BLAZING CATTLE TRAILS THROUGH TEXAS AND INDIAN TERRITORY
By Frank Canton of Edmond, Okla.
From J. Marvin Hunter's Frontier Times Magazine, June, 1947
Following the Civil War a revival of the cattle business was swifter than that of any other industry. In the late sixties and early seventies many poor, but enterprising, cowmen collected and branded the half-wild cattle that ran across the mesquite and buffalo grass on the Texas plains. These cattle multiplied until millions of mavericks, it is estimated, roamed the deserted ranges. It was but a short time until men who engaged in the cattle business were ready to supply an enormous quantity of beef to the Northern markets. The fact that war-time prices prevailed in those markets for some time after the war, gave a decided impetus to stockraising in Texas. But there arose a serious question as to transporting the animals to the Northern markets.
Up to and including the year of 1867 the Missouri River had furnished about the nearest and most convenient shipping point for Texas cattle. In that year the Kansas Pacific Railroad reached out through Central Kansas and at the station of Abilene, Kansas, Joseph McCoy built immense cattle pens and opened them as cattle shipping points. This brought the cattle industry farther west, from where it is estimated that 300,000 head of cattle were driven from Texas across the Indian Territory, to Kansas points in 1870 and nearly twice that number went North the following year.
A tale of one of the first drives of cattle herds from Texas through the Indian Nation to the first cattle market at Abilene, is told by Frank Canton of Edmond, Okla., who with Burk Burnett, a Texas cattleman, crossed the Indian Nation with a herd of 1,500 steers in 1859, driving them from Fort Worth, Texas, to Abilene, Kansas. The latter town had gained the reputation of the "wickedest and most God-forsaken spot on the continent," but had won the favor of many cattlemen as a convenient shipping point.
These two men crossed Red River at Spanish Fort, a historic point on the stream opposite the town of what is now Grady, in Jefferson County, Okla. Their trail merged into the famous Chisholm trail, which took its name from Jesse Chisholm, a half-breed Indian and one of the earliest stockmen of the territory. They followed the trail into Kansas, crossing the Arkansas River at Wichita, which was then a village of two stores where provisions and "plenty of liquor" could be bought.
It was a slow trip, occupying many days. For the first few days of the journey the men encountered no opposition from the Indians while crossing the Chickasaw country, but as they wended their way on up into what is now known as "the Cherokee Strip," in the northern part of the present State of Oklahoma, late one afternoon they were met by a small band of Osage Indians, who demanded that they deliver to them fifty beeves as toll for driving the herd through their buffalo lands.
Canton and Burk had had no experience with Indians of this kind, and seeing that the Indians were armed with revolvers and bows and arrows, the situation was a grave one and called for shrewd and quick action. The two men went into council and decided that they would not deliver the beeves. They felt perfectly safe in determining their actions in this manner, since it was their belief that they had sufficient men to "clean up" on the Indians provided the latter opened hostilities. They informed the Indians of their decision in a few crisp words. The Indians rode away in silence.
Flattering themselves on the ease with which they had disposed of this, their first encounter with the natives, the men hastened to get their herd moving again Northward to the markets. Hardly had they gotten started, however, when a band of probably 200 Osages suddenly came into sight on a prairie ridge not far away. They were mounted and armed with revolvers, rifles and bows and arrows. They were painted and fully garbed in war togs. To turn back or retract from their former decision was an impossibility on the part of the cattlemen, so they garnered their forces and continued straight ahead.
The 200 Indians suddenly and swiftly swept down upon the herd and began shooting steers wit h bows and arrows. The white men made no resistance, but kept their herd moving and when they were out of range of the arrows, they looked back and saw the Indians skinning five of their finest steers. This seemed to be satisfactory to the red men, who made no further attack at that time on the herd or sought further intercourse with the white men.
As night came on Canton, Burk Burnett and their cowboys sought camp. It was a beautiful and peaceful evening and, after a good feed, the steers were full and lay resting on the abundant grass. A full moon spread its radiance over the camp. Every man had been instructed to stake a horse for use in an emergency.
As Canton was dozing into unconsciousness, suddenly and without apparent cause, the great herd of steers began a stampede. It was an unusual thing and proved to be one of the wildest stampedes ever witnessed. Burk Burnett got word to as many of the men as he could to mount and save the herd from separation. He and Canton jumped on their own horses without saddles and rode at great speed until they came alongside the leaders of the herd, when they began clubbing them with quirts in order to make them turn about. The clicking of the steer's horns as they rammed and butted one another in their excitement sounded like the pelting of hail on a pavement.
Eventually the cattle were quieted. However, the white men discovered that all their loose horses had been driven away and many of the men were afoot. The horse wrangler was missing, but no one had seen him disappear. The negro cook, who took care of the chuck wagon and oxen, reported with tears in his eyes, that the Indians had robbed him of his tobacco. He hadn't seen the wrangler, either.
It was 9 o'clock the following day when the wrangler "footed it" into camp from some nearby sand hill. He reported that the Indians had chased him into hiding, although he had put up a running fight with his revolver.
This left the men practically without horses; the two horses belonging to Canton and Burnett were all that had remained. It was necessary to use these two horses np toward the front of the herd, which caused the balance of the men to walk the entire distance of 100 miles to Abilene, Kansas. The men were footsore and weary long before they reached their destination, for cow punchers' boots were not made to walk in. Slits were cut in their boots to relieve the swelling, but cactus and prickly pear thorns came through the slits, causing great pain and suffering among the men.
Added to their other worries, the steers were afraid of foot men. Mounted men could get near them, but foot men would frighten them into a panic. During the long journey, however, the animals grew accustomed to the men on foot and thus it became an easier matter to direct their course.
After returning to Texas, Canton says he took pains to inquire how it was possible for the Indians to so quietly and effectively stampede a great herd of cattle, without so much as firing one single shot. He was told that they had set fire to a sack of buffalo hair and had dragged it near enough to the cattle for them to get the scent. Old plainsmen say that nothing will start a herd into stampede quicker than the smell of burning hair.
Many exciting tales are related of the early cattle days of old Indian Territory, which was marked by the most famous of the old cattle trails. The cowboys during the sixties drove their herds over what was generally called "The Baxter Springs Trail." West of the Baxter Springs route was the "Shawnee Trail," passing through the Osage Nation to Abilene, Kansas. Further to the west than either of these was the famous "Chisholm Trail." Beginning at Red River, this trail crossed the western portion of the present State of Oklahoma into Kansas and, during the seventies, so many cattle were driven this way that it presented the appearance of a wide beaten highway, stretching for miles across the country.
It is easy to see how this whole country was vitally affected in the early days by the cattle industry. To the South was the great herds of the Texas ranges. In the North and East were the markets awaiting delivery of the cattle. In the pathway lay the vast Indian country with its great rolling prairies, criss-crossed with streams and watering places. At the same time Indian Territory offered as fine grazing lands for cattle as did Texas and the easy leaseholds gave the cowmen opportunity to use the lands as breeding places.
During the early eighties the range cattle industry reached the climax of its development. All along the western ranges cattle grazed and wintered from Southern Texas to Montana. Cattle owners had come to believe that they had provided themselves with permanent pasturage by leasing from the Indian his buffalo lands. Wire fences were introduced about this time and many operators in the cattle business, white men who were not intermarried and who could in no possible way become citizens of the Indian Territory, fenced their lands and felt secure from molestation.
Later, when the conflict arose between the cattlmen, the boomer and the Indian citizen, there were many minds with many points of view. It must be said to the credit of the cattlemen, however, that they believed truly that the Indian tribes had full power to lease their lands and that, therefore, the leases they held were valid.
But the government recognized the cattlemen only as a trespasser and in 1885, when President Cleveland issued an executive order for them to vacate at once, their leases were declared void. This caused a profound sensation among cattlemen in the West and produced consternation among stockmen directly affected by the order. The country was full of cattle. Everywhere the range seemed crowded with them. Hundreds of cattle had to be taken off the Indian lands at once. What to do with them was a question.
A committee was sent to Washington to plead with the President to wait just a few months. His answer was that he had no discretion in the matter and the order must be obeyed. Left without recourse, the cattlemen began moving their great herds at a time when the market was in a state of collapse. This entailed a loss of thousands of cattle on the drives and the sacrifice of great values in disposing of them.
It would seem that the government, in its edict, "threw out" the stockmen with as much indifference to consequences as that which characterized the dispossession of Irish peasantry. It is still a mooted question as to whether the early day cattlemen were trespassers. Those who were familiar with circumstances and conditions and the popular point of view at that early period, challenged the right of the citizens of Oklahoma to class the cattlemen as a trespasser.