Old-time drovers sought adventure but often suffered long stretches of boredom, not to mention deadly lightning, accidents, sickness and choking trail dust.
‘Head ’em up! Move ’em out!’ These six words, which closed most episodes of the popular TV series Rawhide (1959–65), sum up what many Americans know about the cattle drives of the post-Civil War West—that is to say, little. In fact, the early cattle drives went far toward healing Texas’ depressed postwar economy, while supplying much-needed beef to the Indian reservations and gold camps up north, and to the markets and homes of the nation’s Midwest and East. It was a process born of dire necessity, which soon passed into legend, coming to represent the cowboy and his Wild West to the rest of the nation and the world.
The cattle drive was not a novel concept. In the prewar years Texans drove beef on a small scale to the goldfields of California and the Rockies, and to the forts and reservations of the Southwest. But when the war ended in 1865, the South faced an economic collapse of staggering proportions, and Texas was no exception. One resource Texans had in plenty, however, was cattle. During the war, Texas cattle—almost exclusively of the temperamental, slab-sided, long-horned variety—had been roaming wild and procreating, with no local market in sight. One old-time trail drover recalled: “By the time the war was over they was down to $4 a head—when you could find a buyer. Here was all these cheap long-horned steers overrunning Texas; here was the rest of the country crying for beef—and no railroads to get them out. So they trailed them out, across hundreds of miles of wild country that was thick with Indians.”
The situation called for mobile commerce on a grand scale. Within a year of returning home from the battlefield, Texas cowboys drove an estimated quarter-million cattle north, making Texas the world’s undisputed ranching and cattle capital. The principal route the Texas ranchers took was the Chisholm Trail, named for cattle pioneer and trader Jesse Chisholm and extending from central Texas to the railhead in Abilene, Kansas. The “end of trail” changed based on what towns sprang up in the wake of the railroad as it snaked its way across the country’s midsection. As early as the summer of 1866, the pioneer Montana entrepreneur Nelson Story drove a herd of cattle from Texas to the Montana Territory goldfields, traveling the last stretch through Indian country on the contested Bozeman Trail. By 1886, an estimated 20 million “beeves”— 2,000 or 3,000 at a time, averaging 12 to 15 miles a day—made the journey up the northern trails (Chisholm, Goodnight-Loving, Western, etc.), to Newton, Ellsworth, Abilene, Wichita and Dodge City in Kansas; or to Sedalia, Missouri; or Ogallala, Nebraska; or Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory; or Miles City, Montana Territory. Most of the cattle ended up in the slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants of Chicago. The nation got its much-needed beef, and in the bargain the cowboy attained the status of America’s archetypal folk hero.
Traditionally, a trail herd of any size required a crew of 10 to 15 men. When he wasn’t off seeking water or scoping the route, the trail boss generally rode point, as did the cook (aka “belly-cheater,” “biscuit shooter” and other unprintable nicknames) and his chuck wagon—a practical carryall purportedly devised by famed Texas cowman Charles Goodnight. Behind them, one to a side, were the lead riders, followed by the swing riders and flankers. Off to one side rode the wrangler, who tended to the remuda—the small herd of reserve horses. Bringing up the rear, enveloped by the dust of thousands of plodding hooves, were the drag riders. “The poorest men always worked with the drags,” recalled one trail drover, “because a good hand wouldn’t stand for it. I have seen them come off herd with the dust half an inch deep on their hats and thick as fur in their eyebrows and mustaches.” Not that the others fared much better. “They would go to the water barrel at the end of the day and rinse their mouths and cough and spit and bring that black stuff out of their throats.”
The men who signed on to coax the recalcitrant Longhorns from the Texas scrub up the northern trails went by various names: waddie, drover/driver, herder, cowhand and the ever-popular cowboy. The terms cowpuncher and cowpoke—first used to define the men who used long poles to prod the cows aboard stock cars at the railheads—eventually became synonymous with cowboy. By some estimates at least one-third of them were black or Mexican. A number of former drovers wrote memoirs or narrated accounts of their adventures. Among the best-known and most readable is We Pointed Them North (1939), the recollections of Edward C. “Teddy Blue” Abbott, an Englishman who went up the trail for the first time in 1871 and eventually settled in Montana. Trail drovers were generally young. Most, Abbott wrote, were of medium build, quick and wiry, “as a heavy man was hard on horses.” They were, he recalled, “as a rule very good-natured; in fact it did not pay to be anything else.…I have seen them ride into camp after two days and nights on herd, lay down on their saddle blankets in the rain and sleep like dead men, then get up laughing and joking about some good time they had had in Ogallala or Dodge City.” Fiercely loyal to the outfit, they would, Teddy Blue insisted, “follow their wagon boss through hell and never complain.” The drovers were a nervy bunch. “There was only two things the old-time cowpuncher was afraid of,” Abbott wrote, “a decent woman and being set afoot.”
Most cowboys went up the trail for the adventure (to “see the elephant,” as they might have put it). Certainly, it wasn’t the pay that attracted them. The drive, which could take anywhere from several weeks to several months, depending on the trail and destination, could be boring for long stretches at a time, with nothing to see but flat land, dust and the bony hind ends of the cattle. That said, any number of natural and manmade challenges arose to break up the boredom. Among the most nerve-racking was the fording of rivers—and there were many rivers to cross. A drover had to negotiate several before leaving Texas. One old trail-drive song of the period, “The Rivers of Texas” (aka “The Brazos River”), names and describes each in turn:
We crossed the broad Pecos,
we forded the Nueces,
We swum the Guadeloupe,
we followed the Brazos;
Red River runs rusty,
the Wichita clear,
But down by the Brazos
I courted my dear.
The fair Angelina runs
glossy and gliding,
The crooked Colorado
runs weaving and winding,
And the slow San Antonio
it courses the plain,
But I never will walk
by the Brazos again.
Rivers could be fearsome obstacles, especially when they ran high. A swift current could carry away a cow, a horse or a man. Even slow water masked quicksand and deep holes. Crossing on one’s own was often a chore, but doing so in the company of a few thousand unpredictable cattle could tax a man’s endurance—or cost him his life.
There was no shortage of ways to die on a trail drive. If Western filmmakers are to be believed, gunplay was the primary cause of death among drovers. This is pure Hollywood, although trail outfits did face raids by hostile Indians and rustlers, as well as occasional resistance by armed settlers who balked at having their land trampled. One old-time Texas trail boss recalled: “That was a pretty hard set of people there at that time. Every man you saw had a pistol and a Winchester, and the children at the houses we passed were cutting their teeth on cartridge shells.” In most instances, however, death followed sickness, an accident or an act of nature. It came in the unromantic form of pneumonia, from sleeping under a single thread-worn blanket in all weather. A cowboy could be thrown to his death from a horse or dragged to death with a boot caught in the stirrup. Hollywood doesn’t always get it wrong. As we learned from Lonesome Dove (1989) when Gus McCrae died of blood poisoning, infection (little understood at the time) could carry a man off in a short time. Thunderstorms were not infrequent occurrences. One Texas trail boss remembered a storm in which “a bolt of lightning knocked five of the men down and killed seven horses in camp.” Teddy Blue Abbott had close calls: “Lots of cowpunchers were killed by lightning, and that is history. I was knocked off my horse by it twice. The first time I saw a ball of fire coming toward me and felt something strike me on the head. When I came to, I was lying under old Pete, and the rain was pouring down on my face.” And if lightning failed to strike a man or horse, it could still stampede a herd. “The cattle,” wrote Abbott, “were always restless when there was a storm at night, even if it was a long way off, and that was when any little thing would start a run.”
And finally, just when the drover thought he was safe to enjoy the fruits of his labor at trail’s end and paid a visit to a cow town courtesan, the strong possibility of more pain and misfortune followed, as many of the women who sold their favors to drovers had one form of venereal disease or another. Abbott noted that prostitutes often “followed [the cowboys] up” as the action shifted from one cow town to another, “and we would meet old pals in new places.” A popular cowboy song of the time, which went by the name “St. James Hospital” among others, tells the sad tale of a young cowboy dying as an effect of his dalliance with an end-of-trail “ceiling-gazer”:
Send for the doctor to heal up my body,
Send for the preacher, come and pray for my soul,
For my poor head is aching,
Lord, my sad heart is breaking,
I’m a poor cowboy, and hell is my doom.
Over time the song—which had antecedents in the British Isles under the medicinal title “Pills of White Mercury”—was cleaned up to where the cowboy was “shot in the breast,” and the title changed to the “The Streets of Laredo.” In the Wild West death by gunshot was clearly preferable to the other.
Not every mishap was fatal, but to paraphrase a common expression, what didn’t kill you often just hurt like hell. For example, weeks and months spent in the saddle, coupled with a steady diet of fried bacon and beans (“Pecos strawberries”) and an overfondness for strong drink, frequently led to a bad case of hemorrhoids—unromantic, yes, but true. Don’t look for any such admission in the annals of drover recollections; there are some things a cowboy simply didn’t share. Water was often hard to come by on the trail, and thirst was an ever-present possibility. Storms of huge hailstones pummeled both cowboys and cattle, and blizzards sometimes came out of nowhere, freezing horses, cows and sometimes men. Wind and blistering sun cracked and burned the drovers, especially the fair ones. Rheumatism and arthritis were also fairly common afflictions. The constant inhalation of alkali dust could bring on emphysema, against which bandannas offered only minimal protection. And working in such close proximity to animals, in less than sanitary conditions, the cowboy could contract a case of lice (“graybacks”) and attract an army of ticks. Daily bathing was not the practice anywhere in this time and place, but life on the trail made personal hygiene even more the exception than the rule. Body fungus was common. Cowboys were dirty nearly all the time, and they smelled of cows and worse.
Yet despite the dangers, the discomfort and the monotony, the slow pace and recalcitrant cows, there was no lack of boys and young men eager to sign on or make their mark for what they envisioned as the adventure of a lifetime. As old-time waddie J.R. Humphries, of Yoakum, Texas, recalled, “In my earliest boyhood days the great ruling ambition was to become a cowboy.” The epic work The Trail Drivers of Texas (1920) recounts the stories of hundreds of cowhands in their own words; nearly all reflect Humphries’ sentiments. Mainly farm or ranch-reared, they flocked to the trail herds, hopeful of “seeing the elephant.” And with the cattle pouring north in the millions, there was almost always a berth.
The Trail Bosses
In their portrayals of Tom Dunson in Red River (1948), Frank Culpepper of The Culpepper Cattle Co. (1972) and Gil Favor of Rawhide, to name just a few, filmmakers haven’t exaggerated the weight of the responsibility shouldered by the trail boss. The drive succeeded or failed depending on his decisions, experience and skill in and out of the saddle. “Oh, those trail bosses know their business,” Abbott affirmed, “and their business was to get their herd through in good shape; that was all they thought about.…Going into a new country, the trail boss had to ride his tail off hunting for water.…Lots of times he would ride up on a little knoll and signal to the point—water this way, or water that way.” The rule was, the herd watered first, then the men—by which time the water was considerably less than clear. After watering the N Bar herd at a particularly muddy creek in Montana, one cowboy complained to his trail boss, “I ain’t kicking, but I had to chew that water before I could swallow it.”
Cowhands recalled the best trail bosses long after the days of the drives had ended. Perhaps the most famous was Abner Pickens Blocker—“Ab” to his friends and “Mr. Ab” to his drovers. Born on a ranch near Austin, Texas, in 1856, he earned a reputation as a tough, savvy cowman who, in the words of famed Texas chronicler J. Frank Dobie, “always tried to treat all hands fair, whether white, black or brown” and “was the most original-natured trail boss I have known.” Ab, Dobie added, “claimed to have looked down the backs of more cows and to have drunk water out of more cow tracks than any other man who ever pointed a herd toward the North Star.” According to Dobie, Blocker never owned cattle himself, choosing instead to boss the herds belonging to brother John, or as Ab called him, “Brother Johnnie.”
Many an old-timer had a Mr. Ab story to tell. Some “stretched the blanket” a mite. Other tales, such as the following, had the solid ring of truth: One fall night on the Cherokee Strip, it begins, Ab lay sleeping beneath the chuck wagon, when the herd stampeded. Clad only in his red flannel “long handles,” Ab pulled on his high-peaked hat and knee-high stovepipe boots, then leapt on his horse in pursuit of the cattle. Some 100 steers had bunched and splintered off from the herd, and he pursued them through the darkness. Ab finally gathered them at daybreak and found himself on the Salt Fork of the Brazos, a good 15 miles from camp. Seeing smoke rising from a nearby cabin, and in desperate need of coffee, he approached. Spotting a woman’s and baby’s clothes hanging from some bushes, Ab—rather than emerge in his underwear—waited in hiding, calling out only when a man finally appeared. After a quick repast of coffee, bacon and cold biscuits, Ab drove the 100 steers the 15 miles back to camp.
The Blockers became legends in the cattle trade, often driving several herds up the trail at once. For his part, John Blocker was a cunning businessman and—from an initial acquisition of 500 cows—built a cattle empire. Starting in 1871, he sent herds north every year until the trail drives ceased. In 1886 alone, he owned, either wholly or in part, some 82,000 head on the trail at one time. Abbott rendered his own opinion of the two brothers: “John Blocker was the greatest trail man who ever pointed a trail herd toward the North Star. Ab…was the fastest driver on the trail.” Ab lived well into the 20th century, paying no mind whatsoever to the machinery of the modern age. He died in 1943, at 87, neither having touched the steering wheel of an automobile nor flown in a plane. At his request he was buried in his boots and spurs.
On the flip side of the coin were the Olive brothers—Thomas, Ira, Bob and Isom Prentice (aka “Print”). Texas cattlemen born and bred, with all the racial prejudices of the time, they were abusive to blacks and Mexicans, sometimes to the point of murder. Their trail crew was known, in the parlance of the time, as a “gun outfit.” Ira sometimes served as head trail boss, and he was neither well liked nor respected by his drovers. Brother Bob was a killer and in the 1870s left Texas on the run after shooting a man. He landed in Nebraska, where he was shot dead attempting to capture two men suspected of stealing Olive cattle. Print, the de facto leader of the clan, hunted down the pair, hanged them and then set their bodies on fire. Print was killed in Colorado some years later in a minor dispute with a cowboy.
A number of the West’s most famous—and infamous—characters went up the trail at one time or another. For Texas native Nate Champion, of Johnson County War fame, the long drive served as his introduction to Wyoming Territory, where he eventually lived, ranched and was killed in a siege. Outlaws were no strangers to the drover’s life. Teddy Blue Abbott recalled a figure from his first drive: “Sam Bass was my father’s wagon boss. He wasn’t an outlaw then—just a nice, quiet young fellow…always very kind to me, and different from most of the wild devils who came up the trail in the ’70s.” Bass embarked on a brief career robbing trains and stagecoaches, before Texas Rangers shot him down in Round Rock.
Perhaps the most notorious badman ever to herd cattle was John Wesley Hardin. In 1871 Hardin, “on the dodge” for several previous shootings, sought to evade the law by working as a member of Jim Clements’ trail crew, driving some 1,200 cattle up the Chisholm Trail to Abilene. Being Wes Hardin, however, he could not go long without taking a life. While awaiting the order to put the cows on the trail, he shot a Mexican over a game of monte. As he wrote in his autobiography, “We all went back to camp and laughed about the matter.” Once under way Wes shot and killed one Indian while out turkey hunting, another during an Osage attack. On crossing into Kansas, a Mexican outfit drove its herd too close to Clements’ herd for the white drovers’ comfort, and in the mounted pistol fight that followed, Hardin added five men to his tally, bringing the overall number of his victims to around 20. He had not yet reached his 18th birthday. According to the shootist’s own reckoning, that number would more than double by the time the authorities locked him away in Huntsville Prison.
Hardin aside, most desperadoes and fast-pistol men appear to have behaved themselves around cattle and cowboys, and several—including Wild Bunch members Harry Alonzo “Sundance Kid” Longabaugh and Harvey “Kid Curry” Logan— were reportedly fine hands, who endeared themselves to their bosses and found a welcome when a welcome was needed.
The Cow Towns
To the drover the town at the end of trail represented the Valhalla for which he’d been sweating and freezing for long weeks in the saddle. Be it Abilene, Ogallala or Miles City, the offerings were predictably similar, and with money in his jeans, the cowboy was easy prey for the denizens of the redlight districts. He was offered every variety of liquor, games of chance and women. Cowhand Andy Adams described his brief visit to Ogallala and the broad spectrum of female companionship to be had for a price: “Here might be seen the frailty of women in every grade and condition. From girls in their teens, launching out on a life of shame, to the adventuress who had once had youth and beauty in her favor but was now discarded and ready for the final dose of opium and the coroner’s verdict—all were there in tinsel and paint, practicing a careless exposure of their charms.”
After first bathing and reoutfitting, the drover would devote himself to a monumental blowout, which might put him at odds with local lawmen, including the likes of “Wild Bill” Hickok, Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman and Wyatt Earp. Cowboy fun could be very destructive, one way or another, and the local business community had a love-hate relationship with the Texas cowhands. “We’re not near so bad as we’re painted,” one old drover told a reporter. “We like to get up a little racket now and then, but it is all in play. Of course, sometimes we fall out amongst ourselves, and then there is a corpse.” Even the survivors of the end-of-trail exuberance had a cowboy lament. Take Texas cowhand G.D. Burrows: “This ‘big time’ would last but a few days…for I would soon be ‘busted’ and would have to borrow money to get out to the ranch.…I put in 18 or 20 years on the trail, and all I had in the final outcome was the high-heeled boots, the striped pants and about $4.80 worth of other clothes, so there you are.”
The End of an Era
1883 and 1884 were the boom years for the cattle drives. John Blocker claimed that in that span a half-million cows trailed through Ogallala alone. The following two years, however, saw a decline of cataclysmic proportions. In 1885 Kansas, then the primary destination for the northbound drives, closed its borders to Texas herds in an attempt to eradicate Texas fever, a fatal disease among cattle. Then, in the winter of 1885–86 several feet of ice and snow buried the northern range, making winter graze inaccessible and destroying cattle in staggering numbers, with stock losses that reached 90 percent. Ranchers called it the “Big Die-Up,” and it sounded the death knell for most of the large ranching operations in Montana and Wyoming. The following winter brought more blizzards, killing many of the surviving cattle. The old-time cattle industry, and the trail drives that fed it, never fully recovered.
But by the time the last herds trailed north in 1895, the cowboy had been elevated in the popular imagination from a laborer on horseback to America’s favorite folk hero. In his monumental tome The Great Plains (1931) Texas historian Walter Prescott Webb described the cowboy as perceived by the non-Westerner: “‘Ah,’ said the Easterner, ‘here is a new species of the genus Homo.…There is something romantic about him. He lives on horseback, as do the Bedouins; he fights on horseback, as did the knights of chivalry; he goes armed with a strange new weapon which he uses ambidextrously and precisely; he swears like a trooper, drinks like a fish, wears clothes like an actor and fights like a devil. He is gracious to ladies, reserved toward strangers, generous to his friends and brutal to his enemies. He is a cowboy, a typical Westerner.”
While the cattle drives faded before the coming of the new century, the cowboy entered into a popular culture state of grace that persists to the present day. When Owen Wister’s The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902) first appeared, his romanticized depiction of the working cowhand merely solidified the nation’s fanciful notion of the classic Westerner. The image of today’s cowboy bears little resemblance to the old-time waddie who pushed Texas Longhorns north, but it serves as a reminder of a time when it all came down to a man on a cow pony. A century ago Texas rancher and former cowhand George W. Elam recalled: “Those old times, with their frontier ways and customs, have long since been superseded by the modern conveniences and developments of civilization. But the men who blazed the way for the material greatness that is our today were grand and noble spirits and are entitled to the grateful remembrance of their fellow countrymen.”
Ron Soodalter writes often about the American West and the CivilWar. Suggested for further reading are the books referenced in the story, as well as The Log of a Cowboy (1903), by Andy Adams; The Longhorns (1941) and Cow People (1964), both by J. Frank Dobie; The American Cowboy (1955), by Joe B. Frantz and Julian E. Choate Jr.; Once in the Saddle (1973), by Laurence I. Seidman; The Rawhide Years (1976), by Glenn R.Vernam; and Saddling Up Anyway (2006), by Patrick Dearen.
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.