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Cowboys and Cattle Drives

Written by: Andrew Fisher, William & Mary

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain the causes and effects of the settlement of the West from 1877 to 1898

Suggested Sequencing

Use this Narrative to give students a greater understanding of cowboy culture and the roles cowboys and ranchers played in the economic and environmental transformation of the West.

The cowboy is at once the most familiar, beloved, and mythologized symbol of the North American West. Images of a man on horseback, Stetson on his head and six-gun on his hip, have been branded on our collective memory by generations of artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians, advertisers, and other purveyors of popular culture. From Buffalo Bill to the Lone Ranger, cowboys are widely seen as the embodiment of core American values freedom, honesty, individualism, opportunity, self-sufficiency as well as the model of American masculinity. Representations of the classic cowboy are always male, always white, and always on the side of what is right and good.

The historical truth, of course, is considerably more complicated and often less romantic than the legends we associate with the “Cattle Kingdom” of the late nineteenth century. The heyday of open-range ranching and long trail drives lasted only about 20 years, and the cowboys of this period were generally wage workers rather than independent cattlemen. They were also a more diverse lot than we imagine, including men of many different races and ethnicities, as well as some women. Their lives and labor, though not usually as exciting as a western movie, played a significant role in the economic and environmental transformation of the western United States.

Cowboys did not gallop suddenly into the American landscape and then just as suddenly ride off into the sunset. Spanish settlers first introduced both cattle and horse-mounted vaqueros to the Southwest during the seventeenth century. By the early 1800s, several million cattle roamed the range from California to Texas, tended by Hispanic herders whose language contributed many words to the vocabulary of modern ranching, including bronco, chaparajos or “chaps,” corral, lariat, lasso, rodeo, and rancho. Anglo-American immigrants to the region adopted these traditions along with the hardy Texas longhorns that became a staple of the cattle industry after the Civil War. That conflict temporarily disrupted the market for Texas beef that had developed by 1850, but the market boomed again with the postwar expansion of railroads across the Great Plains and the explosive growth of eastern cities.

Photograph of a cowboy on a horse.

Many of the tools and practices used by North American cowboys, including the use of horses, were derived from methods that Spanish-speaking vaqueros had used since the 1500s.

Long-distance cattle drives to bring animals to market developed in response to a combination of economic and ecological factors. After the war, competing railways established depots in Kansas to attract the business of cattle ranchers who had previously taken their stock to Louisiana or Missouri. These railheads had to be established to the west of more densely populated farming regions, because longhorns carried a tick that transmitted splenic fever(commonly called Texas or Spanish fever), which ravaged other breeds of cattle; thus, several states were encouraged to ban longhorn cattle or establish quarantine zones. The first cattle town, Abilene, lay beyond the line that Kansas drew to keep longhorns away from settled areas. Connected to eastern markets by the Kansas Pacific Railroad, Abilene shipped out millions of longhorns that had been driven north on the Chisholm Trail. The Santa Fe Railroad soon established competing railheads at Wichita and Dodge City, the destination for herds moving along the Western Trail from central Texas. Later drives took cattle up the vast Goodnight-Loving Trail as far as Denver, Colorado, and Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Such lengthy trips were feasible because semi-wild longhorns endured them well and fetched high prices at the stockyard despite their lean, tough meat. Steers bought for $10 a head or less in Texas could be sold for $25 or more at a railhead in Kansas. The cattle towns, in turn, could make money selling supplies, alcohol, and sexual companionship to the cowboys who congregated there at the end of the drive.

Herding cattle on these trails entailed a lot of drudgery, discomfort, occasional danger, and huge amounts of dust. On a typical drive, a crew of only 10 to 15 drovers would be responsible for moving approximately 2,000 steers and 100 to 150 horses across hundreds of miles of open prairie in all kinds of weather. For their trouble, they received $40 a month and a steady diet of beans, biscuits, hard cheese, and coffee from the chuckwagon. Stampedes, Indians, and rustlers created the occasional thrill, but gunfights were rare and gunshot wounds usually accidental.

What cowboys most often battled were boredom, fatigue, and nature. Dust from trampling hooves coated men as “thick as fur,” except when heavy rains transformed the trail into a mass of sticky mud. Despite the bandanas that shielded their faces, cowboys could cough up dirty phlegm for weeks after a drive. Hours in the saddle each day caused blisters and back problems, aggravated by nights of sleeping on the ground in the cold and damp. To pass the time, cowboys told raunchy jokes, held “stag dances,” and sang about the miseries of life on the trail. Some also took out their frustrations on the animals they rode and tended, pushing horses and cattle to the limits of their endurance and punishing them cruelly if they balked.

Racial diversity and discrimination were also regular features of cowboy culture. Of the approximately 35,000 men who pursued that occupation between 1867 and 1887, the majority claimed Euro-American ancestry and came from Louisiana or Texas, where prejudice against African Americans and Mexican Americans ran deep. Trail bosses often hired black and Hispanic hands, however, because they did the same work, or better, for lower wages than whites would. Mexican vaqueros, in particular, had a well-deserved reputation for being excellent riders and ropers. American Indians also joined cattle drives, especially on the trails through Indian Territory, and at least one cattleman praised his Pawnee wranglers as “the best in the world.”

By some estimates, as many as a quarter to a third of all drivers in this period were African American, Mexican American, or American Indian. Few of them rose to the level of trail boss or ranch owner, due to entrenched racism that held them back even when they possessed superior skills. Yet to former slaves such as Nat Love, life on the open range offered a degree of freedom unknown to black sharecroppers at the time. Similarly, some Indians preferred herding cattle to scratching out a scant existence as farmers on poor reservation lands. Many others subsisted on rations of government-issued beef that had been purchased on contract from cattle herders.

Photograph of black cowboys. Some are riding horses; one is standing next to his horse.

Many cowboys were former slaves who were able to find jobs out west as cattle herders. This photograph was made in Texas in 1913.

By 1880, with the Indian Wars ending and the bison nearing extinction, the focus of the Cattle Kingdom shifted to the northern plains. Instead of taking herds to Kansas, cowboys increasingly drove them to Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas, where cattle companies hoped to fatten improved breeds on the free grass of the public domain. Low costs and high prices promised dependable profits of 40 percent annually, encouraging a stampede to cover every acre of the former “buffalo commons” with cows. In 1885, an estimated 7.5 million cattle roamed the prairies north of New Mexico and Texas, with some areas containing four times as many animals as the range could support. Overstocking produced severe overgrazing, which wrecked native grasslands and weakened cattle, but no one cared much about conservation.

Disaster struck in 1886 and 1887, when a vicious cycle of summer droughts and bitter winters caused massive losses across the Great Plains. In the northern region, the cattle mortality rate approached 90 percent, and rotting carcasses piled high along the trails and fences. The Big Die-Up, as it was known, graphically illustrated the “tragedy of the commons,” which is the idea that people acting independently in their own self-interest negatively affect the common good by depleting or spoiling a resource through their actions, and the failure of the western ranching industry to regulate itself to safeguard resources for sustainable use in the future. As one newspaper lamented, “range husbandry is over, is ruined, destroyed, and it may have been by the insatiable greed of its followers.” The scientific management of resources in the West later became a core conservationist goal during President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration.

In fact, the western ranching industry did not die out but rather changed with the times. After 1887, cowboys continued to tend vast herds on the public domain, and railroads continued to supply the increasingly mechanized slaughterhouses of Kansas City, St. Louis, and Chicago. From there, western beef traveled in refrigerated railroad cars to feed the growing populations of industrial cities all over the Midwest and East Coast. As the Great Plains filled with homesteaders, though, large cattle companies grudgingly gave way to family-owned ranches that raised higher-quality beef on fewer acres.

There was still conflict over access to the open range, including the infamous Johnson County War of 1892, which pitted big stockmen against sodbusters and small ranchers in Wyoming, among them former cowboys who had built their own herds. Such clashes added to the romantic allure of the “Wild West,” and they seemed to support Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis that the closing of the frontier would trigger class conflict in American society because there was now a limited amount of land to settle. Cowboys and trail drives became symbols of that fading era and the national character it had supposedly fostered, an exceptional culture based on meritocracy and rugged individualism.

Cowboys also became a source of nostalgia for a country rapidly moving from its rural-agrarian roots into an urban-industrial future. By the early twentieth century, their mythic significance had eclipsed their actual role in making the modern United States. To quote the famous western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The public may have preferred it that way because of the appeal of American ideals of individualism and independence, especially in an age of industrial, urban, and social regimentation during the twentieth century.

Review Questions

1. The legendary cattle towns of the late nineteenth-century resulted from

  1. the expansion of railroads across the Great Plains
  2. growing industrialization in the eastern urban centers
  3. passage of the Homestead Act in 1862
  4. the relegation of American Indians to reservations

2. Which of the following best describes the trail drives between 1867 and 1887?

  1. Cowboys faced constant danger from Indian attack and rustlers.
  2. Drovers developed a meritocratic culture blind to racial difference.
  3. Cowboys endured harsh conditions and frequent boredom.
  4. Cowboys received high wages and as much beef as they could eat.

3. After the Big Die-Up of 1886-1887, the western ranching industry

  1. gradually shifted from big cattle companies to smaller, family-owned operations
  2. accepted federal regulation of the range for conservation purposes
  3. ceased to be an important part of the national economy
  4. blamed the U.S. government for failing to control rustlers

4. Cowboys are symbols of American culture for all the following reasons except

  1. they represent cherished ideals of freedom, individualism, and opportunity
  2. they evoke nostalgia for a slower, simpler time
  3. popular culture has transformed them into dramatic heroes of the Old West
  4. they promoted the virtues and benefits of subsistence farming

5. During the early cattle drives, several western railheads were located in

  1. Texas
  2. Kansas
  3. Oklahoma
  4. Louisiana

6. Which was an important effect of long trail drives on the Western environment?

  1. Near-extinction of the bison
  2. Extension of the railroads into major American cities
  3. Transition of the prairies from farmland to grassland
  4. Expulsion of American Indians from the Great Plains

Free Response Questions

  1. Explain the rise and fall of the Cattle Kingdom between 1867 and 1887.
  2. Compare the mythic image of the cowboy with the historical realities of the ranching industry in the late nineteenth century.

AP Practice Questions

“Approaching a party who were eating their breakfast, I got to speak with them. They asked me to have some breakfast with them . . . During the meal I got a chance to ask them many questions. They proved to be a Texas outfit, who had just come up with a herd of cattle and having delivered them they were preparing to return. There were several colored cow boys among them, and good ones too. After breakfast I asked the camp boss for a job as cow boy. . . . So he spoke to one of the colored cow boys called Bronko Jim, and told him to go out and rope old Good Eye, saddle him and put me on his back. Bronko Jim gave me a few pointers . . . I told Jim I was a good rider and not afraid of him. I thought I had rode pitching horses before, but from the time I mounted old Good Eye I knew I had not learned what pitching was. This proved the worst horse to ride I had ever mounted in my life, but I stayed with him . . . After the horse got tired and I dismounted the boss said he would give me a job and pay me $30.00 per month and more later on. He asked what my name was and I answered Nat Love”

Nat Love, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, 1907

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. Freedman Nat Love being asked to join the group of “cow boys” signals what development in the identity of the American West?

  1. Workers were hired based on their skills, not necessarily their race.
  2. Cattle owners were in need of workers, regardless of their skills.
  3. The West was populated by segregationists.
  4. Cattle owners discriminated only against American Indians.

2. Events such as those depicted in the excerpt demonstrated that the American West was a region where

  1. “rugged individualism” was prevalent
  2. equal opportunity was not widespread
  3. Civil War attitudes toward race remained
  4. the Cattle Kingdom attracted only white men

3. Which development contextualizes the situation described in the excerpt?

  1. Industrialization drove people out of the cities into the American West.
  2. Immigration resulted in overpopulation of the eastern cities, forcing people to look for employment elsewhere.
  3. The West provided opportunity for those who were willing to take a risk.
  4. People shut out of the wealth made in the Gilded Age were forced out of the major cities.

Primary Sources

Love, Nat. The Life and Adventures of Nat Love.

Siringo, Charles A.A Texas Cow Boy.

“Western and Cowboy Songs.” Library of Congress.

Suggested Resources

Abbott, E.C. “Teddy Blue,” and Helena Huntington Smith. We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1939.

Dary, David. Cowboy Culture: A Saga of Five Centuries. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1989.

Dykstra, Robert. The Cattle Towns. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

Hine, Robert V., and John Mack Faragher. The American West: A New Interpretive History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

Jordan, Teresa. Cowgirls: Women of the American West, An Oral History. Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 1992.

Jordan-Bychkov, Terry G. North American Cattle-Ranching Frontiers: Origins, Diffusion, and Differentiation. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1993.

Moore, Jacqueline. CowBoys and Cattle Men: Class and Masculinities on the Texas Frontier, 1865-1900. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Nugent, Walter. Into the West: The Story of Its People. New York: Knopf, 1991.

Savage, William W. Jr., ed. Cowboy Life: Reconstructing an American Myth. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 1975.

Savage, William W. The Cowboy Hero: His Image in American History and Culture. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.

Slatta, Richard W. The Cowboy Encyclopedia. New York: ABC-CLIO, 1994.

Slatta, Richard W. Cowboys of the Americas. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

White, Richard. “Its Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

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