TRAIL HERD TRIBULATIONS
From Hunter’s Frontier Times, May, 1948
The trail driving period began in 1866 and continued until about 1886. During the twenty years following the opening of a cattle market at Abilene, Kansas, more than ten million cattle of the longhorn species were driven out of Texas, and brought great wealth to this state. But very few men are living today who drove cattle "up the trail," and those that are still with us are now old men, and none of them less than 80 years old. I have heard many of them relate their experiences of those exciting days, of long dry drives, of crossing swollen streams, fighting Indians, stampedes, cyclones, and sleepless nights. Leaving Southern Texas about the first of April with a herd of 1,500 to 2,500 wild longhorn Texas steers, and grazing them leisurely along the trail, it was sometimes late in September before they reached their destination, Abilene, Kansas, where the cattle were sold. In the old days of cattle driving it was found advisable to allow the cattle to string out at great length, and then certain cattle would take the lead and others bring up the rear. It would seem as though in cattle, as in human beings, they are natural born leaders, and it was always best to allow the animals to string out to suit themselves. The most reliable and experienced cowboys went with the leaders, and their great work was to get these to swim streams and rivers which intervened before the bulk of the herd caught up. In the case of small streams and rivers not running rapidly, very little difficulty was experienced. The cattle would be started across by the aid of the leaders already referred to, and it was always found that although steers have not the follow-the-leader instinct so fully developed as sheep, they will keep in line and even encounter danger if their somewhat reasoning capacity convinces them that others of their kind have got through with a whole skin. There were rivers to be crossed which were at times dangerous in the extreme. It was often hard to persuade the leaders to plunge into the Cimarron. the Platte, the Neobrara, and other treacherous rivers when they were at their height, and superhuman efforts were made to get the leaders through before the bulk of the herd came on, experience teaching that the greater the number massed on the banks, the more impossible the task of getting them across the water. It may seem strange to speak of discipline in the ranks of a herd of cattle, but certain it is that in some instances the animals were so well under control that the leading cowboys would swim even a rushing torrent of the cattle following them. When this trick failed, there was often a loss of two or three days in getting the cattle over, and a great deal of shrinkage and damage followed. Sometimes it even happened that a herd of cattle would lose its head in crossing a wide river, and remain for hours without making any progress. Then some of the most intrepid cattlemen would risk their lives, get in the center of the mass and try to frighten some of the animals into making headway.
Even when the herd was over, the difficulty of getting the chuck wagon across a very wide river had to be surmounted. Necessity is said to be the mother of invention, and that constant friend of the cowboy, the rope, came into requisition. A number of these were tied together and the wagon dragged across as best it could. River crossings being thus dangerous and costly, trails were selected with as few river fords as possible, and anxious inquiries were made at every hand as to the condition of rivers which it was impossible to avoid.
There were weird scenes in those days on a cattle drive. The old saying that "music hath charms to soothe the savage breast," was thoroughly proved again and again on these occasions. Just as the snake charmer lulls into innocuous desuetude the poisonous reptile before him, so did the old time trail driver and cowboy quiet many a stampeding steer, by singing as well as shouting. A well known Texas cowman told the writer:
“I learned to sing at a Sunday school when I was young and good. But my voice developed, and I first appreciated what singing really meant, while driving cattle on the old Chisholm trail many years ago. Perhaps you think we sang for fun on those occasions, but we didn't. It was often the case that every known method of quieting a stampeding herd would be tried without success, and then one of the cowboys would say, `It's no use, boys, let's try a little music.' Then someone would strike up a tune, and the refrain would he taken up all along the line, one man singing has, another tenor, and another a kind of combination of every recognized voice and tone. What did I sing? Why, hymn tunes almost exclusively. I am not joking when I say that the Old Hundred had a more soothing effect on wild cattle on the run than any tune of which I have heard. We have sung it and hummed it, with variations, by the hour, and frequently have succeeded in quieting a disturbance by this mean when no other attempt met with partial success. One night in particular I remember, when we sang ourselves hoarse in an attempt to restore reason to a drove of crazy cattle. In cattle driving, as in everything else, things are apt to follow in a groove. The business man who oversleeps himself in the morning and gets to business late, generally finds that everything has gone wrong until nightfall, and that financial and other troubles crowd upon him. It was just the same in driving cattle on the trail, only more so. If the cattle got upset and in a bad temper during the early part of the day, there was going to be hard work to keep them going until nightfall, and there would be sure to be trouble during the night. On this particular occasion, it had been raining incessantly for forty-eight hours, and if the steers we were driving felt half as miserable as we did, I don't blame them for getting contrary. The lightning got very vivid toward night, and the herd commenced to stampede. To stop this we persuaded the leaders to adopt a circular course — got them into a `mill.' Nine times out of ten this would put a stop to a stampede altogether, but this being an unlucky day, it was evidently the tenth time. Instead of stopping the stampede, we converted it into a circular one, and a number of animals were badly injured, to say nothing of the general damage to the entire herd. We checked that imitation of the modern roundabout or whirligig country fair feature by stationing ourselves at regular distances outside the circle and singing at the top of our voices. Every man had a cold, and could have fairly excused himself from taking part in musical exercises on the ground of being out of voice. But it was our only alternative, and we took the advice of an early day preacher who, when blaming his congregation for lack of heartiness in singing, said that those who could not sing should shout. It looked at first as though the beeves resented our poor musical effort, for they took no notice of us for awhile. But we persevered, and after nearly an hour's hard work, under exceptional difficulties, we got the animals quieted, and the majority of them were lying down and resting."
But there were serious difficulties which had to be met by other means than mere singing. After driving for days and weeks, and in some cases even months, a man whose entire fortune was represented by the cattle before him, arrived at Abilene or Dodge City. Sometimes a buyer was found there and sometimes the cattle were shipped on. The famous, or infamous, Texas cattle law of Kansas was practically nullified by the action of the governor, and an immense number of cattle were driven to Abilene and other points. Joe G. McCoy, in writing of this period, called attention to the fact that Texas cattlemen were clannish and easily misled by promises of higher prices. He recorded the fact that a secret meeting was held in 1867 at which a number of drovers pledged themselves to hold their cattle for three cents a pound gross, and to sell none for less. Mr. McCoy stated that only thirty-five thousand cattle were driven from Texas to Abilene, Kansas, during that year, and that a large number of these had to be sent into winter quarters, although others were slaughtered and the product shipped to New York. Those who went into winter quarters seemed to have been most fortunate, because the year 1868 was a much better one for the cattlemen. McCoy stated that in the fall of 1867, when Texas cattle were selling from $22 to $28 a head in Chicago, a bogus packing company of that city was represented at Abilene by an aristocratic looking man who succeeded in swindling the drovers by the dozen. From time immemorial there has existed in mankind an irrepressible desire to get something for nothing, and it seems as though the public has never learned, and never will learn, that philanthropy and business seldom go hand in hand. On this occasion, the smooth-tongued individual condoled with the cattlemen on the shameful prices they were obtaining for their fat stock. He assured them confidentially that the quotations from Chicago were doctored to their injury, and concluded by offering them from five to ten dollars per head more on the Kansas prairie than the commission men were paying in the stockyards at Chicago. Thousands of cattle were disposed of to this gentleman, who agreed to pay for them at the rate of about $35 a head, although the cattlemen would gladly have accepted $25 to $30. A merely nominal deposit was made to bind the contract, and the cattle, which practically stolen, were loaded on the cars and billed in the name of the buyer, all ownership being thus practically abandoned by those who had raised and fattened them. Fortunately for the credulous drovers, those in charge of the yards called their attention to the folly they were perpetrating and persuaded them to have the cattle billed in their own name. This saved some of the cattlemen from entire loss, and the consignments being turned over to reliable commission men, something like $1S per head was received.
Another swindle which was more successful and perpetrated a little later. A man traveled from Illinois to Western Kansas, and by the judicious expenditure of money in saloons and similar places, made himself exceedingly popular and earned the reputation of being a man of colossal wealth. Gradually he dropped hints of his ability to handle cattle under the most favorable conditions, and it soon began to be the fashion to offer him large droves. One in particular he purchased consisted of nine hundred steers. For these he was to pay at the rate of $30 per head, and he actually produced and paid down $2,000 in cash. He immediately had the cattle loaded in his own name, and the people in charge of the yards were so astonished at the transaction that they felt it their duty to warn the shipper of his risk. The warning was scouted and the transaction was completed, being followed by several others, until at last he was about $17.000 ahead of his victims. The man from Illinois was arrested and jailed, but the records are silent as to a solitary dollar ever being refunded to his victims,
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