The Roots of Cattle Driving
Highland Cattle in an Open Lakeland Landscape by Samuel Bough

There seems to be a vague impression that the Chisholm Trail stands alone in history, an isolated event with no connection to other events either before or afterward. Nothing could be further from the truth!

The history of cattle driving undoubtedly goes back thousands of years to the wanderings of nomadic peoples all over the world. To explore the roots of American cattle drives, however, we won’t delve quite that deep. We’ll start in the year 1707.

From Scotland to England

The event that started America’s fascinating trail-driving heritage was the Union with England Act, passed by Scotland and taking effect on May 1, 1707. One of the hopes of those in the Scottish parliament was that a union with England would improve Scotland’s economic conditions. These hopes were a long time in being realized, but eventually a thriving trade was established between the two countries. This trade was in cattle.

For countless generations, Highland and Galloway cattle had been a reliable source of food and hides for the Scottish people. The Industrial Revolution in England increased the demand for these products, and a market was created.

Eager for a chance to earn a good living, Scottish drovers herded their cattle southward beginning sometime around 1760. For the next six decades or so, tens of thousands of these animals were fattened in the lush pastures in the border country between the two nations, and then taken to the various markets in the area.

And what does this have to do with the cattle drives in America? Well, the descendants of these Scottish drovers came to our shores and ended up practicing their trade here.

Across the South

The Roots of Cattle Driving: Part 1
Cowboys Wrestling a Bull by Frederic Remington, drawn for an article on Florida cracker cowboys

Many of the early settlers of the South were English, Scottish, Irish, or some combination thereof. When they arrived, they found cattle already running free in their new homes, all descendants of animals lost or abandoned by Spanish explorers. In Texas and Mexico there was the Texas Longhorn, of course; but there were also other “landraces”—distinct populations of cattle shaped into breeds solely by their environment. For instance:

  • The Pineywoods, which ranged from eastern Texas to western South Carolina.
  • The Swamp cattle, from Louisiana.
  • The Florida Cracker, from Florida, as its name suggests.
  • The Corriente, found in various parts of the South.

Undoubtedly there were others, most of them now forgotten and lost forever. They served an important purpose nevertheless.

Many settlers “adopted” some of these feral cattle, relying on them for milk, draft power, and occasionally meat. When the settlers moved to different parts of the country, they often took their cattle with them.

But some settlers were a little more ambitious. Instead of keeping their cattle to aid in subsistence farming, they actually fattened cattle on corn and high-quality pasture (think Kentucky bluegrass) before sending them off to markets further east.

And so an industry was born.

The Roots of Cattle Driving: Part 2

Helpful Resources
Peopling the Plains

Peopling the Plains
Ready to learn more about the Southerners who brought the cattle trade to Kansas? Read our full review.

Brave the Wild Trail
Fictional account of the Florida Cracker Trail, written for young children. Although the story is set after the Civil War, Florida Cracker cattle were driven to market for trade with Cuba prior to that. Read our full review.