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The Long Drive

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Only the best rangemen were hired for the Long Drive through hundreds of miles of wilderness. The work was hard and dangerous, calling for courage, skill and endurance. A trail crew usually consisted of the trail boss, his assistant or secundo, the cook, the wrangler, nighthawk and enough men to control the herd - one puncher to every two hundred and fifty to three hundred cattle.

A herd moved slowly, ten to fifteen miles a day, grazing en route. Customarily it consisted of twenty-five hundred to three thousand cattle. At the head of the column, a "lead" or "point" man rode on each side. Spaced behind them were the "swing" riders, followed by the "flank" riders. In the rear, the "drag" riders urged on weak, lazy and footsore animals which dropped behind.

The perils of the Long Drive were innumerable. Hostile Indians were always liable to steal horses and cattle. Raging rivers took their toll. Sometimes vast herds of buffalo would threaten to engulf a herd. Stampeding was commonplace, since longhorns would panic for any reason or no reason. Drought, cloudbursts and vicious hailstorms tormented the riders. Marauding white renegades added to the trail boss's worries.

None of these droving hazards was altogether new to the business. Coronado had moved a herd of cattle over a much longer trail more than three hundred years earlier. Other big herds had been moved out of Mexico into Texas and Louisiana during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. After Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836, Texas cowboys habitually trailed herds to Kansas, central Missouri and at least once all the way to St. Louis. In the 1850's, after the gold rush to California, herds of beef were driven from Texas to the "diggin's," over a much longer and more hazardous trail with long spans of desert and with far more dangerous Indians than were found on the Long Drive. Russell, Majors and Waddell's forty thousand freighting oxen of that decade were Texas steers which had been trailed north to the neighborhood of Kansas City. After the Civil War began, Texas cowboys delivered herds to the Confederacy, some dodging Federal gunboats to cross the Mississippi - a feat of swimming much greater than any herd would experience on the Red, the Canadian or the Cimarron rivers of the Long Drive. Yet none of these early cattle-drives attracted much attention. For Texans, droving had become a way of life, like whaling for a Nantucketer.

But after the Civil War everything suddenly changed! Texas beef cattle could be driven north again, over the old route, into Missouri and southeast Kansas - the Shawnee Trail, it was called - and to steamboat ports in Louisiana. Herds clogged the roads, broke farmers' fences, destroyed crops and meadows. Irate farmers ordered the Texans to go back, threatened them with flogging, strung up one or two and held them aloft until they promised to leave the country.

At about this time, when surplus cattle were crowding Texas ranges and there was no easy -market for them, an Illinois cattle-buyer in Lincoln's home town of Springfield had an idea that solved the problem and led directly to the great day of the cowboy.

Joseph McCoy was a big operator who shipped hogs, sheep and cattle by carloads. Railroads were being built across the Plains, racing for the Pacific, and while their owners were apt to listen to good customers like McCoy, they considered him a dreamer when he suggested that they build stockyards on their lines west of the settlements. A dreamer, however, with a $2,500,000 checking account in a Springfield bank deserved more than casual attention, and finally the Kansas Pacific Railroads agreed to give him a siding if he would build the yards.

McCoy traveled west to look over the field. He selected a site in central Kansas at the frontier village of Abilene. The Plains were ocean-flat here, and a route southward across Indian territory to Texas had been used for some years by a mixed blood Indian trader named Jesse Chisholm. The ruts cut by his wagons in the prairie sod could be traced in many places. Joe McCoy began building his yards and sent word for Texas drovers to come on!

Some thirty-five thousand cattle arrived in the fall of 1867, double that number in 1868, and by 1871 a million and a half cattle had been loaded at Abilene. Joseph McCoy was richer than ever, and as other railroads reached westward, new loading pens were built.

Of all the shipping points, Dodge City became the most notorious. Here lawlessness met its match against tough frontier marshals who went all the way in enforcing the law. Dodge City was at the end of what was known as the Western Trail. Perhaps the greatest disadvantage of this new trail was its proximity to dangerous Indian country. It skirted the Texas Panhandle where Comanche and Kiowa Indians could still escape from soldiers on the waterless Llano Estacado. To evade the redskins Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving established a third trail which circled south and west of the dreaded flats and then headed north up the Pecos River to Colorado. They put the first herd through on this trail in 1866, even though its roundabout route required keeping the cattle for a longer time in the hot deserts as summer advanced.

The Goodnight-Loving Trail followed the old Butterfield stage road west from Texas to the Pecos in New Mexico. Cowboys had to drive one stretch of more than a hundred miles without sufficient water for the cattle, pushing the herd continuously without rest. Usually, by the second day the steers were stumbling along, half-crazed with thirst, thickened tongues hanging out, bodies shrunken. The punchers, choked by dust, exhausted by never-ending hours in the saddle and continuously hazing the reluctant beasts, were in little better shape. On the third day, when the lead steers caught a whiff of the cooling waters of the Pecos River ahead, there was always the risk that the drought-stricken cattle would panic and trample each other in a frantic stampede for water. This is how one trail boss described the drive:

... another clay of sizzling heat. The cattle became feverish, unmanageable ... The lead cattle turned back, wandering aimlessly in any direction. The rear overtook the lead and the cattle lost all semblance to a trail herd ... The cattle congregated into a mass of unmanageable animals, milling and lowing in their fever and thirst ... No sooner was the milling stopped than they would surge hither and yon ... They finally turned back and the utmost efforts of every man failed to stop the ... We threw our ropes in their faces, and when that failed, we shot them, but in defiance of smoke and lead they walked sullenly toward the line of horsemen in their front ... Six-guns were fired so close as to singe their hair, yet they disregarded this and every other device to turn them. In some cases they walked against our horses, and we realized that the herd was going blind.

Trailing a herd had never been a job for pantywaists, but now the new financial element gave the job great glamour and attracted the attention of the civilized world. A beef steer costing five to ten dollars in Texas fetched three or four times that much on the northern market. The simplest kind of arithmetic showed that a trail herd of three thousand would profit the owner rnagnificently. Texans who had been cattle-poor found themselves well-to-do. Speculators bought their cattle by hundreds and doubled and tripled their money in three or four months. The profits attracted eastern bankers, British lords, investors everywhere. Cattle was big business now, and cattle-driving suddenly became a popular suhject of conversation at social gatherings in New York City.

Some four million cattle were trailed to northern railroads, and many more went on to stock northern ranches cluring the Long Drive period. And yet, the Lone Star State had as many, and much better, cattle than before the drives began. As the railroads pushed farther west across the Plains, more cowtowns came into being - Newton, Wichita, Calclwell, Hays City, Ogallala, Cheyenne. Each was wide open, more a settlement than a town. Each was populated by gamblers, harpies, sporting women and other parasites whose sole function was to prey on railroad construction crews and cowboys who had delivered their herds and been paid off.

Newspaper writers, never lacking for adjectives, painted lurid pictures of the lawlessness and depravity of these drovers. Unfortunately, though, tile writers saw only one - the least pleasing - side of the cowboy's character. Many of these young men were scarcely out of their teens. On the Long Drive, they were cut off from civilization for three to four months. Day after day, they had breathed trail dust, been drenched by rain, stopped stampedes by riding rnadly across dangerous ground often riddled with prairie dog holes. They had Swum rivers guiding panicky longhorns. They had battled thunder and lightning and endured drought. And no matter how demanding the day, each rider had to spend two hours on guard every night, circling the herd in opposite directions. Often, with a "spooky" herd, riders became so "techy" from continuous strain that the only safe way to awaken them when they snatched a brief nap was to throw a pebble; if aroused by a hand they were liable to grab their guns in a reflex action. Was it any wonder, then, that when they finally delivered their herds at trail's end and had money in their pockets, they would go on a wild spree?

The End of the Trail

As the herds of longhorns came into Kansas, farmers learned that the longhorns carried a tick that transmitted an infectious disease. Although sturdy Texas cattle were immune, the little bug caused a deadly "Texas fever" in Kansas cattle. Local farmers protested. They worried about the health of their livestock. So, in 1869 the Kansas legislature established a quarantine line that confined the cattle drives to the largely unsettled western part of the state. They did not want their cattle to have any contact with Texas longhorns. Year after year, as more farmers settled in Kansas, the line was pushed westward. As were the railroads. The cattle herds and the cowboys followed them. One by one, the other cattle towns - first Abilene, which boomed for just four years, then Ellsworth, Wichita, and Ellis - were abandoned as shipping centers.

By 1880 the quarantine line would move far to the west. Farmers would run their fences across the Chisholm Trail, and the cattle drives would shift west to Dodge City. Located on the Santa Fe Railroad, Dodge City became the last and busiest of the cow towns. For ten years the town bustled: merchants filled their pockets with money, the Santa Fe Railroad loaded thousands of cattle onto its railroad cars,, and folks laid to rest more than a few dead gunslingers in Boot Hill.

However more farmers were pouring into the region, and in 1885 the quarantine line ran along the western border of Kansas. To make matters worse, a great blizzard struck the plains in January 1886, killing cattle by the tens of thousands. The cattle industry in Kansas never recovered from this blow. The cattle drives to Dodge came to an end, and the town went into ten long years of poverty. During that time, many Front Street businesses failed. When the town again prospered it was because of sprawling farms of golden wheat and green alfalfa. Yet Robert M. Wright still boasted of his town, "Hurrah for little Dodge! She has a bigger heart, for her size, than any town in Kansas." But for the cow towns, it was the end of a fascinating time.

Actually, most of their celebrating was harmless. They "yippeed" and whooped, rode their wiry little cow ponies along the rude plankwalks, downed too much "rotgut," and were slickered out of every cent of their hard-earned pay by crooked gamblers and painted women. There was some gunplay, some drunken brawls, some flaring tempers, but the picture drawn by newspapermen was vastly exaggerated.

Let's follow a newly paid-off puncher with $100 - three or four months' pay - burning a hole in his pocket. First he visits a barber, has a tangle of beard removed and his hair cut. Then he drops into a dry goods store and buys himself a new outfit. Now he is ready to celebrate. The saloon men, the gamblers, the pimps, are all waiting to filch his hard-earned pay. The bartender sets out a bottle of cheap frontier whiskey, "two bits a throw." A little heady after a few drinks, the puncher heads for the poker table, where a flashy gambler is waiting with his marked cards. Our puncher watches the dealer's pile of chips grow and his own melt away. Convinced he is being robbed, he can't prove it. Finally, pockets empty, he pulls away from the table, mounts his pony, races up and down the street and blazes a few indignant shots at the stars. Then, with a yell, he spurs the pony and gallops out of town, heading for the security of his cow camp. And yet, because of this type of conduct, he became known to the Easterner as a bloodthirsty demon, reckless and rowdy, weighted down with guns and itching to use them.

An authentic picture would have made far less interesting newspaper copy. But so thoroughly was this image implanted in the public mind that the trail hand, even a half-century later, was regarded as a semisavage. Granted, there were affrays, bloody ones. In Newton, Kansas, in July, 1871, Hugh Anderson, a young trail boss, shot one McClusky, night policeman, in Tuttle's Place, avenging McClusky's killing of a friend. Other guns opened up, someone hurled a chair at the lights, orange flashes of flame split the gloom. When the brawl was over, nine men lay dead or dying, among them Anderson. Ghastly, yes, but those were pioneer days, rough-and-ready days, and the six-gun a very potent persuader.

Actually, for every day he spent in town, the average cowboy spent months on the lonely range. His job was working cattle, and his life anything but the exciting round of pleasure and thrills usually depicted. It is hard to find glamour in rising at 4:00 A.M., picking maggots from stinking sores around a cow's horns, yanking steers from bog holes, sweating through fiery summer days and freezing in winter blizzards.

Hardship, isolation and danger were the substance of the cowboy's life, and they developed his sterner qualities to a high degree. Weaklings were quickly weeded out. One coward could endanger the lives of an entire outfit. It is interesting to review the characteristics of the typical cowboy. No one was more generous, with time or money. He would share anything with a fellow rider. Loyalty to the "iron," or brand, was universal. Concern for the cattle, the property of his outfit, came first, and he shrugged off any consideration of risk to his own life or limb.

High in his code was square dealing. His word was his bond. In early Texas days, deals were made, cattle bought and sold, herds changed hands, on a mere say-so. Nothing was put on paper. A man's word was enough. Generally, punchers were clannish. Their work made them so. Soft-spoken and reserved with strangers, they had the reputation of being taciturn and reticent by nature, which they actually were not. There was no more boisterous, sky-larking, hard-swearing bunch than a party of cowboys around a campfire or in the bunkhouse.

The puncher would tackle any job, providing it could be done from the back of a horse. He would even "snake in" the firewood, dropping a loop over a fallen branch and hauling it behind him, or open a gate from the saddle. He was independent and perhaps irresponsible. With no domestic worries and no worthwhile possessions outside a gun and a horse, he was apt to be "fiddle-footed." When he tired of a certain vicinity, he simply drew his time, saddled up and departed for points unknown.

As we have pointed out, the cowboy was strictly a horseman. He refused to walk, even for a short distance. Actually, with bowed legs, high heels, glove-fitting boots to which were attached long-shanked spurs with big rowels that often dragged the ground when he walked, he was not equipped to be afoot.

When seeking a job, he was careful to ascertain that there would be no such chores as feeding, digging postholes, cutting stove wood or milking cows. He had a deeply ingrained pride in his calling; he regarded himself as a cavalier, not a laborer. Milking cows was particularly abhorrent, as a ranch boss learned when he poked his head into the bunkhouse, where eight punchers were lounging after the day's work, and urgently requested a volunteer for the milking chore. Blank-faced, the punchers eyed him, and not a man stirred. The harried boss had to do the job himself.

On another ranch, the hog man ducked out. A puncher was ordered to handle the chore. He promptly quit! In rapid succession three more riders followed suit rather than handle what they considered a menial job. At that point, the irate boss realized he was in danger of losing his entire crew. Yes, he slopped the hogs himself!

Those punchers would have fought prairies fires, stopped dangerous stampedes, ridden all day without a bite, "laid out" all night without a bed, stood guard in rain or sleet, without a murmur. They did not complain about long hours, flood, drought, heat or cold, dust or blizzard, if they could work while mounted. The only footwork they regarded as honorable was roping a mount in the corral or branding. The puncher had his pride.

Another cowboy characteristic was his laconic and often forceful expression. Of one puncher who had encountered a succession of mishaps, a pard said: "For a man who's gone through so many close shaves I don't see how he ever saved his whiskers." One who narrowly escaped death "had been near enough to hell to smell smoke." When a man vomited he "aired his paunch." Something fragile "wouldn't hold no more than a cobweb would a cow."

Such expressions as "peaceful as a church," "calm as a toad in the sun," "slick as calves' slobbers," "techy as a teased snake," "welcome as a polecat at a picnic," "salty as Lot's wife," "sad as a bloodhound's eye," to pick a few from hundreds, painted vivid, compelling pictures. A curious custom of the puncher was to ignore a man's surname. Nicknames were the invariable rule. Within a few days after a tenderfoot or a new man joined an outfit, a nickname - usually descriptive - was tacked onto him, and forever after he was known by no other. A redhead was sure to be dubbed "Red," "Brick," "Sunset" or if a Mormon "the Pink Angel." Freckles might inspire "Speck," "Pinto" or "Paint." Every outfit had its "Slim," "Shorty," "Windy," "Baldy," "Squatty," and "Horseface." "Gloomy" looked on the dark side of life; "Sudden" was impulsive; "Lippy" or "Wagon Tongue" liked to talk; "Brazos," "Cheyenne," "Tucson," "Pecos" are obvious. There were a host of others, such as Swivel-eye, Wild Cat, Holy Father, Kidney Foot, Never Sweat, Bean-Belly, Bones, Jawbone, Suicide, Cranky.

Whatever label his pards decided to affix, the victim was stuck with it. He might have been christened Reginald J. Waterhouse, but he was "Stinky" to them. Crude and unlettered as he may have been - many had difficulty tracing their names on the back of their pay checks - the oldtime cowboy stands out as a unique American type, the man on a horse, blunt, outspoken, warmhearted, courageous and heroic.

Jay Monaghan, (Editor). The Book of the American West. Simon & Schuster. 1963.
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