During 19th century America, the cattle drives in the west became essential to the livelihood of a large part of the population. In the peak of the era, over 20 million animals were transported from Texas to railheads in Kansas, to be shipped to Chicago and other places in the east. The drives would begin in early spring, to allow the cattle to feed on new grass as they were moving. A late start could also result in the loss of cattle due to the annual river floods, which occurred as the snow melted.
The beasts were guided by teams of between 12 and 15 cowboys. The positions included:
The Trail Boss – responsible for choosing a place to ‘bed down’ for the night.
The Lead Riders – guided the herd from the front.
The Outriders – stayed to the flank of the herd to prevent the cattle from straying.
The ‘Drag’ Riders – brought up the rear of the herd.
The Cook – prepared the meals for the cowboys.
The Wrangler – responsible for differentiating between the horses and keeping them together and safe during the night.
Each herd consisted of about 3000 cattle, and drovers preferred mixed herds which included cows and calves as they were less likely to stampede. The average rate of travel was between 10 and 12 miles per day, which could be increased to 18 miles under ideal conditions. The animals were guarded by the riders each night, who would work in pairs for two hours at a time. Those keeping watch were referred to as ‘night hawks,’ and were responsible for ensuring that nothing startled the cattle causing a stampede. They made sure the herd stayed together by circling them, and sometimes sang softly to calm the beats down.
The Chisholm Trail
This was was the most important route for driving cattle west, until 1871. It led north from Ft. Worth in Texas to Abilene, Kansas for about 520 miles. The trail did not have an exact location, as each drive would follow a slightly different path. In 1867, after six states passed laws preventing the cattle from going through the farming areas in an attempt to decrease the spread of tick fever, the trail shifted slightly to pass west of the Shawnee.
Between the years of 1871 and 1880, the Chisholm Trail was rarely used, but an extension of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway caused the route to become important again. It remained so until additional truck lines of railway leading south were built, almost completely replacing the trail drives north.
The Great Western Trail
This trail ran parallel to the Chisholm Trail on the west, and became its replacement during the period of closure. Even though it wasn’t as well known as the Chisholm Trail, it was longer and allowed horses to be carried to other states (and Canada) as well as facilitating the cattle drive to Kansas.