How Cattle Drives Worked

What was it like on cattle drives in the mid to late 1800s? A cowboy's tale offers insight into a cattle drive from Texas to Kansas.

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When the Civil War started, many men who owned ranches joined the army. When they returned four years later they found the country overrun with a four-year increase in cattle. They branded the mavericks and started new ranches.

Within a few years the railroad was built to Abilene, Kansas, and that town became a shipping point for cattle. The longhorns came north across the Red River, through what is now the Kiowa and Comanche reservations, then into Cheyenne and Arapaho country. They crossed the treacherous South and North Canadian Rivers, went on to the Cherokee Outlet and the Salt Flat, then 25 miles farther to the Kansas border and north to Abilene.

As new rails were laid, other towns such as Wichita and Dodge City replaced Abilene as the destination of the cattle drives. About 1880 the Santa Fe laid rails to Caldwell, Kansas, and soon it was a rip-roaring town. Cowboys from the trail herds got drunk, shot out the street lights, and rode into saloons ordering whiskey for themselves and their horses.

I held point on a cattle drive to Caldwell, and I'll tell you how a trail run was conducted.

A herd of 2,000 to 3,000 would string out about a quarter mile wide and about a half mile long. Two pointers at the head, five or six flankers on each side, and two or three young would-be cowboys, the drag drivers, at the rear, moved the herd. Besides the cowboys, there were the trail boss, the cook and the horse wrangler.

The wrangler herded the horses at night, bringing them into camp about sunup so the boys could rope their mounts for the day. Each rider was allotted four head besides his own horse. When the horses were turned in with the herd, the wrangler slept in the chuck wagon and helped the cook when we stopped for water and chuck.

The herd moved at a rate of 10 to 12 miles a day, grazing along the way so they would be in good shape when they arrived at the shipping pens. At times we traveled faster in order to get to good bed grounds and water by nightfall. If the cattle had no water during the day, they were hard to bed down and more likely to stampede. After the herd bedded down, if the cattle had had good water and grazing during the day, only one man worked the night shift. But on stormy nights it was everybody out! Should the cattle stampede, each man followed a bunch until they stopped. He would hold them until morning, then bring them back to camp.

The night shifts on the bed grounds were divided by the number in the crew. Each man on night guard roped his horse and staked him out to be ready for his shift.

The chuck wagon carried food and the boys' bedrolls. The chuck would be beans, flour, bacon, coffee, sugar, and if the owner were a generous guy, a few cases of fruit, peaches or apricots probably. The wagon was fitted out with bows and sheet, a 5- or lO-gallon keg of water on each side in case of emergency, and a dried beef hide stretched under the wagon to carry wood and the Dutch ovens used to bake biscuits. Some trail cooks made sourdough biscuits, but the general run used baking powder. In the rear of the chuck wagon there was a cupboard the width of the wagon and about 5 1/2 feet high, with shelves for the supplies and a drop-door cover. Cook used the door for his table.

While getting the chuck ready, a good cook on a trail drive seemed to be the boss, but when a question came up about crossing a bad stream or anything pertaining to the welfare of the herd, the trail boss made the decisions. At roundup in the spring it was the same; the boys just carried on with the cook. You would find men in both crews who were trail wise, but they had had an accident, maybe broken some bones riding a bad bronc, so they took a job cooking.

You could work a lifetime on a ranch and there would be tricks you still didn't know about handling those longhorns. 

Joe Wiedeman
Caldwell, Kansas