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Texas Cattle Trails

Texas Cattle Trails

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Texas Cattle Trails

by Jean Caddell


The Cattle Kingdom & Cattle Boom    Cattle Boom in Ellis County    Cattle Trails in Ellis County


Cattle Trails were very important to the early economy of Ellis County and all the central plains area of Early Texas. Going back to the first settlers in the 1840's, we find that many of them obtained large grants of land, and with the crude equipment and horses, mules or oxen for their power, only a very small amount could be broken out for farming and gardens. The rest was very good grass with springs and streams in many areas to furnish plentiful water for stock, as well as the settlers. Hand dug wells in some parts of the county would begin filling at 20 to 30 feet. The valleys often had shallow underground water, which kept the meadows green – sometimes throughout the winter. One winter, I told my sister, who lives on the high plains of Texas, that I was mowing our lawn, which is native bermuda, in January. This was hard for her to believe, but we often have the wild rye from the pastures to seed our yard and keep it green most of the winter. If there is good fall and winter moisture, the cattle are able to graze throughout the winter.

A valley eight miles southeast of Waxahachie, where the community of Nash is located between Big Onion and Little Onion Creek, was called the Garden valley by the first settlers because it was such a fertile and beautiful valley with two springs of water. These springs served for water for the community for many years.

Most people brought a few head of stock with them, at least a milk cow tied behind their wagon, and many drove several head of horses, cattle or sheep. So the valley was used for grazing until they could cultivate more land. Many decided to use most of their land for stock, especially in the rougher areas of the south and southwestern part of Ellis County, where the topsoil is shallow and not suitable for crops, but water also is shallow and abundant. Many large ranches still exist in this area, as well as in bordering Hill and Johnson Counties.

One example of this was Judge E. M. Brack, one of the first permanent settlers in the Boz area on Greathouse Creek. He built his house at Machett (now sometimes called Brack Spring), and cultivated a small area where the Greathouse Cemetery now stands today. He brought several slaves and used them to help in the raising of livestock and produce wool. " Ad valorem tax records and census data note that he owned about 900 acres as well as 375 cattle and 450 sheep. The abundant grasslands of the Blackland Prairies that extended through Ellis County were ideal for ranching, and Brack apparently was among the first to raise livestock in the county. At that time, there were no roads in western Ellis County, just a cow trail leading from Greathouse Branch northeast to Waxahachie by way of Buena Vista." Texas National Laboratories Research Commission. Historic American Buildings Survey. Later this cattle trail was a part of the trail connecting what once was the Shawnee Trail to the Chisholm Trail. The county was not subject to drought as many other parts of the country because of the shallow underground springs.

The valleys were fertile for cotton, corn, wheat, and most any crop or garden one wished to raise. The Trinity River was some help in transporting their products, but for the most part they had to be carried overland – mostly to Houston, since there was no local or area market in 1845 to 1850, and at that time, meat could not be shipped by water, since it would have spoiled. This only gave the farmers some help in shipping their cotton and other products. In 1849, the newly established towns of Sherman, Farmersville, Dallas, Waxahachie, Ennis, Waco, and Fredericksburg marked the western limits of white settlement. During that year, the federal government completed the establishment of a line of military posts, a few miles in advance of the settlements, to deter the Indians from raiding. One of these forts was Ft. Graham on the Brazos River, west of Ellis County. As a rule, the ranchers and cattlemen pushed a bit farther west than the farmers of that time.

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The Cattle Kingdom & Cattle Boom

Before the farmers could establish themselves on lands vacated after the Civil War and retreating Indians, they impatiently waited for new inventions and discoveries that had to be made. This period covered a relatively short interval of less than three decades. During this time, the cattle kingdom arose, flourished, and declined on the free or cheap but nutritious grass that covered the plains. Texas is logically associated with cattle. Texans took over from the Spaniards the open-range cattle industry, modified it somewhat, and transferred it from Brownsville to Montana. Besides furnishing a large part of the nation’s beef supply, Texas cattle stocked the middle and northern plains. The techniques, lingo, and other aspects of the culture of the cattle kingdom contributed significantly to the history of the West.

When the first soldiers and priests came, they brought along cattle. The Spanish cattle were progenitors of the wild cattle that were later to be found in various parts of the state. Also the longhorns, a type that evolved in southern Texas, came to be known throughout the West. Apparently the cattle brought in from the Old South in the early nineteenth century affected the strain of animals on the range. When fat, they made fairly good meat, furnished their own transportation to market, and except for roundups at branding time; they were given no attention and needed none. In 1860, there were an estimated 3,786,433 cattle in Texas, six times as many cattle as people.

After the war with Mexico, the range-cattle industry spread into the vast prairie region marked today by cities as Dallas, Fort Worth and Denton. John Chisum, later the best-known cattleman in New Mexico, owned a herd in Denton County during this period.

Others with which I am personally familiar, who got their start in the central plains area and on down to north of Houston were: The Slaughter Ranch in Howard and surrounding counties, Clayton Ranch in Borden county, Borden Ranch (Gail Borden) Garza county, Halsell ranch farther to the northwest, Rafter T Ranch (English family) east of Lubbock near Crosbyton, 6666 (Burk Burnett) at Gutherie, J. A. Ranch (Lewis family) Crosby County, Whittenberg Ranch at Amarillo.

Later the front moved as far west as Clay County, when the Civil War halted the westward march.

The cattle were much easier to raise than to sell, for the affluent markets were to the north and east, and daring cattlemen, with little money after the war, began their long drives to Sedalia and other railroads in Missouri, from which they could ship to eastern markets. But they met with unforeseen perils. Others were driven back by the farmers. By going a little farther west, a few managed to reach St. Joseph and then ship to Chicago. In 1866 alone, an estimated 260,000 cattle were started on the trail for Sedalia and other railheads.

By 1874 and the decade following, it was a prosperous era for the cattle owners. A strong market was created when the ranchers discovered that the rich grasses of the northern plains would sustain and fatten cattle, and in the cow towns of Kansas, purchasers of stock cattle competed with those who bought for beef. Refrigeration came along, and it was possible to ship dressed beef across the ocean. By 1882, good steers brought five and one-half cents a pound on the Chicago market, the highest price ever paid in the United States. This boom lasted until 1885 when a severe winter, followed by a drought, forced many to sell their animals. In Range and Ranch Cattle Traffic, 1866-1884, estimates of the total cattle driven over all the trails from 1866 to 1884 were 5,201,132.

Trail driving was economical. Eight, ten, or a dozen men with few supplies and only a small amount of equipment could deliver a herd of two thousand or more animals from Texas to the railheads in Kansas at a cost per head of fifty to sixty cents.

There were several major cattle trails to the North, each with a number of branches in Texas used by drovers in reaching the main route. The best known of the group was the Chisholm Trail, opened in 1867 by and named for Jesse Chisholm, a Cherokee Indian trader, which began in South Texas, ran by Austin and Lampasas, passed between Fort Worth and Weatherford, crossed the Red River near present-day Nocona, and ran along or near the ninety-eighth meridian across Indian Territory to Caldwell, Kansas. Here extensions led to Abilene, Wichita and other points. The open-range cattle industry spread with marvelous rapidity; its decline was even more rapid, and the very success of the open range cattle led to its destruction.

Just as in all markets, when the supply is flooded, the market goes down, but the best cattlemen weathered the storm, and many of the same ranches and operations are still in existence.

Ellis County was no different.

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Cattle Boom in Ellis County

"The Severest ordeal the banks of Texas encountered was the downfall of the cattle interest. Early in the last decade (1880's), cattle, of which vast herds roamed the prairies, commenced rising in value. In a few years the price went from $6 per head to $22 per head. The owners suddenly found themselves rich. Others, seeing this sudden acquisition of wealth and the immense profits to be realized from the business, formed partnerships. Cattle and land companies and syndicates bought up great numbers of the cattle and established ranches over the prairie regions. Most of the large concerns were located in Western Texas. They counted their cattle by the thousand head and their acres of land by the tens of thousands. They were styled cattle barons, cattle kings, etc. They had big prospects, big credit, big conventions, big speaking and big suppers. We find their reputed wealth often ran into the millions. Many moved their furniture to the cities of the State, and built palatial residences and lived like lords. They borrowed money freely and never complained of rate of interest. Their friends reinforced their paper for discount in the same business. The banks never had more liberal patrons. The markets after a few years were glutted with the increased supply and the price of cattle went down as it went up. Commercial paper matured unpaid; creditors began to press their claims; mortgages were foreclosed; suits brought; attachments served, and the cattlemen went down in squads like ten pins before a well-directed ball. Bank capital by the hundreds of thousands went down in the ruins of the latter industry. The failures in this county were numerous and some quite large. The banks suffered, of course, but not enough to impair their capital."

During the Cattle Boom, how did people of Ellis County and other counties of the central plains get their cattle to the north and the eastern markets? No person would have had 300 to 400 cattle in this area unless he could get them to an existing market.

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Ellis County Cattle Trails & Their Importance

The Cherokees were pushed out of Arkansas as early as 1829, and in later years were joined by four other tribes who were transplanted to Indian Territory. The Shawnees, a nomad tribe, where invited first by the Cherokees to come into Indian Territory to help with protecting the Cherokees against some much stronger tribes. The Shawnees, who had much land in Kansas, finally were granted a small track just south of the Kansas border. Being wanderers that they were, they had a trail that came from northeast Indian Territory to the Red River near Preston to Dallas, Waxahachie, Waco, and points south.

It was common for early frontiersmen and settlers to use the existing trails that had been blazed by the Indians. The Shawnee Trail became one of the major cattle trails to the North, each with a number of branches. It was known as the Sedalia & Baxter Springs Trail, the first trail in Texas used by drovers reaching the main route. It started near Matagorda Bay and passed through or near Austin, and Waco, where it split at or near Waco. One route led to Ft. Worth, and the other to Waxahachie, Dallas, and Preston (near Denison) on the Red River. Here it split again, one route taking you to Sedalia, Missouri, by way of Ft. Smith, and the other through Indian Territory to Baxter Springs Kansas.

There also was a connecting cattle trail from Waxahachie southwest to Ft. Graham, which connected to the Chisholm Trail, described earlier. This short trail evidently followed a similar path as that spoken of by Judge Brack, passing near some of the numerous springs in that area – the Singleton, Matchett, and High Springs. From there it continued to Ft. Graham on the Brazos River. I have personal knowledge of arrowheads having been found in the area of at least two of these springs in recent years. The three springs are very close together on tributaries of Chambers Creek. Trails always passed by good water, and all of these springs flow continuously, having never been known to be dry since the first settlers came. We need to remember that a hundred and fifty years ago, trails were not a sixty foot right-of-way as we think of today, but may have spread over several miles in some areas. Especially was this true when approaching a creek or river, since they would pick the best place to ford the river, depending on recent rains and floods, and the depth of the water at that particular time.

In Texas The Lone Star State, four major Texas Cattle Trails are described, two of which were accessible to Ellis County. The first Texas Trail passed directly through Waxahachie. It also had a connecting trail through the southwestern part of the county to the famous Chisholm Trail. Between these two trails, the "Trail Bosses" could drive their herds to any shipping point to the north and east and also to open pastures of the northwest.

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