Cattle Folk

Big horns, big ranches, and even bigger legends.

"All the cattle in the world seemed to be coming up out of Texas."

Teddy Blue Abbott, cowboy, 1883


A New Breed

Somewhere in Mexico in the 1500s, cattle from Spanish stock meandered north to graze. They had longer horns than most cattle, often spanning six feet, and were lean bordering on bony. As they wandered across the frontier, they met sturdy, speckled-coated British-bred cattle moving west from the eastern U.S coasts. Nature took its course, and by the 1800s, a new breed of strong, hardy, disease-resistant Longhorn cattle roamed the Texas frontier by the millions.

Just after the Civil War, longhorn beef sold for about $1.50 per head in overstocked Texas, but in the burgeoning cities on the east and west coasts, the coveted meat went for $30.00 to $40.00 per head. Texas ranchers could make huge profits by moving their herds north on the now-famous trails that stretched from far south Texas to the Kansas railroad towns. From the 1860s to the late 1880s, cowboys herded over ten million cattle to market on the controlled chaos of a trail drive. Hard to believe that all that legendary Texas cattle history happened in a mere 20 years.


Not Really John Wayne

For the most part, Hollywood got it wrong when it came to cowboys.

The celluloid myth and the dusty reality were often miles apart. Unlike the tall and swaggering John Wayne version, most real cowboys on the Texas frontier were young, lean, and medium-sized. They were also African American, white, Hispanic, and sometimes  female. They usually didn't own the horses they rode, but they did own the good saddles they sat in for countless days and nights at a time. Real cowboys usually left whatever firearms they had in the chuck wagon with the cook. It didn't pay to strap on a loaded gun when riding flat out to rope a renegade steer. If they were lucky and got steady work with a ranch, cowboys could make today's equivalent of about $300 a year. Hollywood did get a few things right about real cowboys, however: they were skilled, loyal, and a little rowdy.


In character, their like never was or will be again. They were intensely loyal to the outfit they were working for and would fight to the death for it. They would follow their wagon boss through hell and never complain. I have seen them ride into camp after two days and nights on herd, lay down on their saddle blankets in the rain, and sleep like dead men, they get up laughing and joking about some good time they had in Ogallala or Dodge City. Living that kind of life, they were bound to be wild and brave. In fact, there was only two things the old time cowpuncher was afraid of – a decent woman and being set afoot. Teddy Blue Abbott

Cattle for a Capitol

Say the name Charlie Goodnight, or mention the King Ranch or the Chisolm Trail, and you'll still conjure up the heat and dust of the Old West days. Visions of the Texas legislature, an investment syndicate from Chicago, a member of the British Parliament and an architect from Detroit aren't quite as romantic, but from that collaboration came one of the grand legends of the state’s cattle heritage: the XIT Ranch.

In 1875, it was proposed that the great state of Texas needed a new capitol building. Short on cash, the state legislature instead set aside 3,050,000 million acres in the Panhandle as payment. An investment syndicate from Chicago, with the backing of wealthy and titled British investors, accepted the proposal in 1882 and began surveying the lands of present-day DallamHartleyOldhamDeaf SmithParmerCastroBaileyLambCochran, and Hockley counties. The land appeared adequate for raising cattle, and by 1885, barbed wire fenced the acres known as the XIT Ranch and the first 2,500 head of longhorn cattle arrived in Dallam County. Back in Austin, Detroit architect Elijah E. Myers's sunset red granite capitol building was rising from the ground.

The most accepted version of how the XIT Ranch got its name is that cowboy Abner P. Blocker, who drove those first longhorn herds to the ranch, created “XIT” as a brand that cattle rustlers couldn’t alter easily. Other theories are that the name stood for the “ten in Texas” (counties) that made up the ranch. No one is really sure, though, and that just adds to the legend.

At its peak, the XIT ranch had 1,000 horses, 6,000 miles of barbed wire fence, over 100,000 head of cattle, and 150 cowboys.

The ranch’s African American and white cowboys as well as Hispanic vaqueros spent their days checking and mending fences, branding new cattle, and moving herds in search of water. Nights were often spent patrolling the land for cattle rustlers and wolves. When the annual cattle drives began, life got even harder.

Awful night...not having a bit to eat for 60 hours. Tired. Oh! What a night. Thunder lightning and rain. We followed our beeves all night as they wandered about. We hauled cattle out of the mud with oxen half the day. My back is blistered bad. Found a human skeleton on the prairie today. George Duffield, cowboy 1880s

Margaret Borland

Most everything about raising and ranching cattle was difficult, except for making money. At least for a while. In the mid-1800s, cattle ranching was becoming big business in Texas and wealthy cattle barons like Charles Goodnight and Richard King were known from coast to coast. Not all the successful ranchers in Texas were dust-covered, mustachioed men, however. Lizzie Johnson, Molly Goodnight, and Margaret Borland were just a few of the frontier women known to run ranches as well as they handled herds.

Margaret Borland stepped off the boat from Ireland in 1829 and was plunged into Texas history right as it happened. Her father was killed during a Comanche raid at the height of President Mirabeau B. Lamar's punitive Indian policy. Legend has it that she was spared at the Goliad massacre by posing as a Mexican child and speaking near-perfect Spanish. She and her third husband partnered to build one of the largest ranches on the Texas coast during the state's cattle kingdom glory, and toward the end of her life, Margaret created an enduring legacy along the Chisholm Trail.

After the death of her husband in 1867, Margaret became the sole owner and manager of a large ranch and 8,000 longhorns.

By 1873, she had enlarged the herd to 10,000 head. Margaret calculated the profit of selling her cattle for a paltry $8.00 a head in San Antonio versus $23.80 in Kansas. Although she had never "trailed" before, Margaret saddled up as the first-ever female trail boss and led 1,000 longhorns, numerous cowboys, her own three children and one grandchild up the Chisholm Trail and right into cattle folk history.

"Mrs. T.M. Borland of Texas, with three children, is stopping at the Planter house. She is the happy possessor of about one thousand head of cattle, and accompanied the herd all the way from its starting point to this place, giving evidence of a pluck and business tact far superior to many of the 'lords.'"

- Wichita Beacon newspaper, June 4, 1873


Unfortunately, hers was a short history. One month after Margaret Borland's incredible Chisolm Trail journey, the newspaper shared this sad news with its readers:

"We regret to announce the painful news that Mrs. Borland, the widow lady who came up with her own herd of cattle about two months ago, bringing with her three little children, died at the Planter house Saturday evening with mania, superinduced by her long, tedious journey and over taxation of the brain. Her affairs are in the hands of her own kin and also her children. Everything was done by relatives and friends to smooth the rapid current of dark rolling river."

- Wichita Beacon newspaper, July 5, 1873

Margaret's cattle were left behind in Kansas when her family returned to Texas.

Sizing Up Reality

During the close of the 19th century, many small-scale ranchers lost their dreams and their shirts as hard times and inevitable change rolled through the Texas frontier. Barbed wire fences broke up the grazing lands and effectively ended open-range ranching. Trail drives became obsolete as railroad cars trundled cattle from Texas to big city markets on both coasts. Droughts, blizzards, fires, and predators wiped out herds across the state. Prices for beef plunged when Texas longhorns were quarantined as carriers of tick fever. The times had changed. Many ranchers and cowboys alike sized up the new reality of the cattle kingdom. Then they knocked the trail dust from their boots, hung up their ropes, and rode off the range into new lives elsewhere.

Launch Master Timeline

Cattle Folk Timeline

1730Cows Are Coming!

The Spanish brought cattle to New Spain soon after they began colonization in the 1500s. The first cattle arrived in Texas in the 1690s. By the 1730s, missionaries were operating cattle ranches around San Antonio and Goliad. Within a few decades, individual ranchers like Martin de León began to build large operations. De León had some 5,000 cattle by 1816.

1830Steaming to New Orleans

Anglo settlers who arrived in Texas in the 1830s brought with them the skills for farming, but many were enticed by cattle ranching instead. In 1837, Charles Morgan established the first steamship line in Texas to transport Texas cattle from the Gulf of Mexico to markets in New Orleans and the West Indies.

1840The Shawnee Trail

In the 1840s, during the Republic of Texas era, individual ranchers organized cattle drives to New Orleans. They also established the Shawnee Trail to Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa, where they could place the cattle on rail cars to be transported to the big markets in New York and Philadelphia.

1850Gold Rush Cattle Drives

When the California gold rush began in 1849, Texas ranchers organized cattle drives to provide food for the "Forty-Niners." The drives left from San Antonio and Fredericksburg and took a perilous six-month journey through El Paso to San Diego and Los Angeles. The California cattle drives ended after the market there went bust in 1857.

1860Money on the Hoof

In the 1860s, the center of Texas cattle ranching shifted from South Texas to the frontier northwest of Fort Worth. Here settlers from Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky, and Arkansas established new ranches in the rough brush country. These settlers, many of whom opposed secession, faced vigilante violence during the Civil War, but eventually expanded the cattle business into a true industry.

1863Mavericks on the Loose

Early in the Civil War, Texas ranchers supplied the Confederate army with beef. Federal troops seized control of the Mississippi River and New Orleans in 1863, cutting Texas off from its southern markets. With most men involved in the war, cattle were left to roam. By 1865, there were thousands of unbranded "maverick" cattle throughout the state.

1866The Chisholm Trail

The economic devastation of the South after the Civil War meant Texas ranchers had to look elsewhere for profitable markets. In the North and East, cattle that were worth just $4 a head in Texas could be sold for $40. The challenge was getting them there. Cow folk and their cattle traveled the famed Chisholm Trail that crossed the Red River and headed into Kansas in order to reach the rail heads that could take the cattle to market.

1869 Fencing Laureles

Pennsylvania-born Mifflin Kenedy began sheep ranching in Texas after the Mexican-American War of 1846. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Kenedy made his move into cattle ranching with the purchase of Laureles Ranch near Corpus Christi. Kenedy fenced his ranch with smooth wire in 1869, marking the beginning of enclosed ranching in Texas. In 1907, Laureles was incorporated into the mighty King Ranch.

1873Panic of 1873

As the United States recovered from the Civil War, the nation's industrial capacity developed at a revolutionary pace. The overheated economy crashed in the Panic of 1873, causing the value of cattle to plummet. The resulting depression caused many cattle ranchers to go bankrupt and temporarily sidelined the industry.

1874Closing the Range

Beginning in 1868, a series of patents was issued to several inventors for strong, mass-produced fencing made from interlocking strands of wire, outfitted with sharp barbs that discouraged even the toughest cattle from muscling through it. In 1876, two salesman demonstrated barbed wire in the Alamo Plaza in San Antonio. Within a few years, the simple, revolutionary invention had ended the open range.

1875Red River War

The cattle drives faced the constant threat of attack by American Indians. In a series of battles known as the Red River War, the U.S. Army defeated a large force of Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Comanche at Palo Duro Canyon, by capturing and killing their horses. Without their ability to make war, the Indians were forced to relocate to reservations in Oklahoma, opening up the Staked Plains to cattle ranching.

1880Put 'Em on Ice

Two factors ended the legendary cattle drives. By 1879, the railroads had fully extended their reach into Texas, with 2,440 miles of track. The next year saw the first patent for refrigerated railcars, meaning meat no longer needed to be transported "on the hoof." The Chisolm Trail was obsolete and the Texas cattle industry entered a new era.

1883Fence Cutting War

Landless cattle ranchers worked the remains of the open range, but often found their access to water and grass blocked by barbed wire. Landowners sometimes fenced land regardless of whether they held the title. Armed bands of cowboys cut through barbed wire, causing millions in damages. The conflict subsided when ranch owners were ordered to install gates every three miles.

1883When the Cowboys Quit

In an non-violent walkout aimed at five ranches, Texas cowboys protested the new practice of being paid in cash instead of cattle. The strike ended with a slight pay increase but no return to a livestock-based salary system. The cowboy life was a hard one, with most men moving on after just a couple of years.

1886The Great Die-Up

Two devastating blizzards in the winter of 1886 stunned cattle ranchers. Before barbed wire, cattle's free roaming ways had usually enabled them to survive such storms, but now they were stranded behind their fences and died before ranchers could reach them with feed. Combined with falling cattle prices and overgrazing, the winter of 1886 dealt such a blow to the ranchers that it became known as "The Great Die-Up."

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