The Chisholm Trail and Other Texas Legends

The classical free-range cattle-ranching and long-trail-drive west that we know - or think we know from pulp fiction, B-movies and television shows actually only lasted for about twenty years, from the end of the Civil War to the mid-1880s when bad weather and a glutted market spelled the end of those ways. The cattle-towns usually shown in movies and television actually were limited to a very small time and space: Kansas, the terminus for those long drives from Texas, as the railroads crawled west. Abilene was the first of them, and Dodge City the last; in between there were others like Hayes, Ellsworth, Newton and Caldwell - some of whom only thrived for a single gaudy, and raucous season as a cow-town.

The legends had their foundation in the years just after the Civil War. Large-scale cattle ranching had been going on in Texas for decades, especially in those parts of Texas unsuited for agriculture. But Texas was also full of restless former soldiers and their families whose farms and businesses had been disrupted by the war and subsequent Reconstruction. A desperate need for cash was coupled with an acute surplus of cattle in Texas, and which then met head-on with 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, which put 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. Its 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.

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 theatrical but stupid gunplay and bravado. As one of my characters reflects, in "Adelsverein - The Harvesting", "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."