Cattle & Cowboys

Texas Longhorn

Texas Longhorn

We’ve all seen the Hollywood recreations of the old west cattle drive.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, moving cattle was part of a major industry in the United States.  The films depict cowboys moving thousands of cattle several hundred to a thousand miles over rough terrain to stockyards or railheads.  The men involved in these drives endure drenching rain, flooded rivers, burning sun, force winds, dark nights, hostile Indians, and in a few instances, cattle rustlers.  The cattle are usually shown as Texas longhorns, a breed of animal that developed from feral Andalusian stock in South Texas.  The longhorn has become a Texas icon.  Today, the Longhorn is a favored mascot of American high-schools and universities —twenty-four in Texas alone— and we find the image or silhouette of the animal’s head depicted on football helmets, t-shirts, and sweaters.  The Texas Longhorn is a symbol of an adventurous period in southwest history; it projects the image of power, strong will, and the fierce independence we most associate with the western pioneer, trail blazer, and six-gun toting, leather chapped cowboy.

The Andalusian cow was brought to the American continent by Spanish settlers 350 years ago.  Living wild in the area of present-day South Texas, the animal developed a body and stubborn temperament that allowed it to survive in the harsh environment of the Texas plain.  The animal has formed a resistance to splenic fever [1], had a high reproductive rate, less muscle fat and less saturated fat than other types of beef.  Its marbled beef (low in cholesterol) made the Longhorn renowned for the quality of its meat, and this made Longhorn beef highly desirable.  In the late 1800s, enterprising ranchers experimented with the Longhorn by mixing it with European beef and American bison.  After 1888, the numbers of Texas Longhorn cattle declined, but when ranchers learned that the Longhorn produced comparably superior beef, efforts were made to reestablish the animal after the 1920s.

Texas Longhorn cattle are a strong and sturdy animal capable of enduring great distances.  They are also known for their aggressive and temperamental character.  No cowpoke wanted to pursue a Longhorn into dense mesquite shrub, particularly if the animal didn’t want to rejoin the herd.  With a horn span measure from four to six feet from tip to tip, many a cowpony and its rider met an unhappy fate from an angry Longhorn.  The Longhorn’s temperament is one reason old west cattle drives were so dangerous.  Herding cattle was far more involved than simply pointing them in a direction and shouting, “git along little doggie.”

Cowboys [2] didn’t all perform the same function on the cattle drive.  Essentially, the various jobs (positions) were trail boss, point rider, swing rider, flank rider, drag rider, wrangler, and cook [3].  An experienced trail boss would have served in all these positions (except cook).  The trail boss was responsible for plotting the day’s course, designating breaks along the way, deciding on watering holes, and the locations of campsites.  He also supervised branding, made decisions about what to do with injured animals, newborn calves, and anyone they met along the trail.

Point riders set the pace for the day and herded the cattle in the direction the trail boss selected.  Long drives and large herds might employ more than a single point rider.  We would find swing riders about a third of the way back in the herd —at least two.  Their job was to keep the herd bunched in transit and to help the point rider turn the herd.  Swing riders were constantly preventing animals from breaking away from the herd.  An animal trying to make a break would be caught and turned back to the herd.  A swing-rider would be called to the point whenever the point rider was called away.  Flank riders (usually two) would ride two-thirds of the way to the back of the herd.  Their main job was to back up the swing rider and keep the herd from fanning out too far in the center of the formation.  Drag rider was the least desired position on the cattle drive. His job was to keep pushing cattle forward and rounding up strays.  Drag riders inhaled the dust kicked up by thousands of cattle —which probably explains the relative short life expectancy of cowhands [4].  The average pay for stockmen working a trail drive ranged from between $120.00 a month (trail boss) to $40.00 a month for the drovers.  The men were paid at the end of the trail drive, when the cattle were sold.

Trail drives took a long time.  Although Longhorn cattle could move 25 miles in a day, such a pace would cause them to lose weight (and lose their value) while on the drive.  To keep the cattle fat, the point man set a pace of between eleven and fifteen miles per day.  After several days of travel, the trail boss would rest the animals for a day or two at a location suitable for grazing and water.  A drive of 1,000 miles would take several months.

There were four primary cattle trails that led from Texas to northern rail heads.  The earliest of these was the Shawnee (1840s-1865), which took an easterly course skirting Oklahoma (Indian territory) and ending in St. Louis, St. Joseph, or Kansas City.  The Goodnight-Loving Trail struck west from Texas to New Mexico, and into Colorado.  Rail heads were located at Pueblo, Colorado and Denver.  Some drives extended into Wyoming.  The Chisolm Trail was a northerly course from Fort Worth through Oklahoma into either Abilene or Ellsworth, Kansas.  The Chisholm Trail was a popular route from around 1867 to 1887.  The last important trail drive was called the Great Western, which began in South Texas into the western edge of Oklahoma, through Kansas, and into Nebraska, popular between 1875 and 1885.  In each case, however, closed ranges made cattle drives increasingly more difficult and set into motion such conflicts as the Fence Cutting Wars [5].

Oliver Loving

Oliver Loving

One of the famous old west trail bosses was a son of Hopkins County, Kentucky —a man named Oliver Loving.  Oliver was born on 4 December 1812.  His parents were Joseph and Susannah (Bourland) Loving.  At the age of 21-years, Oliver was farming in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky and did so for ten years.  In 1843, Oliver, his brother, and his brother-in-law relocated to Texas with their families.  In Texas, Oliver acquired 640 acres of land that extended through three counties: Collin, Dallas, and Parker.  He farmed that land to feed his growing family and earned extra money hauling freight.  He was married to Susan Doggett Morgan Loving, whom he married in 1833.  They were still married when he died in 1867.

Parker County TX

Location of Parker County, Texas

In 1855, Oliver established a cattle ranch along the Keechi Creek in present-day Palo Pinto County.  At the same time, he opened a general store in Parker County [6] in a town that would become known as Weatherford, Texas.  The ranch was a successful enterprise; by 1857, Oliver Loving owned a thousand acres and a sizeable herd of cattle.  He drove some number of these out of Texas and, at the same time, he entrusted his 19-year old son Joseph to drive an additional number of his and his neighbor’s cattle to Illinois via the Shawnee Trail.  Loving’s profit was $36 per head, successful enough that he repeated the drive in 1858 in a partnership with John Durkee.

In 1860, Loving teamed up with John Dawson and started a herd of 1,500 cattle toward Denver, Colorado (roughly 800 miles) where cattle were in high demand to feed prospectors and miners.  After selling off the herd, Loving intended to return to his home in Texas, but by then the Civil War had broken out and Union authorities initially prevented him from doing so.  With the intervention of Colonel Christopher Houston “Kit” Carson [7], Loving was eventually allowed to return to his home.  Back in Texas, Loving accepted a commission to provide beef to the Confederate States Army.  At the end of the war, the confederacy owed Loving around $200,000.00 —which he never collected.  In the post-war period (1865-66), Loving suffered financially, along with other Texas cattlemen; they had more cattle than they could sell in the face of diminished markets.

Charles Goodnight

Charles Goodnight

In 1866, Loving learned that there was a demand for cattle at Fort Sumner, New Mexico where 8,000 reservation-bound Indians were in desperate need of meat.  Loving assembled a herd, combined it with that of Charlie Goodnight [8], and began the long drive to Fort Sumner.  This route later became known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail.  The drive of these 2,000 cattle to Fort Sumner netted Loving and Goodnight $12,000 in gold.  Goodnight remained in the New Mexico territory while Loving moved unsold cattle to Denver, Colorado.

Goodnight and Loving reunited in southern New Mexico and formed a partnership with John Chisum [9] at Bosque Grande in the New Mexico Territory, some 40 miles south of Fort Sumner.  John Chisum’s sister Nancy was married to Loving’s cousin, B. F. Bourland.  The three men spent the winter of 1866-67 at Chisum’s ranch, providing cattle to Fort Sumner and Santa Fe.

John S. Chisum

John S. Chisum

In the Spring of 1867, Loving and Goodnight returned to Texas with plans to begin a new drive.  Once the cattle were formed, however, heavy rains and Indian hostilities slowed their progress across the southern plain.  Loving rode ahead of the herd to arrange contract bidding, taking with him an experienced point man and scout called One-arm Bill Wilson.  Given the presence of hostiles, Wilson advised Loving to proceed at night, but Loving insisted that they push on during the day.

Several days later, a Comanche war party attacked Loving and Wilson at a bend on the Pecos River.  While killing several of their attackers, Loving received a serious wound in his arm during the initial engagement.  A lethal standoff then began that would last five days.  In the dead of night on the second day, Loving sent Wilson into the river to escape the Indians with the expectation that Wilson would be able to reach the Goodnight camp and bring reinforcements.  Although successfully holding off the Indians, Loving experienced high fever and a substantial loss of blood.  He finally slipped into the river and made his escape.  After a few days on foot, Loving was discovered by Mexican traders, who transported him to Fort Sumner.

Wilson made it back to Goodnight on foot, starving and dehydrated.  After Wilson reported the incident, Charlie proceeded immediately to Fort Sumner where he found Loving in the care of an alcoholic army medical doctor.  Despite the urgings of Goodnight and Wilson, the surgeon refused to undertake the amputation of Loving’s gangrenous arm.  Before Oliver Loving died on 25 September 1867, Goodnight promised to return his body to Texas.  Before he could do that, though, Goodnight had to finish driving the cattle to Colorado. Goodnight had Loving’s wooden casket set inside a metal container fashioned from 42-gallon capacity oil drums, packed it with charcoal, and temporarily buried him at Fort Sumner.  As promised, and with the assistance of Oliver’s son Joseph, Charlie Goodnight returned Loving’s remains to Weatherford for burial.  Oliver Loving was interred at the Greenwood Cemetery on 4 March 1868.

The story of Oliver Loving and Charlie Goodnight formed the basis of author/screen writer Larry McMurtry’s popular series, Lonesome Dove, published in 1985 with a television miniseries following in 1994.  The miniseries starred Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall.  Jones’ character was Woodrow F. Call (a Charlie Goodnight type character) while Duvall played Augustus McCrae, who was in many ways like the real Oliver Loving.  Incorporating the reality of western life, Lonesome Dove may be the best western fiction ever written.


  1. Skaggs, J. M. The Cattle-Trailing Industry: Between Supply and Demand, 1876-1890.  University of Kansas Press, 1973.
  2. Dykstra, R. R. The Cattle Towns.  University of Nebraska Press, 1983.
  3. Handbook of Texas Online, Donald E. Worcester: “Longhorn Cattle”; “Chisholm Trail”.
  4. Worcester, D. E. The Chisholm Trail.  University of Nebraska Press, 1980.
  5. Adams, A. The Log of a Cowboy: A Narrative of the Old Trail Days.  Houghton, Mifflin, 1903 (available online).
  6. Johnson, F. W. Oliver Loving: Texas Cattleman.  A History of Texas and Texans, Volume V, American Historical Society, 1916
  7. Hedstrom-Page, D. From Ranch to Railhead with Charles Goodnight.  B&H Publishing Group, 2007.
  8. Caldwell, C. R. John Simpson Chisum, The Cattle King of the Pecos Revisited.  Santa Fe: Sunstone Books, 2010.


[1] Splenic fever (also known as anthrax) is a serious bacterial infection common to cattle, sheep, horses, mules, and other feral animals.

[2] A word re-invented by Hollywood film producers.  In the mid-1800s, the term “cowboy” had a derogative meaning, something on the order of scoundrel, saddle tramp, thug, gangster, thief, murderer, and terrorist.  People who worked with cattle were referred to as cowpokes, cowmen, cowhands, stockmen, or drovers.  A drover would take offense to anyone referring to him as a cowboy.

[3] According to scholars of the old west, the trail-drive cook was far different from how he is portrayed in Hollywood films, which is usually a feeble old man who is an unreliable flake.  In truth, the camp cook was one of the toughest hands on the cattle drive.  He was the first to awaken to prepare breakfast, and the last to bed down at night.  The chuck wagon didn’t follow the herd, it led the herd and set up the camp site in advance of the herd’s arrival.  If an animal required butchering, the cook did it.  It also helped if he could prepare good food.  The cook was also in charge of ammunition storage, toolbox, cash, and medical supplies.  In ranking, the cook was second only to the trail boss, whom he would replace if necessary.

[4] Some scholars say that the average life-expectancy of old west cowhands was 24-27 years.  Many of these fellows died from falling from their horses.

[5] See also: The Texas Fence Cutting Wars; Ira Aten, Texas Ranger.

[6] Parker County was established in 1855, named in honor of Isaac Parker, a member of the Texas legislature, veteran of the War of 1812 who later served Texas in the Texas Brigade during the Civil War.  The county seat is Weatherford, named in honor of State Senator Thomas J. Weatherford.

[7] For additional information on Kit Carson, see: The First Battle of Adobe Wells.

[8] Scholars suggest that Charlie Goodnight was a real-life composite of every character ever played by the popular western actor John Wayne.  He was rugged, quiet, hard-working, accomplished, and despite a preference of justice over the rule of law, a good and decent man.  Before the Civil War, Goodnight worked as a cowhand, fought Comanche in a local militia, and served as a Texas Ranger.  Among his many accomplishments, Charlie Goodnight invented the chuck wagon.  Before then, cowhands carried their food in their saddlebags.

[9] John Chisum was another character played on screen by actor John Wayne.  In real life, Chisum arrived in Texas in 1837, started a cattle ranch in 1854, and was the first rancher to drive large herds of cattle into the New Mexico Territory.  His ranch at Bosque Grande was situated along the Pecos River.  He eventually owned about 100,000 head of cattle, prompting him to form a partnership with Oliver Loving and Charlie Goodnight.  Chisum was involved with Alexander McSween in the Lincoln County War in 1878 and an opponent of the famed William F. Bonney (a.k.a. Billy the Kid).

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in History. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Cattle & Cowboys

  1. Andy says:

    Superb article! My great-grandfather, quite a colorful character in his own right, was on the last cattle drive from South Texas. After that, cattle were moved by rail. The article mentioned that the desire for beef waned a times. In part, this was because the cost of pork and sheep was less, and more available, than that of been.


    • Mustang says:

      Fascinating about your great-grandfather. I hope you are writing the story of your family, which appears rich in Texas history, and passing it down to your children and grand-children. Good insight about competing livestock, as well. Thanks for chiming in.


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