Railroads and Cattle Drives: A Historical Look


Movies have always made the cattle drives these exciting adventures. With the bad weather and the stampedes, it makes good drama. In real life, the cattle drive, short or long distances, was not that romantic. Most days on a cattle drive were boring, dust-eating hard work. Of course, for the young cowboy on his first adventure, it was a great trip. Most of these young hands were straight off the farm and had not been much farther than to the nearest town to get supplies for their families. So to drive a herd of cattle from Texas to Kansas or Montana was quite a trip.

My father made his first cattle drive from his home town in Texas to a railroad "rail head" about 40 miles away to ship the cattle to Fort Worth. He was about nine years old. He could still tell you every detail of the trip, even though he was in his sixties. He could remember the smell of the leather in the saddle barn down to the stink of many head of cattle plodding along in the dusty trail. For him it was a great adventure! And he loved eating out of the "chuck wagon".

Getting the herd to market had two main objectives; one to get them there period, without them dying on the trail, and to keep them as well as possible. Buyers did not buy sick cattle. So there were two dilemmas presented, to move the cattle as quickly as possible without killing them. This involved planning the trip to cross rivers at good places, find watering holes, and avoid as many Indians as possible.

When the railroads crossed the western part of the United States, cattlemen jumped at the chance to use them to move the cattle quickly and efficiently. It took less time and less cowboys to move cattle by rail. The cattle were loaded in box cars and then the cowboy's horses were jumped into a car by themselves. The cowboys either rode in the box cars or if there was one, joined the railroad people in the caboose. It also eliminated the chuck wagon for that part of the ride.

The problem was that the railroad only covered part of the country. So cattlemen still had cattle drives to get the cattle to the nearest railroad yard. A cattle drive included a lot more than just the cowboys and the cattle. Each cowboy had to have extra horses for the drive, usually about four each. So a herd of horses followed the cattle as the drive progressed. As mention, there had to be a wagon for a cook to feed the cowboys, and usually there was another wagon with all the cowboy's bedrolls and tarps and extra supplies. Both wagons carried barrels of water as water was scarce across the dry country.

At the end of the train ride, the cattle would be unloaded into giant pens at stock yards.The cowboys then saddled their horses and delivered the cattle to where ever the buyer wanted them. If they were headed on to another ranch the buyer would send his hands to get the cattle and drive them to their range. In that case the cowboy's would just catch another train and jump their horses back in the boxcar and head back home.

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