AP U.S. History Notes

Cattle, Frontiers, and Farming

Cattle, Cowboys, and Beef Barons

By the end of Civil War, as many as five million longhorn cattle, descendants of old Spanish stock, roamed wild in Texas. These tough, rangy animals sported horns with a spread of as much as eight feet. At first they were hunted only for their hides since there was no way to get them to markets in the East. With the building of the Transcontinental Railroads, it became possible to transport these cattle to the eastern market that had developed a taste for beef at a time when the effects of war had depleted eastern herds. Beef, even tough wild beef, was in great demand.

In 1866, a large herd was driven from Texas to Sedalia, Missouri, which was then the far-western station of the Missouri-Pacific Railroad. This proved a poor route as it traced alternately through forests where cattle were lost and through farmland that farmers understandably did not want trampled and grazed. There were also bushwhackers and cattle thieves to contend with. But the era of the long cattle drive had begun.

As the railroads extended farther west, the route to a station shifted to the open, relatively unpopulated prairies of Kansas and Oklahoma. Here the cattle had good grazing, fewer bandits roamed, and the drives did not encounter so many farmers protecting their crops. As the railroad passed through Abilene, Kansas, in 1867, an entrepreneurial Illinois livestock dealer, Joseph G. McCoy, saw the potential for making that tiny log-cabin settlement into a booming cattle town. McCoy bought 250 acres near the railroad and laid out a stockyard, outbuildings, a hotel, and a bank. Hardy plains pioneers such as the half-Cherokee John Chisholm scouted trails through Indian territory from south Texas to Kansas and eventually Wyoming. The Chisholm Trail ran from central Texas to Abilene, Kansas, a distance of 500 miles. The Western Trail to Dodge City was slightly shorter, while the Goodnight-Loving Trail looped from central Texas into New Mexico and then straight north to Cheyenne, Wyoming, for a marathon 700-mile trek.

Men as wild and tough as the longhorns were hired to round-up and drive these ownerless Texas cattle on the “long drive,” the slow, dangerous journey to the stations. During the decades following the Civil War, over 40,000 men were employed to herd cattle in the West. These “Cowboys” were usually in their twenties and came from many backgrounds. Black, white, Mexican, and Indian cowboys tended and protected the wild herds, while riding cowponies that were often only slightly less scrawny and wild than the longhorns. Contrary to the Hollywood film image, being a cowboy involved hard work, low pay, constant exposure to the elements, and a notable absence of many things we now consider necessities such as bathing, a change of clothes, and a diet more diverse than boiled beef and beans.

Cowboys came to that occupation for varied reasons. Many were Civil War veterans, while some were immigrants direct from Europe. In the south, cattle raising and care of livestock was an occupation often designated to slaves. After the war, many young African-American men drifted west and used their knowledge of animal husbandry to get hired on as cowboys. Indians were already living in the region and knew the country and how to survive. Texas had a substantial population of Mexicans who had remained after Mexico lost Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California to the United States; hence the incorporation of Spanish terms such as rodeo, bronco, lasso, and corral into the cowboy lexicon. Building the Transcontinental Railroad had employed thousands of men, many of whom had no desire to return to the industrial centers of the East when construction was complete. Some turned to cattle work as a permanent profession, but for many it was simply a means to save up a stake in order to homestead. Dangers encountered by the cowboys on these drives included attack by Indians, stampedes, disease, and accidents. With no medical treatment available, getting sick or being hurt often ended in death.

Herds of 1,000 to 10,000 animals were driven over the vast open ranges of prairie. Altogether, 4,000,000 head of longhorn cattle were driven north from 1866 to 1888. High prices for beef also encouraged raising cattle in Kansas by bringing in Hereford and other “blooded” strains from the east. These cattle produced more and better beef than their sinewy Texas counterparts, but they were not as well adapted to the region. The Texas cattle carried a tick-borne disease that infected the eastern cattle. The disease produced no symptoms in the longhorns, but it was devastating to the eastern breeds.

Kansas ranchers of blooded stock complained to the state legislature about infected Texas cattle. In 1872, the legislature drew a quarantine line south of Abilene, Kansas, beyond which it was illegal to move Texas cattle. John McCoy moved his operation to Wichita, Kansas, which then had a four-year run as a roaring cattle town along with the towns of Caldwell and Ellsworth. In 1876, the quarantine line was redrawn south of Wichita, and the long-drive cattle trade moved west to Dodge City, Kansas, and north to Cheyenne, Wyoming. These rough outposts on the frontier welcomed the cattle drives and catered to the cowboys for the dollars they brought into the community. Cowboys were young men with no personal attachment to these towns, however, which often meant trouble. Lawmen such as Wyatt Earp and James B. (Wild Bill) Hickok were hired to keep the peace. As the long drives moved west, they left in their wake prosperous farming and ranching communities and energetic, entrepreneurial towns. The populations of Kansas and Nebraska doubled several times in the last half of the nineteenth century, greatly due to an influx of capital from the cattle drives.

At the western stations, cattle were loaded onto railroad cars and shipped live to their destinations in the East. Many of the animals perished on the trip and the remainder lost weight, which reduced their value. In 1869, a Chicago meatpacker, G.H. Hammond, shipped beef slaughtered in Chicago to Boston in an air-cooled rail car. This was the beginning of a new era of food production and distribution in the United States. Perishable foods no longer had to be produced on local farms. Meats, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products could be raised in the areas best suited for their growth and shipped by rail to markets hundreds, even thousands, of miles away.

Within a decade after Hammond’s air-cooled car, Gustavus Swift developed a true refrigerated car, which revolutionized the meatpacking business. Now the cattle were transported to stockyards in Kansas City or Chicago where they were slaughtered, and the meat was shipped east under optimum conditions. “Beef Barons” such as Swift and Armour developed an efficient, factory-type meatpacking industry that employed thousands directly and supported other businesses such as feed wholesalers and leather tanners indirectly, thus becoming critically important in their regional economies.

The end of the open range in the late 1880s spelled the end of the long drive. In addition to shipping cattle out, railroads brought homesteaders and sheepherders to the plains. Homesteaders plowed up the prairie and laced the plains with barbed wire, invented by Joseph Glidden in 1873. Cattle ranchers responded by fencing off huge tracts for their own use. Sometimes homesteaders “squatted” on land claimed by cattle ranchers, which caused friction. Conflicts between ranchers and homesteaders over land and water rights became commonplace.

To cattle ranchers, sheepherders were even less welcome than homesteaders. Sheep grazed the grass to the roots and contributed to overgrazed, depleted ranges. Ethnic and religious prejudice added to tension with sheepherders. In the southwest, shepherds were usually Mexican or Indian, while in Nevada and the northwest they were often Mormons or Basque immigrants from the region along the French-Spanish border. With these new elements on the plains, violent range wars sometimes broke out as cattle drovers, homesteaders, and sheepherders found themselves at odds. Eventually land and water use was worked out between ranchers and farmers through laws and agreements, and sheepherders took their flocks to marginal and high altitude ranges that were unsuitable for cattle but where sheep did well. Land use was everywhere restricted, and the great sweep of open country that had once characterized the West became only a memory.

The terrible winters of 1885-86 and 1886-87 followed by a decade of desert-dry, scorching summers killed thousands of cattle on the Texas ranges. As a final blow to the profitability of the long drive, the Indians levied ever-higher charges on drives that crossed their land. To counter these developments, railroads branched from the main transcontinental lines into Texas and Oklahoma making it possible for cattle drovers to deliver their cattle to a local destination. All these factors combined to end the era of the long cattle drive by the mid-1880s.

Mexican ranchers had developed ranching techniques over many years that were adopted by Texans and then by Great Plains cattlemen and cowboys. Ranchers bred heftier, blooded stock and fenced them into controlled ranges where they could be fed, watered, and protected. Herds were restricted in size to avoid overgrazing the dry prairie. Cattle raising became a regular business. Easterners and even Europeans looking for speculative, profitable ventures began investing in cattle ranches, which had changed from an entrepreneurial-type enterprise of families or partners to a business dominated by urban investors.

Sometimes big ranchers fenced off enormous tracts of public grazing land at the expense of smaller ranchers. Small ranchers would cut the fences to allow their cattle access to grass. This led to the Fence-Cutters’ War of 1883-1884 that claimed several ranchers’ lives. Texas finally passed legislation that outlawed fence cutting. The occupation of cowboy became a permanent, stationary job rather than transient contract work. But the dangers, excitement, and stories of the West remained in the national consciousness as romantic folklore.

As with the farmers and sheepherders, ranchers slowly learned to live with one another either through mutual practices or, if all else failed, through legal action. To increase their political leverage with respect to the railroads and cattle buyers, the ranchers organized into groups, such as the Wyoming Stock-Growers’ Association, in order to make their collective voice heard in the state capitals. From the long drive to the legislature, the cattle business had come a long way.

Farming on the Plains

No less difficult, though less colorful and poetic, were the lives of the settlers. With the Homestead Act of 1862, a settler could claim as much as 160 acres (a quarter section) on the condition that he (occasionally she) lived on the land for five years, improved it, and paid a fee of $30. Alternatively, land could be bought after only six months’ residence at $1.25 per acre. Before the Homestead Act, government land was sold for revenue. After the Homestead Act, public land was literally given away to encourage settlement of the frontier with family farms, considered the mainstay of democracy. Western settlement would also create new markets for eastern manufactured goods.

By 1865, 20,000 pioneers had migrated west to stake a claim and carve a life from the wilderness. In the next 40 years, half a million more families became homesteaders. During that same time, however, over two million families purchased land from the railroads, land companies, or state governments. Homesteading was difficult since 160 acres on the dry plains were often not enough to support a family. The land was cheap, but livestock, equipment, and seed were expensive. It took a minimum of $1,000 to get started homesteading, which was a lot of money at the time.

The bane of the plains farmer was the weather. Temperature and moisture varied tremendously from year to year, and wind and hail could wipe out crops in an instant. Prairie fires and swarms of locusts added to the farmer’s burden. Unlike eastern farmers, the farmers of the West might not get a crop every year, and they had to be prepared to hang on and live a subsistence sort of life in the lean years. These brutal facts discouraged all but the hardiest pioneers.

Transportation to haul produce to market was expensive, and interest rates on loans and mortgages were high. Special plows and new machinery such as threshers and hay mowers all allowed a farmer to produce more, but the expense of the devices often put him into debt. As more grain was produced, prices fell, adding to the woes of the farmer. More than half the homesteaders who had headed west with such high hopes were forced to give up.

Much of the prairie was not suitable for farming at all, but was much better grazing land. The Homestead Act parceled out land in small lots, while cattle ranchers needed large tracts to run a successful operation. The Homestead Act forced ranchers to acquire land piecemeal as homesteaders gave up and sold out or as railroads sold their land to raise money to extend their tracks.

Unscrupulous companies often acquired the best timber and mineral properties through fraudulent practices including using “dummy” homesteaders and fake improvements. Much of the public domain land passed quickly from the original homesteaders to promoters, not farmers. The Federal policy of virtually free homestead land lasted until 1934, though as time went on, the land available became increasingly marginal.

Railroads had made it possible to sell crops at great distances, and farmers began to think in terms of a single cash crop rather than general farming to produce their families’ needs. Railroads benefited from this trade and sent agents to Europe to promote western settlement. Mennonites and other groups who had farmed on the Russian steppes in a climate and topography similar to the American plains brought valuable knowledge and experience with them to America. They also brought the Red Turkey strain of winter wheat, which was ideally suited to the region.

As farmers became more knowledgeable about raising crops in the severe conditions of the plains, they abandoned water-hungry crops such as corn and beans in favor of drought-resistant grains such as sorghum and wheat. A new flour-milling process developed by John S. Pillsbury of Minneapolis increased demand for grain.

Originally called the high plains desert, the prairie supported tough, water-conserving native grasses whose root systems often reached ten feet into the earth. This dense sod resisted being broken up for planting crops until special steel plows were developed. Farmers who used these plows were called sodbusters. Contrary to expectation, the prairie proved remarkably fertile. With no trees on the prairie, sodbusters used the tough sod to build their homes, burned corncobs and buffalo chips (dried manure) for cooking and heating, and fenced their land with barbed wire to keep cattle and other grazing animals out of their fields. Wood was so scarce and expensive on some parts of the prairie that roughly hewn limestone was used as fence posts for stringing barbed wire. By 1883, Joseph Glidden’s company was making 600 miles of his patented wire each day.

Heedless of the increasingly dry climate west of the 100th meridian, which runs through North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, settlers began tilling western Kansas, eastern Colorado, and Montana. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, a drought drove all but the most stubborn out. Dry farming techniques such as using a “lifter” to cultivate rather than a plow to break up the soil seemed to improve matters. But cultivation of any sort ground the surface to powder with devastating results later in the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.

Because there were fewer women than men on the frontier, women were treated more equitably than in other areas of the country. In many places, the ratio of men to women was more than 100 to 1. The scarcity of women accorded them privileges of owning property and conducting their own businesses, which women in the East could not do. With the wave of homesteaders, women worked side-by-side with men on the family farm. On the frontier, the harsh demands of wresting a living from the land forced men to accept women as equal partners in the pioneer endeavor.

Women settlers became more independent and found confidence in themselves and their ability to survive in difficult situations. For these reasons, the women’s rights movement was especially strong in the West. Women still faced prejudice and legal barriers, however, and everywhere women were subject to varying restrictions in owning and selling property and in bringing suit against people or companies who wronged them. Even in the West, it was not until the twentieth century that women could serve on juries, vote, or hold public office.

The Far West

In 1598 Juan de Oñate, the son of a wealthy Spanish mining family in Mexico, was given the rights to the unexplored territory north of the Rio Grande. He headed an expeditionary force into what is now New Mexico and founded the town of San Gabriel. Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries followed Oñate to convert the Indians, who were coaxed, bribed, and forced to accept Catholicism and a settled farming life. In the beginning there were troubles, including several Indian revolts that were brutally suppressed by the Spanish. Eventually the Indians became “pacified.” The country was rugged and no gold or silver was discovered, which greatly disappointed Oñate.

The Spanish considered abandoning New Mexico, but missionaries had baptized thousands of Indians and these new converts could not simply be deserted. New Mexico was made a Spanish province, and Spain sent a royal governor to administer the area. In 1610, when the first English colonists were struggling to survive at Jamestown, Spain established an official provincial capital in Santa Fe, making it the first seat of government in the present day United States. By 1630 there were 3,000 Spaniards in New Mexico and more than 50 churches and monasteries.

By 1680, the missionaries claimed to have converted over 80,000 Indians, but shortly thereafter the Indians revolted and forced the Spanish back south of the Rio Grande. After 14 years of fighting and four military campaigns, the Spanish retook New Mexico, which then remained peaceful for well over a century. Catholic friars also tried to establish missions in Arizona and Texas but met with greater resistance from the fierce Apache, Comanche, and Yuma tribes.

In the late 1700s, the Spanish began to colonize the coast of California as far north as what is now San Francisco. This colonization effort was pursued in response to Russian trading vessels extending their routes southward along the Pacific Coast from Alaska to barter for furs and other goods with the Indians. The Spanish had always considered California to be theirs, but now they had to develop the region in order to hold it.

A line of missions spaced a day’s journey apart was built stretching from San Diego to San Francisco Bay. The Spanish government supported the missions, and each was defended by a presidio, or military garrison. The Indians of the region were forced to accept Catholicism and to labor for the benefit of the missions. Believing they were saving the souls of the Indians, the Catholic friars insisted that disciplined work was essential to producing moral Christians. They therefore had no qualms about using any means to achieve baptism and regimentation of the Indians at the expense of their native religion and culture. Disease and unrelenting work took their toll on the Indians, and the native population along the California coast dropped from 70,000 to 18,000 after only 50 years of mission rule. According to mission reports, infant mortality among the native population was 75% and life expectancy for the remainder about 25 years.

In 1821, Mexico won independence from Spain. Thereafter, Mexico granted massive tracts of land, including the mission lands, to individuals called rancheros who lived in a grand, almost feudal style. The culture of California at that time was very similar to the plantation culture of the South, but with distinctly Spanish overtones in social structure, religion, and architecture. Another difference was that while the southern states were part of the federal system of the United States and thus acted somewhat independently until the Civil War, California was ruled by a governor appointed in Mexico City. In the Spanish tradition, regional governors had nearly the power of a king and were answerable only to those who appointed them. Tyranny and corruption were common, which bred conflict with the people. From the date of Mexican independence in 1821 to the Mexican Cession in 1848, Californians revolted ten times against despotic governors.

The change of government and of masters did not, unfortunately, improve the circumstance of the Indians whose death rate continued to be twice as high as for slaves in the Deep South. Though not slaves in the sense that they could be bought or sold, the Indians lived no better than feudal serfs tied to the land for generations. Those who tried to leave were hunted down and punished.

American traders and entrepreneurs began to arrive in California by ship in the early 1800s. In the beginning they followed the “hide and tallow” trade. Hides for leather goods and tallow for candles were purchased from the rancheros and loaded onto sailing ships for the long journey around the southern tip of South America. Soon Anglos, or English-speakers, established permanent outposts to buy and store hides and tallow until a ship arrived. The fabled beauty, fertility, mild climate, and opportunity of California began to be known among Americans, and the hardiest of pioneer traders and settlers made the dangerous trek overland on the Santa Fe Trail to live or trade in Spanish provinces.

With the ousting of the Spanish from Mexico, even more Anglos headed for the southwest, precipitating in many areas a struggle for dominance with the Mexican population, most notably in Texas. By 1848, Americans made up half of the non-Indian population in Mexican-held North America. With the Mexican Cession in 1848 following Mexico’s defeat at the hands of the Americans, the U.S. acquired not only a vast tract of land from Texas to California, but also Indian and Hispanic populations numbering tens of thousands. There were 13,000 Hispanics in California alone. At a stroke, all these people became Americans, willingly or not.

After the discovery of gold in 1848 at Sutter’s Mill, an estimated 100,000 “Forty-niners” overwhelmed the Californians who had hoped to hold onto their land, culture, and political structure through the transition. In resentment, many Californians supported the South during the Civil War. By 1870, a great deal of the original Hispanic culture in California and the southwest had disappeared, though Spanish was still spoken in parts of the southwest and many traditions and practices persisted in New Mexico. Place names, such as Los Angeles (The Angels) and Las Vegas (The Stars), and a distinctive mission style of architecture permanently memorialize the first Spanish settlers in the Far West.

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Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Cattle, Frontiers, and Farming" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 26 May. 2024. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/topics/cattle-frontiers-and-farming/>.