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How Cattle Drives Worked

Author Photo
By Capper's Staff | Feb 28, 2013

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

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