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Hard times in the old West.

Sickening headaches, blisters and boils, lost mail, lost food, lost patience, and a multitude of vexatious flies: no, this wasn't a camping trip gone awry, but that most romantic of cowboy adventures, the cattle drive.

As many a starry-eyed young cowpoke soon discovered, there was little romance to the real thing - although perhaps more than in today's rumbling ride of a few hours up interstate highways in a tractor-trailer rig.

For starters, the old method wasn't really so much a cattle drive as a cattle walk, the idea being to move the animals to the far end of the trail without running too much "condition" off them. So as the working hours from dawn to dusk crawled by, a herd might step off only 12 to 15 miles a day.

Still, the era of the cattle drive was a sort of race against time. As the railroads spun their web across the West, the need to march cattle to distant railheads evaporated. In all, cattle drives boomed for only about 20 years, from the end of the Civil War to the mid-1880's.

For most ranches, the cattle drive was an annual affair. Frequently beginning in April or May, when grass and water were reasonably plentiful, some 500 to 2,000 cattle of all ages would be rounded up from around the ranch and sent trudging toward locales such as Sedalia, Missouri, or, after 1867, Abilene, Kansas.

The railhead towns, with their droves of cattle buyers waiting to deal, weren't always the destination. Some animals, particularly along the Good-night-Loving Trail [see map], were sold to government agencies for allocation to Indians. Others were "seed stock" destined for secondary ranches in Montana and Wyoming.

The men nudging the herd on its way were not necessarily workers from the ranch that owned the stock. Often, professional trail hands escorted the herd.

The ratio of men to animals varied widely, sometimes stretching to just one man per 400 head. But the team's composition was fairly constant. Aside from the trail boss, who rode ahead of the herd to scout out fresh grass and water, there were point men to lead the herd; swing riders alongside the herd toward the front; flank riders keeping an eye on the sides toward the back; and a few poor souls riding drag, keeping tabs on stragglers and eating a nauseating amount of dust in the process.

Rounding out the team were the wrangler, in charge of the horse herd, or remuda; the cook with his chuck-wagon; and perhaps another driver and wagon hauling supplies or tools.

Another important team member was the lead steer, which walked at the head of the herd, encouraging the others to follow. While many lead steers found only the slaughterhouse waiting at the end of the line, a few were recruited for repeat journeys. One such creature was Texas cattle king Charles Goodnight's Old Blue, which made the trip to Dodge City, Kansas, 8 times, luring some 10,000 head up the trail to the tune of the bell he wore around his neck.

If a cowboy survived the 2 to 3 months of sudden hailstorms, freakish lightning strikes, stampedes (one near Texas' Brazos River in July 1876 claimed 2,000 animals), thirst that could turn cattle blind and wild, and the gnawing knowledge that the trail boss' main concern was the cows and not the cowboys - he could collect $100 in wages, hardly a princely sum even in the late 1800's.

There must have been quite a few takers, though. From 1867 through 1881, trail bosses found enough willing hands to herd more than 4 million beef cattle up the trail out of Texas to the northern railheads.
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Title Annotation:cattle drives
Author:Hays, Sandy Miller
Publication:Agricultural Research
Date:Dec 1, 1991
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