Following the Civil War, perhaps 5 million longhorn cattle ranged freely across South Texas. The longhorn owed its origins to Spanish cattle brought to the Southwest centuries earlier. A mild climate and few predators allowed the rangy animals to thrive in what was once called the "wild horse desert" of South Texas. With thousands of immigrants flooding northern cities after the Civil War, there was a high demand for beef. Enterprising ranchers and returning soldiers realized the $5 a head they paid for cattle in South Texas might fetch $40 a head up north.
Cattle had been driven to California from Texas before the Civil War, and cowboys had trailed cattle to Sedalia, Missouri in the 1840s and 50s. Following the Civil War, the Sedalia route presented some problems as more and more settlers were moving west, establishing farms and communities, and planting crops. In 1867, a Chicago meatpacker named Joseph McCoy came up with the idea of avoiding settlements in Missouri by extending a railroad line to the village of Abilene, Kansas. McCoy built cattle pens and loading chutes so cattle could be shipped by rail back east and then north to Chicago, the center of the meatpacking industry. Next, McCoy sent word to Texas about his town and encouraged Texas cattlemen to drive their herds along the Chisholm Trail to Abilene. Other trails sprang up like the Great Western, which led to towns like Dodge City. Charles Goodnight and partner Oliver Loving trailed cattle along the Texas and New Mexico trail which bears their name in the late 1860s. Some herds went all the way from Texas to Colorado, Wyoming and Montana.
The era of the long drives to Kansas and the northern ranges only lasted about 25 years. But the legend and myth of the cowboy continues to this day, perpetuated in clothing and western movies where the main characters often spend more time drinking and shooting a six-shooter than herding cattle or mending fences. A cowboys life, unlike the movies version, was often dull and monotonous. Working for $25 a month, cowboys were usually young men from various walks of life. Some were former soldiers from the Civil War, some were outlaws trying to escape the law, and some were the sons of wealthy easterners and foreigners trying to get a taste of the old West. They included blacks, whites and Hispanics. They all put in long days on the trail.
The trail drive began in the late spring when grass was plentiful. For three months, a handful of man rode herd over more than 1000 head of wild longhorn cattle, moving them less than fifteen miles a day. The centerpiece of any cattle drive was the chuck wagon. Charles Goodnight is given credit for inventing the first of these by taking an old army wagon and strengthening it with extra hard wooden axles, and having a chuck box mounted on the rear end. A storage area to the front carried supplies and bedrolls. In many ways the cook or "cookie" was the most important member of the drive, and he generally got paid better than the other men. The cook drove the chuck wagon ahead of the herd and was responsible for selecting campsites in the evenings and stopovers for the noonday meal. Besides the cook, there was the trail boss, an experienced cowboy who had been up the trail before, knew where the grass and water were and also knew the dangers along the trail. Some cowboys were positioned at the front of the herd while others rode "flank" on the sides of the herd and still others rode "drag" at the back of the herd. All cowboys shared the job of watching the herd at night, hoping that the cattle did not become spooked and begin running. Younger cowboys were often given the job of horse wrangler. Their job was to care for the horses used to herd the animals along the long drive north.
On the trail, cowboys encountered the boredom and dangers of riding herd on more than 1000 head of cattle. Cowboys ran into unpredictable weather. Crossing treacherous rivers, some cowboys and cattle drowned. There were rattlesnakes, stampedes, and Indians. In the early days of the cattle drives, Indians still ranged across West Texas, leading a nomadic lifestyle chasing buffalo. Some Comanche ranged across northwest Texas until the mid-1870s when Quanah Parker led his band to Fort Sill, in Oklahoma.
When the cowboys finally reached the end of the trail, they celebrated in grand style. Then it was back to Texas for another drive the next year.
The cattle drive era was a unique period in American history, but it did not last long. The days of the long drives were coming to an end by the 1890s for a number of reasons. The railroads continued to build lines further west into Kansas and eventually lines were built to Ft. Worth, shrinking the drives from South Texas significantly. Texas cattle carried ticks which in turn carried a disease called Texas Fever. As settlers moved west, they planted crops around which the cowboys had to take their cattle herds. Barbed wire also ended the long drives. By 1881 there were 1229 United States government patents for wire. The invention of the refrigerated car by Gustavus Swift also aided in the decline of the long drive.
In the 1880s, some ranchers and investors began to carve out huge ranches in West Texas and the Texas Panhandle to capture prime grazing land and water. Cowboys continued to use the skills they had mastered on the long drives north, only chances were, by the 1890s they probably worked on a ranch following rules for rounding up cattle set up by new cattlemens associations.
By the end of the 19th and continuing into the early 20th century, some of the largest ranches in Texas began to sell off their lands. Railroads were awarded huge chunks of Texas lands to build rails across the state, and homesteaders were moving onto the lands formerly used for running cattle. Ranchers finally gave way to farmers and settlers on the Texas High Plains, but this part of Texas was one of the last to be settled. Immediately after the Civil War, few settlers had ventured onto the High Plains, a windy grass-covered land of few trees and little water, controlled by the Comanche Indians. Even today the region is sparsely populated compared to other parts of the state.
Following the ranchers in the 1870s and 1880s came farmers, and after them came merchants whose numbers turned small villages into towns. Foreign investors who had put much of their money into large Texas cattle ranches now thought they could make more money by breaking up their lands and selling them to these new farmers and settlers. Many of the big ranches in West Texas hired land promotion companies to sell their land. Gradually, much of the lands were sold off to farmers, and the era of huge ranches came to an end.
Pioneer settlers who came to West Texas had high hopes of a new life, and land ownership beckoned them to the high plains. Life was hard and the lonesome solitude was more than many could bear. But there was a real sense of community on the high, desolate land. Small towns such as Lubbock grew into prosperous cities based on agriculture.