Originally published May 13, 2012, at suite 101 http://suite101.com/article/texas-cowboys-life-on-the-cattle-trail-a391190

Texas Cowboys: Life on the Cattle Trail

Texas Cowboys: Life on the Cattle Trail - Gillette Bill, Environmental Protection Agency (Wikimedia Commons/NARA) - Unrestricted (http://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:CATTLE_ROUNDUP_-_NARA_-_543634.tif&page=1)
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The height of the cowboy era in the U.S. from post-Civil War till somewhere between 1885 and 1895 was brought on by a number of factors including the expansion of the railroads and also the fact that "Indian Territory" (Oklahoma) was still unfenced, with its various tribes allowing cattle to graze as they passed through, sometimes for a small fee. In 1862, with the South having seceded from the Union, and in spite of the Civil War, a transcontinental railroad was authorized by the Republicans under Lincoln. The South had had less interest in the railroads, using for the most part boats and rivers to move its goods.

The newly inaugurated Union Pacific was to break ground in Omaha, then move westward, while the Central Pacific moved eastward from Sacramento. Meanwhile the "Katy" (Missouri, Kansas, Texas railroad) reached Kansas circa 1870, by which point a good bit of track had been laid. Not till 1881 however did the Southern Pacific link Louisiana and Texas.

Texas's Mavericks

Texas is the home of the "Maverick," and during the war, unbranded cattle, perhaps strays, perhaps Indian cattle as the Indians had acquired a few during their move westward, or perhaps really some of Maverick's own cattle, ran wild and increased in numbers. After the Civil War, Texans had a surplus. Some decided to try to capture these cattle and move them to the railroad where they could be sold.

Vaquero Culture

Allen Lee (2005; "Origins of the Western Cowboy") rightly points out that the Spanish word for "cowboy," "vaquero,"is related to the English word "buckaroo." The original cowboys in the West were in fact largely mestizo and Indian vaqueros, and much of the dress (boots, chaps, leggings) comes from them. According to Donald Chavez Y. Gilbert, the word "ten gallon hat," is a sort of mistranslation of the Spanish "sombrero galoneado," or "festooned hat." The lariat likewise originated in Mexican ranch culture, which in turn has its origins in Medieval Spain where, says Chavez Y. Gilbert, "the mounted herdsman" was "a frequent fixture."

African Roots?

As Lee also points out, many customs associated with cattle herding may in fact have African roots. Spain, separated from the North by the Pyrenees, traded along the Mediterranean and had ties to Arabia and apparently also to Africa. In Africa along the Nile, cattle numbered among the more important trading goods. Wealth along the Nile was traditionally measured in cattle. The Arabic word for cow, "baqarah," seems akin to the Spanish word for "cowboy," "vaquero" ("v" and "b" are essentially interchangeable in Spanish pronunciation; there is no "v" consonant in Arabic). There may also be a similar word in some Nilotic African languages (that is the language group spoken near the Nile).

Cattle have been an important trade item in the Americas too, and the Choctaw word for "cow" is "waca," derived apparently from the Spanish word "vaca" (Choctaw has neither a "v" or "b" consonant; however perhaps the Choctaw word "waca" is itself derived from Caddoan Wichita, another Texas tribe, whose language has no "v," "b," or "p," who in turn derived it from the Spanish).

Texas's First Cowboys

Besides the original Mexican vaqueros (one out of three Southern cowboys was Mexican in the nineteenth century prior to the Civil War according to PBS), slaves in Texas worked for their masters in cattle rustling. When it was time to break the wild cattle that roamed Texas, however, although a number of slaves became top-notch cowboys, with as much skill and reputation as any, whites were often used because slaves were so expensive to replace should one be killed.

Throughout much of the nineteenth century, until the Southern Pacific linked New Orleans to Texas, cattle were herded along the Opelousas Trail, from the Brazos River in North Central Texas, passing through Beaumont. The cattle either swam or later sometimes were ferried across the Neches River in East Texas to New Orleans according to W. T. Block (1975). Cattle were also herded north, via the Shawnee Trail.

Post-Civil War Cowboys

PBS suggests that some of the young cowboys who went on the trail were somewhat rebellious, with a distaste for parental and other authority. The Civil War had of course also left the South with a larger body of poor, and many white cowboys were ex-confederate soldiers with riding experience. The "long depression" between 1873 and 1879 which began when several banks failed also perhaps brought Texas some cowboys.

Likewise health was a concern in the South where Yellow fever continued to strike in the nineteenth century. In 1878 yellow fever struck the Mississippi Valley beginning in New Orleans, and health concerns brought some southerners to seek Texas's dryer climate.

Cowboy Demographics

By the close of the Civil War about two thirds of cowboys were white, mostly quite young (aged sixteen to nineteen or twelve to eighteen depending on whose information you look at) "waddies," most from the South. Even a few ten-to-fourteen-year olds accompanied their fathers on the cattle trail. The remaining third were either Black, Indian, or Mexican, and tended to be a bit older than their white co-workers, making the average age of cowboys twenty-four. Cooks and horse wranglers were often persons of color. Trail bosses were white.

A few women, beginning perhaps with Amanda Burks in 1871, accompanied husbands who moved their own cattle to the market. At least one of these served as a trail cook for the cowboys. Later, when cattle driving was run by hired "drovers" (rather than the supposed owner of the cattle, the ranch owners), a few women dressed as "boys" and managed to go on the trail.


Cowboy wages were about $500 U.S. dollars for several months of work. This was apparently slightly less half what one could earn back East working all year in agriculture, or as an ordinary laborer. In California, skilled workers made almost as much per day as cowboys earned; unskilled workers, similar to their counterparts in the East, made half of that. As for Mexican cowboys, Allen Lee (Nov, 2005) quotes Joe S. Graham) who says that on ranches in Mexico a kind of "debt slavery" was used. Workers ran up and worked off debts at the ranch store. For youthful white cowboys in the U.S. however cattle herding seems to have been largely a way to make quick money.


Cowboys and cattle initially followed the Shawnee Trail north from Texas, but due to outbreaks of a tick-fever in cattle blamed on the Texas Longhorns, which led armed bands of Missouri and Kansas farmers to quarantine and even kill Texas cattle, the Chisholm Trail through Indian Territory became the main post-Civil War cattle route.

Daily Life

Cattle herding began usually in Texas in the late spring, with cowboys and cattle arriving at the railroad towns to the north (Abilene, Kansas; Dodge City) in the early summer. Prairie fires were frequent.

Although ranch hands might enjoy eggs, on the cattle trail these would be rarities. Cowboys enjoyed some jerky (jerky is cured according a technique for curing meat learned from the Indians), but the main foods were beans, sourdough biscuits, which, thanks to introduction of baking powder in 1843 were leavened partly with that, and served with jerky gravy, plus "cowboy" or camp-style coffee made by boiling the grounds in hot water. Beef, apparently fried, was also sometimes eaten.

Cooks were often hired for driving skills and might not be especially good at cooking. According to Smith (2007, Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink) a good cook was highly valued and could lure cowboys. The cook drove the "chuck wagon," which besides provisions for food contained cast iron dutch ovens of various sizes, cowboys' bedrolls, plus a bit of whiskey (for medicinal purposes), according to Smith. Nevertheless drinking was not allowed by cattle owners or trail bosses and apparently cattle herding, twelve hours a day, seven days, was not accompanied by drinking.

Railroad Towns

The railroad towns were another thing. Texas on the Mexican border was rather tolerant of outlaw culture, and outlaw culture came to be associated with Texas's cowboys. Cowboys were paid when the cattle were sold and shipped by rail, and at this point many became big spenders. Although most cowboys purchased haircuts, shaves, and new clothing when they arrived in the railroad towns, saloons also catered to them, offering gambling as well as alcohol and sometimes more. With gambling came cheating. Abilene's police chief Tom ("Bear River") Smith managed to keep guns out of Abilene but elsewhere guns, fired on the trail to get cattle moving, settled gambling disputes.

A colony of Pennsylvania "River Brethren" arrived in Abilene, Kansas with farming equipment in 1878 and 1879. Kansas became the first state to enforce prohibition a year or two later.

End of Cowboy Era

Though cattle herding continued until 1890 or 1895 most of it was over by the harsh winter of 1886 when many cattle died on the Plains. The MKT/Katy Railroad had in any case reached Dallas's stockyards by then, and quarantine in Kansas had closed the Chisholm trail as it had the Shawnee trail some years before.

Barbed wire had along with the railroad come of age in the 1870s, and cattle trails were finally privitized circa 1890 when Indian Territory was fenced to encourage settlement, and thus the cowboy era ended.