The Europeans who first settled in America at the end of the 15th century had brought longhorn cattle with them. By the early 19th century cattle ranches were common in Mexico. At that time Mexico included what was to become Texas. The longhorn cattle were kept on an open range, looked after by cowboys called vaqueros.
In 1836, Texas became independent, the Mexicans left, leaving their cattle behind. Texan farmers claimed the cattle and set up their own ranches. Beef was not popular so the animals were used for their skins and tallow. In the 1850s, beef began to be more popular and its price rose making some ranchers quite wealthy.
In 1861, Civil War broke out between the Northern and Southern states. Texan ranchers left their farms to fight for the Confederate army. The Confederates lost the war. The defeat destroyed the economy in the South. However, the cattle, left to their own devices, had multiplied. There were approximately 5 million longhorn cattle in Texas in 1865 but there was no market for them in the South. There was, however, a market in the north. If the ranchers could get their cattle to the North they would fetch ten times what they were worth in the South.
Why was Joseph McCoy important?
Joseph McCoy was a livestock trader in Chicago. He wanted to bring the longhorn cattle from Texas to Chicago and from there distribute them to the East. Making himself a lot of money in the process.
Homesteaders who had established themselves in Kansas objected to the cattle crossing their land because they carried a tick that killed other animals. Cattlemen driving cattle through Kansas met fierce opposition and were reluctant to make the journey.
McCoy knew that the railroad companies were keen to carry more freight. The Kansas/Pacific railway ran past a frontier village. McCoy built a hotel, stockyard, office and bank in the village which became known as Abilene – one of the first cow towns. Cattle were to be driven from Texas to Abilene and were then taken East by train.
Abilene was near the end of a trail that had been established during the Civil War by Jesse Chisholm to take supplies to the Confederate army. The trail lay to the west of the Kansas farms which meant the cattlemen could use it without hostility from the Kansas homesteaders.
In 1867, McCoy spent $5,000 on advertising and riders. He promised a good price for cattle sold in Abilene and was a man of his word. One cattleman bought 600 cows for $5,400 and sold them in Abilene for $16,800. It was the beginning of the ‘beef bonanza’. Between 1867 and 1881 McCoy sent more than 2 million cattle from Abilene to Chicago. His reputation for reliability gave rise to the expression ‘the real McCoy’.
This 20th Century drawing shows cattle being driven into Abilene
Rise and Fall
The cattle trade was at its peak from 1867 until the early 1880s. The following factors contributed to this:
Increased number of railway lines – able to transport cattle to new markets
Development of refrigerated rail carriages – cattle could be slaughtered before transportation
Removal of Indians from the Plains to reservations – more land available for ranching
In the last twenty years of the nineteenth century the beef trade virtually collapsed. The following factors contributed to this:
Farmers began to experiment with different breeds of cattle that could not live on the open range.
There was less grass available for grazing due to the number of people settling on the Plains.
In 1883 there was a drought that ruined what grass there was.?
The demand for beef fell which meant that ranching was less profitable
The winter of 1886/7 was very severe – cattle and cowboys died in the freezing temperatures
A New Approach
The days of the open range were over. From the late nineteenth century cattle were kept on enclosed ranches and farmed in much smaller quantities. Two inventions were particularly important in making this an option:
Barbed wire was invented by J F Glidden in 1874. This invention meant that large areas could be fenced cheaply. Cattle were now enclosed on ranches and no longer roamed the Plains. As a result fewer cowboys were needed and the long drive was a thing of the past.
The strong winds that blew across the Plains were an ideal source of energy. Windmills were used to drive pumps that could pump water from underground. This meant that cattle ranches did not need to be sited near a river or stream.
The age of the wild and free cowboy was gone, they now spent much of their time mending fences and tending the cattle. However, the image of the wild and free cowboy was dramatised in Wild West shows performed for eastern audiences and it is that image that became, and has remained, a feature of the legend of the wild, wild west.