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Cowboys and entrepreneurs in the cattle kingdom.

Some 150 years ago, in 1866, an Illinois cattle dealer named Joseph McCoy bought a herd of longhorns that had been "trailed" from Texas, and sold them to slaughterhouses. His entrepreneurial spirit saw this as not just a one-time deal, but as a long-term business opportunity. Other cattlemen would soon be trailing Texas cattle to the expanding railroad network that was then reaching the Kansas prairie, and the trains would take the animals to urban processors and consumers.

The next year, thanks in part to McCoy's investments, the Chisholm Trail began moving cattle from San Antonio to a new railhead in Abilene, Kan.

The Chisholm Trail is an icon of the "cattle kingdom." The Chisholm Trail: High Road of the Cattle Kingdom, first released 35 years ago, tells much of what there is to know about the trail, the cowboys who worked on it, and the industry they were part of. The author, Don Worcester (1915-2003), was professor of history at Texas Christian University, president of the Western History Association, a prolific author, and lover of Western culture.

Starting in the 1850s, cattlemen and other businessmen discovered that Texas cattle could be trailed to California, Missouri, and up to Illinois. From Illinois, they could be shipped by rail to New York City, and still turn a profit if there had been no costly incidents on the 1,500-mile drive. But it was after the Civil War that the enterprise became really profitable.

During the Civil War, when many cowboys served in the Confederate Army, longhorns proliferated and spread wide on the Texas range. Cow hunts were organized to round up cattle. Horse-mounted cowboys caught longhorns with lassos. Specialized cowboys called "brush poppers" pursued them in the treacherous Texas brush country, full of plants with dirk-like thorns--a dangerous job for both horses and men.

Cowboys were simple cowhands on ranches, and the great drives generated much of the mythology and symbolism of cowboy culture. The great cattle drives lasted barely two decades, and less than a decade on the Chisholm Trail, but they remain central to Western lore. Worcester opens a window on those two decades and shows all the ramifications of the cattle kingdom.

The incentive to ship cattle to northern slaughterhouses was fueled by the high prices that beef commanded in urban centers and by the arrival of the railroad in Kansas. But the animals still needed to be trailed from Texas to the Kansas railheads, and entrepreneurship was needed to build up the trailing industry.

Enter McCoy. He made arrangements with the Union Pacific Railroad, which had reached Abilene. There, he bought land and built stockyards and a 100-room hotel. The first herd reached McCoy's new market in the summer of 1867, starting half a dozen years of cattle drives along the Chisholm Trail.

The trail / Between San Antonio and Abilene lay some 700 miles of open range--unoccupied public land or land controlled by Indian tribes in what was then formally called Indian Territory and today is Oklahoma. (The name "Oklahoma" comes from okla or "red," and humma or "people," in the Choctaw language.) The initial Chisholm Trail had been named after Jesse Chisholm, a Cherokee-Scot trader whose wagons carried goods from the future site of Wichita, Kansas, to Indian camps in Indian Territory. Texas cowmen appropriated the name to identify the whole extended trail from San Antonio to Abilene.

"Before ranches were fenced," notes Worcester, "cattle often strayed a hundred miles or more from their home ranges." The animals had to be rounded up and branded. At least 5 million longhorns were trailed north. Perhaps a fourth of those used the Chisholm; most of the others took the longer Western Trail, which ran a bit farther west, through Texas, Indian Territory, Kansas, Nebraska, the Wyoming Territory, and up to the Montana Territory and the Dakota Territory.

A trailed herd typically numbered 2,500 to 3,000 head, but could reach 5,000. On the trail, the animals moved in a narrow file spreading a couple of miles behind the leading steers. A herd traveled a dozen miles a day, so about two months were needed to reach Abilene from San Antonio.

Life on the trail was rough. A dozen cowboys, under the direction of a trail boss, were required for a drive. In the hot prairie climate, a marching herd generated a large cloud of dust, which enveloped the cowboys. "Looking at a herd being driven at a distance, one could only see a great cloud of dust rising to the heavens," said one observer. Crossing rivers was often risky because of flash floods, quick sands, water moccasins, etc. Indian attacks were possible. Stampedes--when the whole herd started running out of fear--were frequent, often caused by lightning, and cowboys had to chase the herd, sometimes for tens of miles, reach the lead steers, and make them gradually turn back.

The meals, prepared by the crew cook, were typically made of cornmeal, beans, bacon or sowbelly, molasses, and coffee. At the end of each day, a bedding ground with grazing capabilities had to be found for the cattle. The cowboys slept under the stars, on blankets that they stored in the chuck wagon. They got little sleep as they took turns watching the herd. "If you expect to follow the trail, son," one trail boss said, "you must learn to do your sleeping in the winter."

The crew was completed by a wrangler, who was responsible for the horses.

Don Reeves, the curator of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City (a must visit), notes that "cattle drives were only a slice of cowboys' history." Yet the era of the great cattle drives, which overlaps the conquest of the West, represents the mythological golden age of cowboys. According to Worcester, "there can be little doubt that the cowboy of the trail-driving era captivated Americans as no other folk hero before or since."

The cowboys were young men, in their teens or early twenties. Between 35,000 and 55,000 cowboys rode the cattle trails. They were armed with revolvers and sometimes Winchester rifles. Although the majority were white Texans, perhaps a fifth were blacks or Latinos. Many were illiterate. It is reported that most participated in no more than one drive.

One literate cowboy in Montana was E. C. Abbott, a.k.a. Teddy Blue, who wrote his memoirs with the help of ghost writer Helena Huntingdon Smith, under the title We Pointed Them North: Recollection of a Cowpuncher. He conveyed the cowboys' sense of pride:

   The cowpunchers was a totally different
   class from these other fellows on the
   frontier. We was the salt of the earth,
   anyway in our own estimation, and we
   had the pride that went with it.

The trail boss worked for the cattle owner or for a trailing contractor hired by the owner. More rarely, the trail boss was the cattle owner himself, like in the case of the Snyder brothers, who began their career buying cattle on credit and trailing them to Abilene. Then as now, the division of labor was generally profitable.

The second most important man in the crew was the cook. The trail boss and the cook were typically older than the cowboys.

At the end of the Chisholm Trail stood Abilene, which had previously been an agglomeration of a dozen families around a stage coach station. It became a vibrant town after the first herd arrived in the summer of 1867. When a herd was a few miles from Abilene, the cowboys would graze it there until its price had been negotiated with buyers in town. Abilene's cattle fortunes lasted only a few glorious years, until 1873. After Abilene and then Wichita, the major cattle town became Dodge City, along the Western Trail, until 1885-1886.

Vast industry / Cowboys stood at the bottom of a vast industry. They were the burger flippers of the cattle kingdom--albeit, as we saw, proud burger flippers. In 1884, according to Worcester, a cowboy was paid $30 per month on the trail, which he received at the end of the drive. Assuming an average annual rate of inflation of 2 percent, that translates to $390 a month in today's dollars. For a two-month drive (from San Antonio to Abilene), he would thus earn $780 of today's money. For a drive up to Montana, he would receive double, about $1,560 today.

As a point of comparison, the trail boss earned more than three times the cowboy's monthly salary. Ranch managers earned 50 percent more than cowboys. As another point of comparison, Abilene's first city marshal, appointed in 1870, started at $150 a month (more than $2,000 today), plus $2 ($27) for each conviction of a suspect he arrested.

Obviously, part of a cowboy's real income, especially on the trail, came from the adventure. The trail was a young man's game.

"Cowmen," Worcester recognizes, "were as owners and managers considerable more important than the cowboys they employed." Management and entrepreneurship were crucial. Entrepreneurship was visible all along the supply chain, and many entrepreneurial stories can be read between the lines in Worcester's book.

New boots and lassos appeared on the market. Winchester developed its famous lever-action rifles. Colt and Remington competed with improved revolvers. Stetson hats and Levi Strauss jeans, crucial parts of cowboys' clothing, were created during this period. These artifacts and more can be seen at the large, privately financed National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. Mail-order houses appeared, from which cowboys could order the tools of their trade. Railroads ended up competing for cattle shipments.

Diversified formulas were developed to share the risks of the long trail drives, during which cattle were sometimes lost. When the cattle owner hired his own crew, he shouldered all the risks. His financial risk was maximized when he bought a herd on credit in order to drive it. When he paid a flat fee to a trailing contractor, the risk of cattle loss was transferred to the latter. Some trailing contractors purchased the herds to be trailed, thereby shouldering all the risks--and, of course, capping the cattleman's possible upside. The trail contractor business was huge: Worcester estimates that "at the height of the trailing era, about a dozen major contractors were responsible for three-fourths of the trail herds."

Except for rustlers and other shadowy characters, honesty was a feature of the cattle kingdom. Contracts between cowmen were settled by a handshake: "Often transactions involving many thousands of dollars are made verbally only, and complied with to the letter," McCoy noted. In Texas, writes Worcester, "some vaqueros [cowboys] worked for years without settling their wages, but no wise rancher would cheat them."

When a cowboy arrived in Abilene after a couple of months on the trail, he wanted booze, gambling, and women. Supply met demand, and Abilene became a sin city. Though its name was piously inspired by the New Testament (Luke 3:1 mentions "the tetrarch of Abilene"), the town became more like Sodom and Gomorrah. Saloons with gambling tables, dance halls, and brothels thrived.

Dodge City soon replaced Abilene as the great sin city, on a larger scale. Fort Worth, along the Chisholm Trail, had the same problem--or the same opportunities. Like in Abilene, the authorities' concern was more about public safety than morality: Dodge City's marshal, "Long Hair" Jim Courtright, was explicitly hired "to keep the peace, not clean up the town."

Miles City, a Montana cow town, was apparently even worse. There, Teddy Blue explains, cowboys could "marry a girl for a week, take her to breakfast and dinner and supper, be with her all the time." He continues:

   You couldn't do that in other places. ...
   I suppose those things would shock a
   lot of respectable people. But we wasn't
   respectable and we didn't pretend to be,
   which was the only way we was different
   from some others.

Violence and property rights / Cowboys were not always peaceful. On the trail, they were monitored by their boss and were very reliable. But in the cow towns, they got drunk, sometimes intimidated citizens, and were involved in gun fights. These were violent times. Yet, wandering criminals were also to blame for the violence.

At any rate, Western violence has often been exaggerated. We cannot use as a representative picture the old saying quoted by Worcester about another cow town: "In Caldwell you're lucky to be alive."

The testimonies we have show that cowboys were not violent toward women. Teddy Blue boasts about "these notions of chivalry toward women, no matter who they were," that is, including prostitutes. About those, he writes, "Well, they were women. We didn't know any others. And any man that would abuse one of them was a son of a gun."

One reason why violence in the West was not as prevalent as in Hollywood movies is that individuals (all men at any rate, although there was no rule against women being armed) were all equally armed. This imposed a clear risk to anyone initiating violence. The six-shooter was called "Colonel Colt's Equalizer." Worcester does not discuss these issues, but other analysts have. Economists Terry Anderson and Peter Hill, who have studied this epoch extensively, write: "In the mining camps and on the open range, the six-gun seldom served as the arbiter of disputes.... In short, the West was really not so wild."

If we believe Teddy Blue, the northern towns and ranges were less violent:

   In a way the life up north was a whole
   different from what it was in Texas and
   on the trail.... All old-timers who know
   the West will tell you that they did not
   have so many killings and shooting
   scrapes after they got up north as they
   did in Texas. Matt Winters used to say
   that the alkali water they drinked up
   here took it out of them, and the winters
   froze out what was left. Well, Matt
   ought to know. Old Matt was one of the
   ones that tamed down after he come to
   Montana, so he got to be pretty civilized
   in the end.

On the open range, which was a common pasture, overgrazing became a problem as the cattle industry developed and the land grew scarce. The potential for violent conflict sometimes materialized in range or fence "wars." But cattlemen soon found a better solution: define property rights. As Anderson and Hill explain, the incentive to do so came from the hope of appropriating the increased production (the "rent") that would come with well-defined property rights.

Just as miners formed mining districts that established property-right rules, cattlemen formed associations to protect the rights they claimed on the open range. The associations coordinated roundups from which they excluded newcomers. The latter, not wanting to lose cattle regularly, had to move to other parts of the range or buy informal range rights from an existing owner.

Hence the relative peacefulness of the range. Anderson and Hill argue that the different federal homestead acts inefficiently supplanted the property rights that were spontaneously emerging as an economic response to scarcer land.

Creeping regulation/The cowboy era was a time of rugged individualism, adventure, and liberty, which explains the power that its mythology exerted not only in America but also in Europe and elsewhere in the world. As historian C. L. Sonnichsen said, "The legendary West belongs to the world and not just to us." Riding in open spaces with no effective authority over him but his temporary employer, the cowboy provided a vivid contrast with regimented European societies.

Although the cowboys' libertarian mythology broadly conforms to their history, government intervention was not unknown in the last third of the 19 th century. Politicians tend to be nearly as entrepreneurial in regulating and controlling as businessmen are in earning profits. In most cases, though, regulation was lighter than it is now.

In cow towns such as Abilene and Dodge City, one could not go armed and a visitor had to check his guns when coming into town. But those were local ordinances, not state or federal laws. Until the recent revival of the Second Amendment, most of today's America was more restrictive than that.

Another example relates to sanitary regulation. Longhorns carried a tick that did not affect them but could infect other cattle. Against this "Texas fever," the State of Kansas established a quarantine line east of which Texas cattle could not be trailed during part of the year. The line was traced slightly west of Abilene, but it was ignored when the business potential for the town became obvious. Things changed over the years as the line was gradually moved west.

There was worse. Kansas imposed alcohol prohibition in 1881 (and it continued to 1948). Following the Civil War, the federal government seemed emboldened by the conscience of its power. In 1885, Congress outlawed enclosures of big ranches on the public domain, an intervention that stopped the ongoing definition of private property rights. Anderson and Hill note that in 1889 the feds expropriated the Outlet, a large track of grazing land that cattlemen had leased from the Cherokees. According to the same authors, the federal government also limited land acquisition by foreigners.

Just a few years before, the outlook for private property rights seemed brighter. In the heydays of the cattle kingdom, British investors got deeply involved in what looked like a promising industry. By 1883, according to Worcester, "British companies owned or controlled at least twenty million acres of rangeland." A populist reaction ensued. Some states such as Texas tried to prevent foreign ownership of land, but the courts declared such bans unconstitutional.

In cowboy times, laws were often disobeyed and governments did not have the resources for stringent enforcement. Quarantine lines were not always respected. After he was elected mayor of Dodge City in 1881, Alonzo Webster did not enforce the new state prohibition of alcohol; indeed, he was himself a saloon owner. Some nostalgia for the lawlessness of the cowboy era can be forgiven.

End of an era / The Chisholm Trail had a short existence: by 1874, it had fallen into disuse. Worcester offers many reasons for its demise. For one, the moving of the Kansas quarantine line to the west finally displaced the main cattle terminal to Dodge City on the Western Trail. The same demise hit the Western trail a dozen years later, partly caused by the further moving of the quarantine line.

Other factors were at play. Competing railroads made shipping directly from Texas economical. The invention of modern barbed wire allowed ranchers, homesteaders, and crop farmers to erect fences on the open range. Trailing cattle became more difficult if only because the fences restricted water access.

Worcester seems to think that all those factors played a role. He adds some fuzzy reasons like "overstocking, overproduction, and poor management."

In a Journal of Economic History article published a few years before Worcester's book, Harvard economist David Galenson (now at the University of Chicago) emphasized the development of a northern cattle-raising industry. The northern ranges, stocked via the trails, pushed down cattle prices to the point where importing them from Texas became less profitable.

A political factor also intervened: from 1885 on, northern cattle ranchers protected themselves against Texas competition by extending quarantine laws. It wouldn't be the last time, nor probably the first time, that sanitary excuses were used to favor special interests and increase state power. The chief of the U.S. Bureau of Statistics at the time, Joseph Nimmo, indignantly wrote in an official report:

   That the freedom of commercial
   intercourse should be invaded or even
   threatened by indirection, through the
   exercise of the police powers of a State
   for sanitary purposes, is repugnant to
   the cherished love of liberty which has
   from the beginning characterized the
   people of this country.

Conclusion / Worcester's Chisholm Trail is a fascinating book that introduces the reader to the cowboys, their lives and times, the cattle kingdom, and the frontier. The book helps us understand why this era had such an effect on popular culture in America and abroad. It can be complemented by the analysis of economists like Terry Anderson and Peter Hill.

Teddy Blue's poetic testimony and nostalgia add another layer to our understanding of cowboy times and their place in the American mythos. We Pointed Them North closes on these words:

   A man has got to be at least seventy-five
   years old to be a real old cowhand. I
   started young and I am seventy-eight.
   Only a few of us are left now, and they
   are scattered from Texas to Canada The
   rest have left the wagon and gone ahead
   across the big divide, looking for a new
   range. I hope they find good water and
   plenty of grass. But wherever they are is
   where I want to go.


* "Abilene, First of the Kansas Cow Towns," by George L. Chapman. Kansas Historical Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 3 (August 1940).

* "The Circle Dot Cowboys at Dodge City: History and Imagination in Andy Adams's The Log of a Cowboy," by Robert R Dykstra and Jo Ann Manfra. Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Spring 2002).

* "The End of the Chisholm Trail," by David Galenson. Journal of Economic History, Vol. 34, No. 2 (June 1974).

* The Not So Wild, Wild West, by Terry L. Anderson and Peter J. Hills. Stanford University Press, 2004.

The Chisholm Trail: High Road of the Cattle Kingdom

By Donald Emmet Worcester

207 pp.; University of Nebraska Press, 1980

PIERRE LEMIEUX is an economist affiliated with the Department of Management Sciences of the Universite du Quebec en Outaouais. His latest book is Who Needs Jobs? Spreading Poverty or Increasing Welfare (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
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Title Annotation:The Chisholm Trail: High Road of the Cattle Kingdom
Author:Lemieux, Pierre
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2015
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