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Writins of Weakeyes Cody

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The Great Texas Trail Drives  @ 2011

1860 Texas saw rolling prairies of lush grass for extended distances equaled by nothing east of the Mississippi River. This environment had become the free grazing ground for what was to be called the Texas Longhorn. A wiry long legged critter with nervous eyes and glistening horns nimble as a deer and quick as a cat, improved only a little since the Spanish brought them there only a couple of centuries earlier. Their numbers had increased to an estimated three million and they belonged to whoever could round them up and herd them in a given direction. The citizens of the new Republic of Texas had prospered well enough by driving them to the ready markets along the Mississippi River and into Mexico, but the southern revolution for independence interrupted that market and caused a long lull in the consumption of Texas beef steak.


Then after the bloody conflagration ended, the cattlemen of the areas began looking again northward to the beef hungry cities with hope of generating a lucrative business. And they had little difficulty finding hands to help herd their evasive bovines because many a dissatisfied southern soldier wandered west to escape the Yankee reconstruction regulations. Thus, it wasn’t long before northeastern Texas was alive with tens of thousands of Longhorns spring-loaded to cross Red River, across the Indian nations and up into Missouri to the tables of Kansas City, Chicago, and points east. It was 1866 and you might say a new American icon was born. The cowboy.


There was little reliability in the courses taken. The Rock Bluffs ford, on Red River, up into the Kiamichi Valley, across the ridges to Fort Smith, Arkansas, then a circuitous route through the Ozarks, across southeastern Missouri – was the line most followed. However, a wild lawless bunch of hairy legged old boys still agitated from the war in the rugged regions of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, legitimate successors to the guerrillas of war days who by mere force of numbers levied costly tribute for benefit of the drovers passing through their territory. No matter how evasive the cowboys maneuvered their herds, the unwieldy masses could still be detected. And they paid dearly for any tactics to avoid the persecutors. The herds were scattered, the drovers were shot and day’s even weeks would be spent rounding up the strewn cattle.


Then a more westerly route was chosen. And while the Chickasa’s, Choctaws, Creeks and Seminole boys overlooked the Texas Trespassers, the Cherokee’s up in the northeastern part of what was to many years later become Oklahoma, shut off that route. Then the fear of Spanish fever was made the pretext for other delays. Furthermore, the toilsome trek through the ridges of the Ozark Mountains caused the loss of many a head and those that made the stockyards of St. Louis and Sedalia were in poor condition and fetched low prices. Beef steak was getting too expensive for the Texas stockmen to afford.


The answer to the Texans problem came in 1867 as the old Kansas Pacific Railroad, later to become the Kansas Division of the Union Pacific Railroad slowly crept out westerly across the sparsely populated state. It had to reach half way from the Missouri line to the Rocky Mountains before people woke up to the reality of its potential. In fact, it was an Illinois stock-dealer, Joseph G. McCoy, to who is due the credit of originating the Kansas and Texas cattle-trails. He was aware of the situation down below the Red River, and conceived the idea of forming a great shipping point on the new railroad. He was encouraged by the officials, and arrangements were made for the location of the cattle yards at Abilene, a station one hundred sixty five miles from Kansas City, situated smack in the middle of great grass lands that could be used for grazing of in bound herds from Texas. Holding pens were built and steps were taken to induce the cattlemen to make this their destination. A single horseman was dispatched on a lonely ride across Indian infested Oklahoma Territory to send every herd he could encounter to the new railhead.


The first shipment from Abilene was made September 5th 1867, and was celebrated by an excursion of Illinois stock-dealers coming in on a special train to see the start. Money was lost on the years business, both from damage to the droves by floods and Indian raids, and because of the prejudice in the east against Texas beef, at that time considered by some too wild for use. But the movement was started and 1868 saw a general acceptance for the new market among Texas stockmen and northward drives exceeded seventy-five thousand head. Then 1869 showed even greater increase with an avalanche of a hundred sixty thousand thundering longhorns from the Texas ranches.


The northern folks took to their beef-steaks and by now well defined trails had been established and for two more decades those trunk lines leading to the Kansas pens held their supremacy. The most famous of these was the “Chisholm Trail.” Named after John Chisholm, an eccentric stockman, who was the first to drive over it. Chisholm lived in Paris, Texas, was a bachelor, and had many thousand head of cattle on the ranges in the southern part of the State. Later he moved to New Mexico, and died a few years later, leaving almost uncounted droves upon his ranches.


South of the Red River, reaching down across the State was the irregular Southern Texas Trail. But from Red River across Oklahoma Territory, Chisholm broke the way to Kansas. Riding ahead of his herds he selected what seemed the most favorable route. Fording Red River near the mouth of Mud Creek, he followed that stream to its head, kept northwest to Wild Horse Creek, to the west of Signal Mountain, then crossed Washita River to Elm Spring. Due north took him to the South Canadian River, leaving that he struck Kingfisher Creek Valley. This was followed to the Cimarron. Touching the head of Black Bear and Bluff Creeks, its next considerable stream was the Salt Fork of the Arkansas, which was crossed at Sewell’s Ranch, and coming into Kansas near Caldwell, the course was a little east of north crossing the Arkansas River Near Wichita. Thence the trail turned northeasterly, striking Newton, and on over the divide between the Smoky Hill and the Arkansas to the prairies south of Abilene. Following Chisholm’s Track came thousands of herds and the trails became notable courses. Chisholm’s Trails took other routes as well, crossing the Indian nations of Oklahoma. The number of cattle reaching Abilene in 1870 bounded to three hundred thousand with almost a continuous line of bovine travelers pouring over the Chisholm Trail. In 1871 nearly a million were driven north. Six hundred thousand to Abilene alone, while Baxter Springs and Junction City received half as many. Livestock clustered for miles around these shipping points waiting to be loaded into rail cars. From every hill longhorns glistened in the sun with their herders watchfully riding the periphery. Several counties of south central Kansas became designated cattle yards and it seemed that the industry would soon absorb the whole state.


Then came 1871-72, when came a storm of sleet dropping an icy coat over the sod; and thousands of cattle and hundreds of horses died of cold and starvation. The winter was severe throughout, and it was said that less than fifty thousand cattle lived through it. From herds of sixty and seventy thousand, only a few hundred survived.


Abilene’s prestige was gone. Soon after Dodge City, on the Chisholm Trail’s western off-shoot began to absorb the drives. While the drives never reached the proportions of the earlier drives, they continued to be extensive until the building of the railroads across Indian Territory and the establishment of shipping points in Texas itself.


The opening of Oklahoma in 1889 made another barrier, however, and the season of 1891 saw the last of the bovine exodus that through more than three decades had furnished employment and profit for a lot of people.


Much glamour and romance has been lent the trail drover. The cowboy. But he was not the dashing and chivalric hero of modern burlesque stage, radio, films and television, romping across the prairie in fancy hats and sashes toting a six gun fighting bad men from dime novels. He was rather a very average Westerner, dressed for comfort and a man with the same traits of character his work required. He lived a hard life. For months he slept on the ground, sat his pony in the rains and endured the cold and discomfort. Still, he has become an American Icon.


Towns have sprang up, highways have been built, oil derricks have stood, and grass has grown over the cattle trails where children now play. Little thought is given to those bygone yesterdays when men and mustangs drove the wiry longhorns across the grasslands. But let us believe that out there somewhere atop a rise, as the sunsets, the spirit of the cowboy is looking back as he carries his saddle on his shoulder and is smiling as he nods to himself knowing he has finished a job well done.


~ Weakeyes Cody 2011

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