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.

| Good Old Days

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.

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