(Be sure to look up any words you do not know.)
Making Use of a "Wasteland"
You have learned that the
Great Plains west of the Missouri River were once called the Great American
Desert. Believing that this thirsty land of sagebrush and buffalo grass would
never be more than a barren waste, most of the early pioneers moving west
crossed the plains to the lush Oregon country or to the Southwest and
Here and there a pioneer had staked a claim, or the federal government had built a fort, but there were very few settlers in this stretch of land before l860. As you recall, the Mormons had started a settlement in Utah near Great Salt Lake. Missions had been started in various places, for much of this was Indian land. Here lived some 200,000 Native Americans, the most numerous tribes of which were the Sioux, the Cheyenne, the Comanche, and the Blackfoot. They roamed freely over the plains in search of the shaggy buffalo which served as the main source of their food, clothing, and shelter.
At about the time that the War between the States began, some enterprising Americans decided that the Great Plains could be used for raising beef cattle. Within fifty years this huge area of plains and plateaus was settled, organized into states, and admitted to the Union. In 1912 Arizona became the forty-eighth state.
South of the
so-called Great American Desert, Texans were raising many cattle by 1860. Large
herds of half-wild, long-horned cattle roamed freely over unfenced grasslands
called the open range. Cattle brought there bv Spaniards in the eighteenth
century had been crossed with oxen and milk cows brought to Texas by American
The men who
performed the wearisome task of herding these thousands of cattle are the heroes
in many tales of the West - the cowboys. Lean, hardworking, and fearless,
cowboys led a somewhat less romantic life than is usually pictured in the movies
and on TV. Their days on the range were filled with danger and hard work.
The Cowboy's Equipment
undoubtedly have an idea of what a cowboy wore, but did you realize that his
colorful outfit came about because of the way he made his living? The high heels
on his boots kept his feet from slipping too far into the stirrups and let him
dismount quickly. His "ten-gallon" hat protected his eyes from rain and the
glaring sunlight. The handkerchief about his neck could be pulled over his face
in a dust storm or when dust was thick on the trail. Gloves protected his hands
from the reins just as chaps protected his legs from cactus, brush, and the
weather. The cowboy's western saddle had a wide, deep seat, and a horn around
which to fasten his lariat when roping a steer.
Day in, day out, a cowboy watched his cattle and saw that they had ample grass and water. This routine was broken by the spring roundup of calves for branding and a later roundup of those animals ready for market.
Meeting a Need for Beef
In 1865 some
Texas businessmen heard that there was a great shortage of beef in the upper
Mississippi Valley. The War Between the States had brought about a shortage of
cattle in that area, and a good steer was selling for $40. When steers could be
bought for as little as $3 or $4 a head in Texas, it is easy to see that a good
profit could be made if cattle could make the journey north.
By 1865, the Missouri Pacific Railroad had tracks as far west as Sedalia, Missouri. The Texas cattlemen decided to drive herds of cattle to the railroad and ship cattle to eastern markets as well as to the Mississippi Valley.
The Long Drive
some Texans and Midwest businessmen bought camp equipment, rounded up herds of
cattle, and hired cowboys. When the grass on the northern plains began to get
green in March, they started northward. Each herd of a thousand or more cattle
was driven by a half dozen skillful cowboys armed with lassos and six-shooters.
A chuck wagon loaded with food and equipment went ahead, driven by the cook. He was followed by the horse wrangler and his horses. Behind him came the restless longhorns, urged along by the cowboys. A cowboy rode on either side of the leaders to keep the cattle on their course. Outriders kept the main herd from scattering. "Tail riders" brought up the rear, hurrying along the stragglers. The whole "outfit" was under the command of a trail boss.
The cattle moved at a pace of fifteen or twenty miles a day. They grazed as they went, especially at noontime when the cowboys ate at the chuck wagon and lazed around for a while. At nightfall the outfit stopped by a stream. The cattle lay down to chew their cuds and rest, guarded by a couple of cowboys. As they rode slowly around the herds, the cowboys often sang softly to keep themselves awake and the animals quiet.
A herd of cattle is "jumpy." It will stampede with little warning. At a point where these traveling herds crossed Indian Territory, some Native Americans caused a stampede. Then they collected a reward for helping to round up the frightened cattle. Farther north the longhorns, accustomed to the open range, were afraid to enter the woods through which their trail led. Still farther north angry Missouri farmers tried to stop the drive, afraid that the longhorns might carry Texas fever. They shot some of the cattle and fought it out with the cowboys.
Other Trails Are Opened
problems, enough cattle reached the railroad on this first long drive to show
the cattlemen that they could make fortunes if they could find a new route
through grasslands where there were no settlements. A meat dealer from Illinois
decided to lay out such a route. Meanwhile, a railroad line had reached Abilene,
Kansas, a sleepy village surrounded by grassy pastures and plenty of water.
There, in 1867, the Illinois dealer built cattle pens, loading chutes, barns, a
boarding house, and a livery stable. Some 35,000 longhorns were loaded on trains
at Abilene that fall, and 75,000 a year later.
As the railroads were extended westward and more cattle were driven north to meet the growing demand for western beef, other trails were opened and other cattle towns developed. Note on the map the towns of Newton, Dodge City, Ellsworth, and Cheyenne, as well as the names of the cattle trails.
Law and Order
towns along the western railroads became quite wild and lawless. Cowboys coming
to these towns after a long drive were anxious to have a little fun. They found
gamblers and entertainers waiting to provide it and to relieve them of what
money they had made. Many cowboys started the trip back home without a penny,
and little to look forward to but the next year's roundup.
For a few years some cattle towns were controlled by gamblers and cutthroats of one kind or another. In such places the sheriffs and judges often had been appointed and paid by the lawless element. At the time, this whole territory was controlled by the federal government, so the hope of decent citizens lay in seeking the help of a United States marshal. The marshals were in charge of large districts and were responsible for enforcing law and order, particularly if the local authorities failed to do so or would not do so.
The West became more and more tame as crop farmers came in with their wives and children. Churches and schools were built, and the demand for law and order increased. Some citizens banded together in vigilance committees in order to clean up their towns and force out the lawbreakers.
The Cattle Kingdom
success in marketing their longhorns led many men to invest their money in
cattle and to stake out ranches on the grasslands. You realize, of course, that
the cattlemen using the open range were on government land. They had neither
bought nor rented the land; they merely let their cattle feed upon the grass.
The cattle of a particular rancher were identified, as they are today, by a
brand mark burned into their hides.
In the 1870's the railroads came to Texas and to the northern plains, and the number of long drives grew less. Modern killing methods, refrigerator cars, and cold storage soon made it possible to ship western beef to eastern markets and Europe. Tough Texas cows were crossed with heavier Hereford and Angus bulls to produce the better type of beef cattle you see when you drive over the plains today.
The End of the Cattle Kingdom
By the early 1880’s, the days of the open range and long drive already were numbered. Railroads were reaching into every part of the West. Farmers followed the rails. They bought and fenced in the best parts of the range land, the areas around waterholes. Sheepherders moved onto the high plains and competed with ranchers for grazing land. Many ranchers and cowboys refused to accept these changes, and violent “range wars” broke out between them and farmers and sheepherders.
Ranchers liked to blame sheepherders and farmers for the end of their way of life, but they did as much themselves to bring an end to open-range ranching. Overstocking and overgrazing led to disaster. During the bitter winters of 1885-1886 and 1886-1887, cattle left unattended on the open range froze or starved to death because they couldn’t reach the food supply. Many ranchers lost everything in the late 1880’s.
The Fall of the Cowboy, Frederick Remington (1895)
After that, a new style of ranching began to take the place of the open range. The new ranchers built their own fences. They imported improved breeds of cattle, spent more energy raising feed for their cattle, and used scientific methods for conserving water. Cattle raising, like mining, became a business operation.
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