Chapter 17: Section 3

The Cattle Kingdom by Shaleen Thiengmany


Open Range-Unfenced land

Cattle Drive-Herding and moving of cattle over long distances

Vaquero-The Spanish word for cowhand, or cowboy

Cow Town-Settlement at the end of a cattle trail

Cattle Kingdom-The region dominated by the cattle industry and its ranches, trails, and cow towns

The Rise of the Cattle Industry

  • Texas longhorns are known to wander the open range, surviving on prairie grass and watering holes.
  • Herds of cattle grew from strays lost by Spanish ranchers. American settlers came and created new ranches without herding the stray cattle since they did not sell to distant markets. Once railroads were built across the Plains, ranchers had a way to meet the demand for beef.
  • Ranchers began to round up the cattle in the 1860s. To do this, they hired cowhands that moved cattle into rail lines in Kansas, Missouri, and Wyoming. Spring was a good time to begin cattle drives. The work was very demanding, so cowhands would bring multiple horses to alternate each day. Drives lasted as long as 2-3 months, carrying around 600,000 cattle north a year.

Life on the Trail

  • Life on the trail was hard and dangerous.
  • Andy Adams was one of the cowhands that drove cattle north. Cowhands were responsible for keeping herds together while handling the stress. Their job was also very risky, having to deal with lightning, swift river currents, grass fires, and thieves. They would spend around 18 hours a day in a saddle only to be paid less than $1. Cow hands were low-paid laborers.
  • Cowhands owed a lot to Spanish and Mexican vaqueros who tended cattle on ranches in Mexico, California, and the Southwest. Americans began to learn how to heard cattle from vaqueros. Cowboys wore some of the same clothing as vaqueros and the same terminology. About 1/3 of all western cowhands were Mexican while others were African American and Civil War veterans.

The Wild West

  • Cattle drives ended at towns that created the fantasy of the Wild West.
  • In 1867, Joseph McCoy was an Illinois business man who realized the needs of cowhands once they finished their journey. McCoy founded he first cow town: Abilene, Kansas. With the money gained from cow towns, rival cow towns formed along rail lines. Dance halls, saloons, hotels, and restaurants are available to cowhands leading to the popular gunfights of the time.
  • The rough life in cow towns lead to the myth that the West was a place of violence, adventure, and endless opportunity that Easterns call "the Wild West." William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, a former buffalo hunter, created a Wild West show in 1883. Cowboys and Native Americans performed action-packed shows. Also, Annie Oakley broke the women stereotype with her precise shooting skills. There is some truth to the myth of the Wild West, but the West was also changing. Native Americans were forced into reservations, mining/ranching were big businesses, independent miners were becoming wage owners, and wild cows were being tamed by settlers.

Boom and Bust in the Cattle Kingdom

  • The cattle boom lasted from the 1860s to the 1880s when ranchers made large profits as herds and markets grew.
  • At the height of the cattle boom, ranchers could buy a calf for $5 and sell a steer for $60. The profits were still high after a cattle drive and its expenses. Profits rose even higher as new breeds of cattle were introduced. These breeds were less likely to catch disease, so backers from East and Europe invested millions in huge cattle companies.
  • By the mid-1880s, over 7 million cattle, more than the plants could feed, roamed the open range. Beginning in 1886 and 1887, millions of cattle died in the hot summers and cold winters. The economic depression put city dwellers out of work and dropped the demand for beef. Unfortunately, sheep competed against cattle for grass on the Plains. Farmers fenced out cows, so ranchers had to buy expensive feed. Giant cattle ranches slowly became smaller spread that grew their own feed. Railroad lines moved closer to ranches, and large roundups/long cattle drives vanished. The cattle boom ended.