Texas Longhorns: A history of longhorn cattle and guide to viewing the State of Texas' longhorn herd. The state of Texas maintains a herd of Longhorns in select state parks.
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No history of the cattle industry can be told without beginning with Texas and the Texas Longhorn. Texas was the original home of ranching and became the major blending pot for the evolution of the history-making Texas Longhorn breed of cattle.
The Spanish brought the first longhorn cattle to America in 1493. Descendants of these longhorns formed the first cattle population in North America.
The first Anglo-American settlers of Texas came to raise cotton. However, they brought with them a few cows, mostly of northern European breeds. These cows mixed with the Spanish breeds already in Texas and soon grew into considerable herds. Most of the cattle for the first stocking of the central and northern plains came from these herds.
The climate and range conditions were ideal for cattle raising in Texas. In addition, the liberal land system made it easy to acquire large blocks of acreage.
However, the size of farms does not tell the whole story.
As the number of cattle increased in Texas, small acreage owners ranged their cattle primarily upon unoccupied public lands. In fact, some cattle owners with thousands of head of cattle did not even own one acre of land.
Other men who moved to Texas invested all their capital in cattle and then depended on the open range for pasture. Some of those with no capital got their start by branding calves "on share" for others. At that time men were employed to brand calves and received one calf out of every four branded "on share."
During the Civil War, some Texas cattle were used to feed the Confederate troops. However, due to the isolation of Texas, that number was small.
Mostly, cattle continued to multiple, mature, and grow fat wandering the ranges of Texas while able-bodied men fought. It is estimated there were approximately five million longhorns in Texas by the end of the Civil War.
These Texas cattle had long legs, lanky bodies, with legs and feet built for speed. It took a good horse with a good rider to outrun a Texas Longhorn. Their narrow faces, sullen expressions, and horns that swept out horizontally, gave these cattle a sinister look. And indeed, they could be mean.
A century or so of running wild had make the longhorns tough and hardy enough to withstand blizzards, droughts, dust storms, attacks by other animals, and Indians. They did not require great amounts of water to survive. Their horns served for attack and defense. A strong sense of smell made it easy for the cow to find her calf and she would ferociously defend this calf.
And the bulls... There was probably no meaner creature in Texas than a Longhorn bull. The slightest provocation would turn him into an aggressive and dangerous enemy. The bull's horns usually measured six feet or less from tip-to-tip, but could measure over eight feet long. In addition, the sharpness of horns of any length, the speed and muscle power of the bull, and the ease with which he could be aroused and enraged, made him a dangerous and uncontrollable animal. When two bulls met, there was sure to be a fight, often to death. And only a very well-armed cowboy had a chance against a Longhorn bull.
This abundance of cattle at the end of the Civil War had depressed the Texas market. However, the prices of cattle and beef were still high in the north and east. So despite the danger involved in a round-up, the hardy Texas cattle began flowing north. They continued on the Chisholm, Loving-Goodnight, and Dodge City trails until that market was sated and the ranges of the central and northern plains were fully stocked.
J. Frank Dobie, great teller of Texas tales, wrote in the Fort Worth Press in 1936, "There is a widespread idea, even among people who should know better, that trail driving originated after the Civil War, when a lone Texas herd headed for some vague point 'north of 36.' As a matter of fact, on the very day the Texans whipped the Mexicans at San Jacinto, in 1836, a herd of Texas longhorns from Taylor White's ranch west of the Neches River was trailing for New Orleans. Cattle had been trailed out of Texas before that. Through the 'forties they were trailed north into Missouri and also to Louisiana markets. There is a record of one herd's trailing to New York, about 1850, and through the 'fifties thousands of steers were driven across the continent to California. The trailing business attained volume and became well organized when in 1867 Abilene, Kansas, opened as a market."
The cattle conditions at the end of the Civil War are also given credit for the beginning of cattle rustling. George W. Saunders, president of the Old Time Trail Drivers of Texas explained, "During the war we boys and a few old men tried to keep the cattle branded up, and we always branded for absent soldiers and widows. Of course the range was only loosely worked and vast numbers of cattle went unbranded. The scuffle for these mavericks, that began after the war was over, started cow-thieving."
The toughness and endurance of the Longhorns made them well-equipped for the long trail. They usually lost very little weight on the drive.
Charles Goodnight, Texas cowman who is credited with inventing the chuck wagon and who was one of the originators of the Loving-Goodnight trail, said of Longhorn cattle, "As trail cattle, their equal never has been known. Their hoofs are superior to those of any other cattle. In stampedes, they hold together better, are easier to circle during a run, and rarely split off when you commence to turn the front. No animal of the cow kind will shift and take care of itself under all conditions as will the Longhorns. They can go farther without water and endure more suffering than others."
Even in a stampede, the lead Longhorn steers often earned their salt. On the Shawnee trail in 1873, a heard of over 1000 Longhorns stampeded within the town of Dallas. The Dallas Herald, September 12, 1873, reported, "The two that didn't take fright had led the drove from the time the owners started out with them. During the alarm for the rest of the drove, they stood motionless. The drivers had the satisfaction of seeing the frightened cattle eventually return and gather 'round the more composed leaders."
The longhorns did harbor ticks and certain diseases, however. Terry Jordan, author of North American Cattle-Ranching Frontiers, wrote, "From the very first, a strong northern prejudice against longhorns, based partly in the diseases they bore, was encountered, and through the 1870s and early 1880s the amount of longhorn blood on the ranges of Texas Extended was systematically reduced by crossbreeding, castration, and culling."
Though more and more people are realizing the environmental destruction of raising cattle and the health dangers of eating beef and dairy, longhorns were a great part of the history and the influence of Texas.
The state of Texas maintains a herd of Longhorns in select state parks.
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