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Famous Cattle Trails

The Birthday of Railways Has Put an End to a Great Industry

[From the Waxahachie Daily Light - Saturday, January 8, 1907]

Contributed by Jean Caddel


Wichita, Kan. Jan 5 – "I am nearing threescore years and ten, and soon will go over the long trail," said Joseph G. McCoy, the founder of the famous Texas-Kansas cattle trails, as he sat on the porch of his pleasant home here. "I often think over the old days - the greatest days the cattle trade ever knew."

Mr. McCoy is vigorous and hale even in his old age, and though not now engaged in business, expects to resume his work as cattle inspector for the government in a few months.

It is probable than no single agent did more in a short time to revolutionize the cattle industry in the West than the Kansas and Texas cattle trails, whose usefulness is now ended and which Mr. McCoy started in business. The opening of Oklahoma and the building of Texas railways have put an end to a great industry, and the last straggling herd has been driven from the plains of the Lone Star State to the shipping stations in Kansas.

The long paths stretching over hill and valley, across rivers and through prairie forests are crossed by barb wire fences and railroad tracks and so closed forever. The man who originated them is a resident of the newest state, Oklahoma, and is giving his experiences in pioneering in upbuilding that promised land.

Joseph G. McCoy was born in Illinois, and was one of three brothers, all of adventurous spirit. In 1866 at the close of the war, he came West, determined to enter the business of cattle raising.

At that time the Texas cattle had but two ways of getting to market, the Mississippi or by railroad to New York, the other via New Orleans. Both drives were long and dangerous because of the warm regions through which they extended.

McCoy, upon reaching Kansas, noted that the Kansas Pacific railway, now the Union Pacific, was built about half way across the state westward and decided to form a cattle station thereon.

He selected Abilene, a station 165 miles west of Kansas City, consisting of a log house or two and a saloon. Making arrangements with the railroad company for the construction of yards, etc., he started off alone across Southern Kansas into the Indian Territory, stopping the long herd bound eastward and turning them to the Kansas shipping point by telling them of the rich pastures and excellent shipping facilities.

The first herd sent northward belonged to some Californians, and it was followed by several more that season. The long and expensive drive through the Ozark mountains region was gladly evaded and his profits at the comparatively near point tempted the cattle kings.

The disparity between the Texas supply and the Northern prices was equalized by the close connection, and in 1867, 35,000 head of cattle sought the new station. When several trainloads of the fat beeves had been shipped to Chicago in better condition than any had ever been received before, a special excursion train brought a large company of stockmen from Chicago and Springfield, Ill., to see the new shipping place, now grown to a rambling village of board shanties and tents, and known as the wickedest city in the west.

But the surrounding country was well watered and had plenty of nutritious grass, and the inhabitants of the town rather gloried in its title, a designation which afterward was applied to Leadville and Dodge City. In 1868 there were 75,000 cattle shipped.

In 1869 the number increased to 150,000 and in 1870 to 300,000, or one per cent of all the cattle in Texas. Two or three principal trails had been laid out and were well worn by passing boots.

Of these the best known was the Chisholm Trail, so called after a partly civilized Indian who first guided herds along it. Then there was the Shawnee trail, the favorite of Western Texas.

Leaving the Red River it ran eastward crossing the Arkansas river near Fort Gibson; thence it followed the Arkansas valley until it came into Kansas, when it was only necessary to traverse the eighty-mile divide between the Arkansas and Smoky Hill valleys, in the latter of which Abilene is located. [Across hundreds?] of miles the prairies were dotted with herds grazing under the surveillance of the cowboys.

But the market was glutted. Prices fell off and the owners could not sell and more than 300,000 cattle were wintered on Kansas prairies.

No provision had been made and the brutes were compelled to paw away the snow to secure the dead buffalo grass that lay beneath. It was estimated that two-thirds of the number died and their bones whitened the swells of the plain for many years.

The reaction had set in, and the next year saw less than 10,000 head shipped from Abilene. Kilsworth, eighty miles further west, was the new shipping point, and after that came Dodge City, on the line of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad, then just completed through the Arkansas Valley.

Here the old scenes were reenacted. Cowboys made the town a terror to law-abiding citizens and murders were every day occurrence.   Finally civilization pushed its way westward and the saying, "There is no Sunday west of Dodge City, and no God west of Pueblo," became obsolete.

The cattle trails are being covered with grass, and soon they will be only a memory. But for the bones of unfortunate animals which died on their journey it would be impossible in a year or two to trace them. They were for a time the trunk lines of the plains. Abilene and Ellsworth are quiet country towns, and Dodge City has a theological seminary.

After the decadence of the cattle trade at Abilene, Mr. McCoy followed it to Southern Kansas, finally settling in Wichita. In June, 1890, the superintendent of the census recognized his familiarity with the stock industry and made him superintendent of the range cattle department of the live stock bureau of the last census.


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