole more cattle than they needed.
Eventually, however, a form of unsettled peace developed between the drovers and the Indians. The Indians decided that it was easier simply to impose a toll. After all, it was their land. For every drive that passed through what is now Oklahoma, they got all the beef-on-the-hoof they wanted, and nobody got hurt.
The trail drive wasn't all work. The herd often passed little settlements and larger towns. If the grazing was good, the trail boss had his men quiet the herd to a standstill and let them stoke up. Meanwhile, he gave each of his drovers a small stipend and let them ride to town, provided that there were at least two drovers to stand guard.
Some sainted trail bosses whose consciences and morals were almost above reproach only let his boys enter a town during daylight, when the saloons were usually empty and the brothels closed. Other bosses believed in letting their boys have all the fun they bargained for and gave them free run. These rare instances were a great catharsis to the young drovers. It gave them the spunk to continue on whatever the cost.
The great days of the trail drive only lasted twenty years because it no longer became practical. Droving died almost as quickly as it had been born and with it, sadly, the cowboy. Suddenly he was no more. But, in that short span of time, he became one of the most recognized and copied images on the face of the earth.
All for a hundred bucks and a long ride on the lonesome trail.