Exhibits: People and the Land
Beef on the Move
Following the Mexican War and Texas independence, Texans paid no attention to the increasing herds. The cattle were allowed to roam wild over the grasslands, expanding northward in search of new feeding grounds. By the end of the Civil War, an estimated five million longhorns roamed Texas. An industry was about to be born, an industry with the potential for huge profits.
As people would say today, the numbers were there. Steers could be had from the wild herds by anyone who cared to claim them, or bought for $3 or $4 a head from ranchers, then sold for up to $40 a head in the Upper Mississippi Valley where livestock supplies were depleted by the war. The big question was how to get the animals to the nearest railroads, which were by then extending westward into the Plains.
The answer lay in the "Long Drive," where bands of a thousand or more head of cattle were driven to railheads in Kansas. Half a dozen cowboys drove each band. A chuck wagon, carrying food and equipment and driven by the cook was first on the trail, followed by the horse wrangler with his herd of horses. Behind the horses came the cattle, strung out over a mile of prairie with riders up front, along the flanks, and in the rear. The cattle were driven slowly at first but within a week they became accustomed to life on the road. The herd slowly drifted away from the bedding ground at daybreak, feeding as they went. After an hour or so the beasts were speeded up until noon when they were halted at some stream or watering place. Here the cattle grazed for a few hours then moved rapidly until nightfall.
In all, four million Texas longhorns reached Kansas during the years of the Long Drive, driven along the Chisolm and the Western Trail. The railhead "cowtowns" kept shifting westward as the railroads expanded into the Plains: Abilene and Ellsworth on the Kansas Pacific, Newton and Doge City on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. The growth of the railroads soon enabled ranchers to grow cattle near the railheads, alleviating the need for the long, arduous 1,500 mile-long drives. By 1868 herds were scattered across the High Plains from the Rio Grande to the Big Horn Basin in Wyoming.
As tough Texas cows were brought north to Kansas, they were bred with heavier Hereford and Angus bulls to produce a breed, which combined the stamina of the longhorns with the weight and tenderness of eastern breeds. Growing this distinctive breed of cattle soon became quite profitable because improvements in meat handling and slaughtering, refrigerator cars and cold storage opened east coast and European markets for beef. By 1870 ranches covered much of Kansas and Nebraska. Ranching soon spread into Colorado, stocked by cows brought up from Texas along the Goodnight Loving Trail. By 1869 a million cattle grazed within the borders of the state. From Colorado, extensive cattle raising spread into Wyoming.
The defeat of the Plains tribes and the near extermination of the vast herds of bison cleared the way for stocking the Great Plains. Ranches filled eastern Montana and spilled over into the Dakotas. By 1880 the transformation of the great bison range was complete. Where half a century before a traveler from Mexico to Canada would seldom be out of sight of grazing herds of bison, fifty years later he was never out of sight of grazing cattle.
The motivating factor for this great expansion of cattle grazing was the age-old hope for sudden wealth. Cattle to stock the range was cheap: $7 or $8 a head in Texas. All a prospective rancher had to do was to drive them north where land was free and carpeted with rich grasses. Here, he would cross the longhorn cows with Hereford or Angus bulls, then sit back and watch the value of his herd increase, knowing that each steer would bring $50 to $60 a head at the nearest railroad.
By 1880 the rush for the Plains was on. Young men from eastern farms and factories swarmed west to take up ranching. The demand for range stock was so great that ever-increasing numbers of eastern cattle were shipped west until the Plains country was filled with thousands of ranchers and millions of cattle without the stamina or experience to survive there. Investors on the east Coast and in England caught the speculative fever. Stock raising corporations were formed with eastern or English capital, claiming open range or buying up ranches. In Wyoming alone, twenty such corporations were formed in 1883.
All material copyright ©2002 - 2013, Public Lands Interpretive Association except photographs where ownership is otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.