What Really Ended the Cattle Drives?

Just search your memory and the Internet. Several popularly stated reasons that the Chisholm Trail and the cattle drive era came to an end will surface:

  • Hostile farmers.
  • The invention of barbed wire.
  • Quarantine laws (designed to prevent the spread of Texas fever).
  • Declining profits.

While there is certainly truth in each of these claims, pointing to any one of them as the cause of the trail’s demise is not entirely factual. Let’s take a look at each suggestion in turn and then examine the two things that probably contributed more to the end of the longhorn-driving era than any of these.

Hostile Farmers

It is certainly true that outfits moving north up the trails did meet up from time to time with mobs of angry farmers, bound to protect their own livestock from the tick-borne diseases associated with Texas longhorns. Other settlers took measures such as charging tolls for crossing their land and taking possession of cattle that trespassed, often charging heavy fees for their release.

These factors were certainly considerable barriers to bringing herds north. However, the solution was typically to use different trails further west.

Barbed Wire

The idea behind this theory is that barbed wire was increasingly used to mark boundaries of farms in settled areas, creating an un-navigable patchwork of fencing that effectively blocked trail herds from passing through.

However, it is important to note that large tracts of land in the western United States remained mostly unsettled well into the 1900s, long after the trail drives had ceased. The trails were already traversing these areas, and should not have encountered too much difficulty on this score.

Quarantine Laws

Kansas passed a number of quarantine laws that prohibited taking Texas longhorns up the trails through the state. These laws were passed to protect livestock owned by Kansas residents from Texas fever, a tick-borne disease introduced by longhorns. The longhorns had immunity to Texas fever because of their exposure to the disease from a young age, while the more domesticated animals of Kansas were easy victims.

What this explanation for the end of the Chisholm Trail era fails to take into account is the fact that quarantine laws were already in place in Kansas by the time the first trail drive to Abilene occurred. Fortunately for Joseph G. McCoy, Governor Samuel Crawford offered assurances that the law would not be enforced in the up-and-coming town, thus enabling his plan to make Abilene an important cattle shipping point.

Eventually, however, quarantine laws were enforced in Abilene. This did contribute to the decline of the Chisholm Trail proper—specifically the trail that ran from Texas to Abilene.

But this law did not end the cattle drives altogether. Instead, the drives continued on trails further west, aided by the completion of new railheads. In 1874, Dodge City on the Western Cattle Trail became the destination of choice.

In the mid-1880s, driving cattle from Texas into Kansas was completely prohibited, this time to prevent hoof and mouth disease. Even so, cattle drives continued west of the Kansas state line, albeit on a smaller scale.

Declining Profits

It has been suggested that driving cattle up the Chisholm Trail was an expensive pursuit, and therefore not particularly economical. Cowboys had to be paid to stay with the herds all the way up the trail, and a drive could take months. At the same time, writers also state that prices for longhorns declined after a few years of cattle driving.

While it cannot be denied that the Chisholm Trail was not exactly the most efficient transportation system ever created, it seems unlikely that the expense ended it. For one thing, the cowboys hired to do this work received relatively low wages, even for that era.

For another thing, the discrepancy between the cost of the cattle themselves and the price they brought at market was considerable. The longhorns were running wild across Texas, making them virtually free to obtain. Even after the price for longhorns declined, there was still the potential for a tidy profit. While the cowboys themselves never made a fortune through their work, their employers most certainly did.

The Answer: Railheads and Genetics

Another common theory is that, by the mid-1800s, new railheads were appearing in Texas, making the long cattle drives unnecessary. The problem with this idea is that more westerly trails such as the Goodnight-Loving Trail were still in use into the early 1880s to serve growing Southwestern markets that could not yet be accessed by rail.

That said, a spreading network of railheads was neveretheless a huge factor in the end of the cattle drive era, but only in combination with yet another factor.

One explanation for the end of the cattle drives that has been overlooked in some accounts is the role that the tallow industry played. For one thing, rapid industrialization created an enormous demand for tallow for manufacturing everything from candles to lubricants. Beef, while still necessary to feed growing urban populations, was largely a byproduct of the tallow industry.

However, Texas longhorns were notoriously lean. Historian J. Frank Dobie noted that, when the roundups were made, often the fattest cattle were sent up the trail to market, while the thinner animals were left behind to breed the next generation of longhorns. It doesn’t take much figuring to realize that over time this would produce successively leaner and leaner cattle.

At the same time, British gentlemen of the day frequently saw fit to invest in American ranches, given their considerable profitability. These gentlemen ranchers typically did not raise Texas longhorns. Instead, they introduced their own native breeds of cattle, resulting in large importations of Angus, Herefords, and Shorthorns.

While trail-stressed longhorns sometimes required generous grain feeding just to become edible, the British cattle, raised in comparative ease on Western ranches, fattened readily. These breeds had the genetics to produce a thick layer of fat, perfect for supplying the tallow industry. In short, they were better for the intended purpose than the longhorns that had attracted the attention of the investors in the first place. And since there were no herds of feral Angus roaming the plains, somebody had to raise them. This led to the establishment of large cattle ranches across the West, particularly in more northerly states such as Montana.

Once the British breeds demonstrated what they could do, the “improved” cattle craze swept across all cattle-raising states. Even Texas ranchers forsook their longhorns and began raising crossbred beef steers with British genetics. And, of course, driving these fat cattle anywhere would defeat the entire purpose, hence the reason the growth of the Western rail network was so important to ranching history.

In short, then, we find that the end of the cattle drive era was brought about by two factors: a type of cattle that better met the needs of the market, plus a rail network that effectively connected ranches with population centers.

By hsotr

Pulling from nearly 20 years of experience, Michelle Lindsey started Homestead on the Range to help Kansans and others around flyover country achieve an abundant country lifestyle. Michelle is the author of four country living books. She is also a serious student of history, specializing in Kansas, agriculture, and the American West. When not gardening or pursuing hobbies ranging from music to cooking to birdwatching, she can usually be found researching or writing about her many interests.