Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Head 'Em Up, Move 'Em Out: Texas Trail Drives

Modern cattle drive at the Matador Ranch in Texas
 As long as cattle have been in America, there have been trail drives to move the animals from Point A to Point B. As settlers moved west, so did their cattle. Great drives ended in Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and anywhere ranching was possible. But those of Western movies and novels were primarily from Texas to the railheads in Kansas.

After the Civil War, the South faced high taxes imposed by the Northerners brought in to rule and many Southerners hadn’t the resources to pay. Other homes had been seized or burned, families had been killed or scattered. Many Southern men were left homeless and drifting. Most went West of the Mississippi looking for a new life.

Cattle ran free
during Civil War
During the Civil War, ranches were left almost untended while able-bodied men went to fight. Cattle continued to breed, but their progeny went unbranded and scattered. After the war, those cattle belonged to the man who could round them up and brand them. Drives to Kansas began in 1866 and lasted only a little over twenty years.  

According to LONE STAR, T. R. Fehrenbach’s history of Texas, when cattle brought two dollars a head in Texas, they sold for seven to ten dollars a head in Kansas. Cowboys were paid by the month, so it cost the rancher no more to have his men drive cattle to Kansas than to keep them in Texas. At times many ranchers went together for the drive, or one rancher’s hands would drive several combined herds. They also took extra horses for the cowboys to rotate on their ride.

Herding horses behind
the cattle--dusty job!
Driving cattle to market was a dangerous journey with long hours for the men. They faced outlaws, Indians, stampedes, swollen rivers, and inclement weather. At the end of the drive, the trail boss sold the herd on a handshake. His honor depended on final head count being what he told the buyer.

In 1867, Charles Goodnight invented the chuck wagon for use on trail drives. I don't know if many cowboys knew who invented it, but I'll bet they were all pleased to have it with them. It was a modified Army wagon that could carry substantially more and better food than horseback allowed. Other ranchers soon copied him.

Chuck Wagon
Cattle move slowly, so the chuck wagon could go ahead of the herd, find the camping place, and set up for supper. Generally there were only two meals a day, breakfast and supper, although that depended on the trail boss.

For all its fame, the era of the large cattle drive was a short one. By the 1880’s, railroads had begun spiderwebbing across America. Barbed wire had been introduced. The combination meant the end of the massive trail drive across several states. Fort Worth became the Texas destination, and their stockyards were immense. Swift and Armour built packing plants on the hill above the stockyards, which meant the beef was processed immediately and shipped out in refrigerated rail cars.

Famous 6666 Ranch, Guthrie,
Texas, also appears in
movies and commercials
Railroads continued to expand, making it possible to ship cattle to market rather than drive them. That is not to say that cowboys were out of work. There are still large working ranches in Texas—the 6666, King Ranch, Matador, Spur, and others—as well as hundreds of large and small ranches all across the West. But by 1890, the era of the trail drive had ended.

This is the era I write, and in which THE TEXAN'S IRISH BRIDE occurs. Hero Dallas McClintock has a horse and cattle ranch near Bandera, Texas. Dallas is also a horse whisperer as well as a rancher and is gaining fame as a horse breeder and trainer. That buy link is at: 

It's also the era of THE MOST UNSUITABLE WIFE from my backlist, now available with its new cover at In that book, hero Drake Kincaid goes on one of the last cattle drives and leaves his angry wife at home. He discovers many surprises when he returns. 
Thanks for stopping by Sweethearts Of The West today. Y'all come back now, ya hear?



  1. Caroline--Great blog! For those who haven't read The Most Unsuitable Wife--you're missing a real treat! I loved that book!

    And what's a western movie without a cattle drive? :-)

  2. Caroline,
    What a wonderful blog! I really enjoyed the pictures, too. When I worked at the Nat. Cowboy Museum there was an exhibit of Tom Ryan's work along with the wagon from the 6666 Ranch. Lots of Mr. Ryan's paintings were done on that ranch, and I actually got to meet him.

    I was a HUGE fan of RAWHIDE growing up. Especially Rowdy Yates.LOL I remember how aggravated Mom would get that I always wanted to watch that (she thought I should be interested in more "girlie" things.)

    Great post!

  3. Great post, Caroline. You always have the best. And congratulations on The Most Unsuitable Wife's new cover. It's a beaut! What's between the covers is one of my all-time favs.

    Wishing you mega sales at Smashwords!

  4. Good info! Every summer I get caught in a small scale cattle drive when they move cattle from winter to summer pasture and summer to winter pasture. They drive the cows right down the highway in eastern Oregon. It's fun to watch the cow dogs make a path for the cars.

  5. Awesome, Caroline--I am a huge fan of the west and all it entails. Cattle Drives always interested me. My Junior research paper in high school was all about the Chisholm Trail My imagination took me along the trail, I rode, I sucked up the dust, I sang, I helped stop stampedes. I just did it all. My grandparents and my husbands parents lived near Addingtion, OK, this was one of the stopping points. There is a large monument to the Chisholm Trail I used to pass every time I visited family. I still can see it with a simple detour when I travel in that direction. I'm off now to Amazon to check out and purchase a couple of books. And, to Cheryl, I loved Rawhide as well. I've visited the National Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City many times. Loved it all . . .

  6. Caroline,
    Loved your post on the cattle drives. My grandfather took part in the cattle roundups in Montana and Wyoming. The artist, Charlie Russell went along on some of those roundups. My grandfather's uncle died on a roundup when his horse bucked him off one morning as the day began. That was a very hard life.
    Marin, I agree, The Most Unsuitable Wife is a great read. I loved it.
    Cheryl, Tom Ryan is one of my most favorite western artists. I love the painting of the rancher offering his horse an apple at the end of the day. :-) It's beautiful.
    Paty, I would love to watch the cow dogs make a path for the cars. I think my papillon/border collie mix could do that. ;-)

    Wishing you happy readers, Caroline!

  7. Winona--so you are an "OKIE" too? COOL! You know, Duncan now has a Chisholm Trail Museum--haven't been there but I'm looking into an annual festival for writers that they have there. Would love to go to that. I love the National Cowboy Museum too, Winona. I hated giving up that job, but was on my feet all day, and after I got sick with the flu, I just just couldn't go back to that. But I still love to go and visit there often--they always have such beautiful artwork there.

    Jeanmarie, I have that very painting hanging in my dining room. It's called "Sharing an Apple." Tom Ryan was just a wonderful artist. I remember they had an exhibit that was just his work, and he was standing in the middle of the gallery looking at it all, just almost in awe of it. I said, "Mr. Ryan, this is all just beautiful. You must be so proud, to see so much of your work together in one place like this." He nodded and just said, "Yeah. Just taking a last look at it all." Did you know he started out doing book covers for western novels? He was a fascinating person.

  8. CAROLINE--what a wonderful story of the cattle drives. It's hard to believe they only lasted 20 years, when we think they were a standard for ranching for a whole century. A few good men made their name and fortune by blazing a trail--Goodnight, for one, whose trail came through San Marcos--thus we have a Goodnight this, and a Goodnight that--schools, mainly.
    I know of the 6666 ranch and the Spade ranch out on the South Plains.
    I love your photos--thanks so much for taking the time to give us a great piece of history. Celia

  9. Loved your post! I never knew Rawhide was filmed there.

  10. Kathy, NOT ALL of Rawhide was filmed there, just parts of it. Guess they needed access to genuine landscapes, horses, cattle, etc. for some shots. I don't know for sure but heard that's where the star (whose real name I can't remember) drowned riding through a cattle tank. He wore chaps and couldn't swim, so when he fell off his horse, he drowned in less than ten feet of water before anyone realized he was in trouble. I just remember Clint Eastwood from the series. LOL

  11. Ladies, thanks for your comments. I'm a cowboy/Texas history nut and never get enough information.

    Paty, I'd love to see the cattle moving and cattle dogs making way for cars. Must be a fun sight.

  12. Great post, Caroline! And I'm glad to see you got The Most Unsuitable Wife re-released. I still have my copy of The Unsuitable Husband. It's a keeper.

  13. When the StB&M railroad reached the King Ranch -- the shipping point named "Caesar" shipped the record number of cattle. We boys called the creek there"Caesar Creek" after the sign on the railroad siding. Wonder if that sign is still there? (the creek was really San Fernando Creek).

    Dac Crossley (
    Author of Escape from the Alamo...

  14. Caroline, this was a fascinating blog chocked full of good information for a tenderfoot like me. I think I'm falling in love with Texas/western writing. Wish I could write a book set in the time and place myself but I never could. So I'll just enjoy the books that you and Celia and other true western ladies write. Love thhis blog site also. Liinda

  15. Great post and your blog looks wonderful. I guarantee I will return. And since I haven't read your books yet (please forgive), you have made me very interested. I'm going to get one of them tonight for my Kindle.
    Thanks for the information.

  16. What a great description of what it was like to be on a cattle drive. Those cowboys had to have a lot of grit and be tireless to be able to handle that lifestyle. Thanks for sharing all the info, Caroline.

  17. The blog is beautiful. The western world, the entire "genre" of cowboys is one I know so little of. I'm an urban creature. But you've presented it so perfectly and picturesque I might add.

  18. I wrote a historical about the Texas Trail Drives and got my research from an authentic Trail Drivers of TExas book put out by the Cattlemen's Association. At the time the real drovers were still alive and they told thier stories in it. Fascinating reading. It has some facts in it that might interest you. My book was called Jodi's Journey.

    It's about a trail drive from Texas to Kansas.

    Some of the hazards of that time were unbelievable. The weather alone in Texas was enough to give the cowboys fits. So unpredictable.

    Good blog. Thanks.

    Love and blessings

  19. Carolyn -- What a wonderful blog post...and such beautiful photos, too! The cattle drives were such an arduous and important part of our history. Your post takes me back to all the research about cattle drives and cattle trails I did for 'Whisper in the Wind'. :))

    Also, I love the new cover for The Most Unsuitable Wife.

  20. Enjoyed the cowboy facts! Great post. Maggie

  21. CHERYL, I grew up about 30 miles from the Four Sixes and the Pitchfork ranches near Guthrie, Texas. The man in the painting by Tom Ryan was married to my cousin. His name was "Sheep". I used to know his real name, but I've forgotten it. I do remember that he worked as a cowboy all his life. When he died a few years ago, the ranch gave him a an old traditional cowboy funeral and carried him to his grave site on a horse-drawn wagon.I might be wrong about this, but I think he was buried in a pine box.


  22. Anna! I bet you've got some great stories about the 6666 Ranch! I love that painting, and I'm so glad to know the history of it. He did several I loved--there is another one of a cowboy sleeping under a cottonwood tree that is just wonderful, too.--heck, they were ALL WONDERFUL--not a bad one among them!

  23. I've never been to Texas but have always loved Westerns, my all-time favourite being 'Lonesome Dove'. 'Rawhide' was a favourite when I was younger - my first introduction to Clint Eastwood. Good on you, ladies for delivering this awesome blog. I know I'll be returning.

  24. CHERYL, I *finally* remembered Sheep's last name. It's Morrow. Now I can't remember his real first name. Getting old is hell.


  25. Hi Caroline,
    What a wonderful blog. I found it so interesting, those cattle drives were very similar to the ones that we used to have in Australia in the old days. We didn't call the men cowboys, but stockmen or drovers.



  26. Fascinating topic. It dovetails in to the research I did for Montana Belle, which is set in 1882. The invention of barbed wire and growth of fences was definitely putting an end to open ranges and great drives by that time, so my story is set in a time of transition.


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