The Impact of the Cattle Trails
WHOLE SHELVES OF BOOKS HAVE BEEN WRITTEN ABOUT THE TRAILS
over which Texas Longhorns were taken to markets in various
directions, mainly north. Many Texans have quibbled over whether
some cow path led through Grandpa's pasture or ran up the other
side of the creek. More have romanticized the cowboys who trailed the
plodding herds and have sung about the hazards they faced in river
crossings and midnight stampedes. Yet relatively few have bothered to
study the role of the trails in the settlement of the West and their
impact on the economy of the Great Plains and that of the nation.
The trail drives, taken together, were a major operation for their
era. The drovers marched about nine or ten million cattle for several
hundred miles, making probably the greatest migration of domestic
animals in history. They caused many millions of dollars to change
hands, much of this money in gold. They solved a major economic
problem by enabling many Texans to recover from the blows of the
Civil War. They gave the Great Plains one of the region's most prolific
sources of song and story.
The Chisholm Trail, the centennial of its opening being celebrated
this year, was the greatest of the trails in the number of cattle carried.
It led to Abilene, Kansas, then to Ellsworth and Wichita, and finally
to Caldwell and Dodge City. In 1871, the peak year of trail driving,
it felt the hoofbeats of most of the 6oo,ooo to 700,000 cattle taken
north from Texas that year. Many Longhorns had tramped north on
the earlier Shawnee Trail to the east, and others followed the Western
Trail to Dodge City, beginning in 1876.
Fairly obvious, of course, is the help that the trail drives gave to
Texas in the two decades following the Civil War. Although the
military havoc of that conflict barely scratched Texas, the economy of
this state, in common with that of the rest of the Confederacy, was
left badly wrecked. Farms were overgrown with weeds, and the slaves
who had tilled the fields were freed and many of them gone. From
the fenceless pastures most of the cattle had strayed away, unbranded,
*Mr. Gard is the author of seven books, six of them on Western history. They include
The Chisholm Trail, The Great Buffalo Hunt, and Rawhide Texas.
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 71, July 1967 - April, 1968. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth117145/. Accessed May 7, 2015.