The Cattle Trade and Cowboys

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The Cattle Trade
Open ranching of cattle started in Mexico, which also included Texas until 1836.
Texas rebelled against Mexican rule in 1836, and entered the USA in 1840. Many
Mexicans were driven out, leaving their cattle to Anglo-American ranchers.
The Anglo-Americans brought their own cattle with them, some descended from English
Longhorns. Their cattle interbred with Mexican Criollos cattle to produce the most
famous breed in the world ­ the Texas Longhorn.
Increased popularity of beef in the 1850s made it worthwhile to drive cattle to the
eastern markets, but the real Beef Bonanza and the great trails awaited two more
factors ­ the American Civil War and the railways.
Many Texans left their ranches to fight for the South in the Civil War. Whilst away their
cattle continued to breed. Charles Goodnight left 180 cattle in 1860, but returned in
1865 to find he owned 5000.
As the railways spread across the Plains men like Joseph McCoy (the original "Real
McCoy") saw money to be made in moving beef cattle by rail to the eastern cities and
Indian reservations. McCoy built up the cattle town of Abilene on the Kansas Pacific
Railroad. Ranchers like Oliver Loving and Charles Goodnight blazed trails to the railway
cattle towns ­ and made fortunes.
Conflict between the Cattlemen and the Homesteaders
Longhorn cattle carried a tick which in turn carried a disease called Texas Fever. The tough
longhorns were immune to it but the homesteaders' cattle were not. This meant
homesteaders often lost cattle when herds were driven across their land.
Lack of wood for fences meant early farmsteads were cordoned off by a single ploughed
furrow. This wasn't too cow-proof, so many crops were also destroyed by passing herds.
From 1874 the invention of barbed wire made stock-proof fencing cheap. Homesteaders
fenced their land reducing cattlemen's access to water and making long cattle drives
much harder.
The End of the Beef Bonanza
Some ranches were set up on the Great Plains to reduce the distance that cattle had to
be driven. This increased conflict with the homesteaders.
The Eastern markets began to demand a higher quality of meat than the longhorn could
provide. Cattlemen like John Iliff started crossbreeding them with Herefords ­ but the
new cattle needed more care than could be given on the open range.
The herds became too big for the grazing areas. Hard winters also sped up the decline by
killing large numbers of cattle (esp. 1886-87). Many cowboys also died.
But the decline didn't stop vast commercial empires being built by the cattle barons.

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Large numbers of cowboys were Mexican or African Americans. Some were ex-soldiers
from the Civil War, some were outlaws.
Most Cowboys were young and single. They had little time for a family life.
A tiny number of women took to ranching in their own right. The Becker sisters ran a
ranch in San Luis Valley in the 1880s.
Boredom and discomfort were part of the job. Winters were spent watching the cattle
from line camps on the edges of the ranch.…read more


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