Wild West Podcast

Saddle Up for Adventure: A Deep Dive into Cattle Drives and Cowboy Life in the Wild West

October 29, 2022 Michael King/Brad Smalley
Wild West Podcast
Saddle Up for Adventure: A Deep Dive into Cattle Drives and Cowboy Life in the Wild West
Wild West Podcast +
Exclusive access to premium content!
Starting at $3/month Subscribe
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Ever wondered how cattle branding came about, or the intricacies of a cowboy's life during cattle drives? Prepare to be enlightened as we journey back in time to the Wild West. We uncover the Spanish influence on cattle branding and the roundup process. Experience the cowboy way of life, from levering their unique skills to the responsibilities of a trail boss and the invaluable role of the cook. Discover the adventure in the journey of herds, the paths they trekked, and the monumental size of these herds.

As we saddle up for part two, brace yourself for a wild ride across the vast Texan prairies. Feel the adrenaline rush of potential stampedes, triggered by thunderstorms, prairie dog holes, and pure fatigue. The terrain shifts dramatically as we cross the Red River into Indian Territory, revealing encounters with wild animals that ratcheted up the danger. The journey also had its share of thrilling run-ins with native tribes and the looming threat of cattle rustlers. Immerse yourself in a historical adventure filled with action and heart-stopping moments, guaranteed to captivate history enthusiasts and thrill-seekers alike.

Support the show

Return of the Great Hunters
Cattle Drives Website
Legends of Dodge City Website
Order Books

Speaker 1:

Music. A herd on the trail moved about 10 miles a day. Leading the way where the trail boss and the cook with his chuck wagon to the site of the herd, rode most of the cowboys who kept wondering cattle from separating from the rest of the herd, bringing up the rear and eating the dust of several thousand shuffling cattle were the dragmen? Cowboys joked that the drag was where a cowboy learned to curse. Wild West Podcast proudly presents Cattle Drives, cowboys and Cattle Towns. Part 5, the Cattle Drive Music. A cattle drive usually started in early spring with a roundup during which unbranded cattle were marked to confirm ownership. During the spring, nature played with the skies, plains and soil. The practice of branding cattle came to the New World with the Spaniards. Hernán Cortés may have been the first to experiment with cattle breeding and branding during the late 16th century. His brand of three Latin crosses was the first used in the Western Hemisphere in the area of modern Toluca, mexico, in 1537, cattle raising grew and the Crown ordered the organization of a Stockmans Association called Mesta. Throughout New Spain, each cattle owner had to have a different brand and each brand had to be registered in what undoubtedly was the first brand book in the Western Hemisphere kept in Mexico City. After the Spaniards moved north into Texas and cattle raising developed considerably during the mid-18th century, the Crown ordered the branding of all cattle. The early Spanish brands in Texas were more generally pictographs than letters. The Spaniards chose their brands to express sentiments in beautiful ways. Soon the Texans perfected the roundup. From the early cowhounds and partly from the Mexican vaqueros they became experts in roping. They also achieved new methods for handling herds on the trail. Each man had several horses, including one suitable for a night work. Edgar Rye describes the roundup from his book the Quirk and the Spur. Imagine, if you can, a beautiful valley where all the sloping hills on all sides form a natural amphitheater and the green carpet of mesquite grass dotted here and there with dwarf-looking trees. And the whole scene is enhanced by the blue sky where the feathery white clouds float in azure space. And in the center of this grand picture painted by the hand of nature can be seen a great herd of 10,000 head of cattle fenced in by men on horseback. A cowhands first view of a general roundup as he rides to the top of a knoll, or he could secure a good view of the scene below A chorus of bellowing mixed with the shouts of the cowboys floated up from the valley, which made any cowhands come alive to the scene before him. When everything was ready and the cattle under the control of the herders, preparations were made to begin cutting out the different brands from the main herd and putting them in small herds under the care of the owners. This was the acknowledged rite exercised by each owner in turn, until the entire herd was cut and the cattle of the same brand separated from the other brands. To perform this task, an expert hand from each outfit was selected. He was generally well-mounted on a pony, trained especially for this part of the work. Thus, mounted on his faithful pony, the cowboy rode into the herd among the cattle and selected one by one, the cattle wearing the brand he represented. Riding behind each animal, he would, by dexterous movements of his pony, force it through the packed herd to the outer edge of the herd and, with a quick movement, start the animal on a run for a dozen yards from the main herd. What another cowboy would ride up and drive it to where the cattle in that brand were held under guard. The expert hand would again return to the herd to cut out another, and so on, until all the cattle in that brand had been removed from the herd. While this process was going on, there was a cordon of cowboys formed around the entire herd. One outfit after another cut the herd until all the cattle were separated into small herds, each carrying the brand of ownership, and to be driven back to the home range. One or more of the hands belonging to each outfit carried a long whip with a short handle which required considerable expertise to use. These whips were sometimes used in cutting out, but their principal use was driving stragglers back into the herd. When, on the trail, after the cattle had all been separated, they were driven off in different directions to the branding pens at each home ranch Toward all points of the compass. The small herds could be seen winding their way across the prairie while now and then, the distant shout of the cowboys floated on the evening air. It was a wild scene, with no habitation in sight, a vast, unbroken prairie, almost weird in appearance. As the shadows lengthened from the setting sun, the animated scene of an hour before was now mellowing into silence, more imposing by reason of the reaction from the exciting incidents during the day. Spring was the coming time of plenty and the joy of abundance which energized the air. There is a new warmth when the rain or shine inviting the cowboy to take the saddle. The greenness of the grass was soon echoed by the trees, while the prairie grass promised to cover the plains for a hearty journey north. The roundup often took several weeks and involved hundreds of cowhands from neighboring ranches In their cattle trailing. The Texas drovers developed a few methods of their own. Once the cattle were herded together and branded, the cowboys separated them into herds. At first, the cattle owners drove the herds themselves. Later the owners hired agents to drive the cattle to market for a fee, usually $1 per head. Delivered to market. Large herds of more than 2,500 head of cattle went up the trail to Habilene, though many smaller herds made the journey as well. Each drive needed a foreman, a cook and about 15 cowboys. The trail boss navigated the route and supervised the operation. Each cowboy needed 3 to 10 horses. The cowboys typically provided their own riding and camping equipment. Everyone needed to be appropriately armed against wild animals, rustlers and Indians. With this labor force and capital for the horses, the chuck wagon and the food, the drive could accommodate about 1,500 cattle and potentially up to twice that number, which would fetch a total revenue of $50,000 or more. Once they reached the stockyards of Dodge City or Habilene, where they had been fattened up, the longhorns were used to living on grass and usually they could find enough along the trail. However, even though the herds were forbidden, they would sometimes be stopped for a day or two to fatten on lush grass in the Indian Territory. The herd was strung out on the trail, perhaps for half a mile, to avoid crowding and consequent overheating. Two trusted cowhands rode in the lead, one on each side as pointers. Behind them, at intervals rode the swingmen and the flank riders to keep the cattle in order. In the dusty rear were the unvane dragmen to prod the laggards. Individual cattle tended to support about the same positions in the strung-out herd. Scouts rode in front of the herd to select the best route. The path would vary depending on the availability of water and grass. It also relies on the year, season and how many herds had passed over the ground that year. Despite minor changes in the course, the herd always traveled north. Scouts also alerted the trail boss to dangers such as bad weather, hostile Native Americans and outlaws. The trail boss had complete authority over all the cowhands and other employees on the trail. In his book Cattle Trade of the West and Southwest, joseph McCoy describes the cattle herding along the trail. It should be noted that in 1869, the chuck wagon had yet to be invented. A herd of 1,000 cattle will stretch out from one to two miles while traveling on the trail and is a magnificent sight, inspiring the drover with enthusiasm akin to that encendled in the breast of the military hero by the presence of marching columns of men. Confident cowboys are appointed to ride beside the leaders and control the herd, while others ride behind and beside, keeping everything in its place and moving on the camp wagon and the caviar bringing up the rear. A large herd could require 12 men or more, with several saddle horses. The trail boss, either a ranch crew member or a hired drover, organized and led the affair. He selected specific routes and rode ahead searching for water, grass and suitable camp grounds. The cook and his chuck wagon also moved forward with the herds to ensure the meals and ink. Black coffee was ready when the cowboys settled in for the evening. To protect and guide cattle along the trail, cowboys took the role of point men, swing men, flankers and drag men around the moving herds. Each cow hand had specific duties. Several highly skilled cowhands known as pointers, also called point rider or lead rider, rode to the side of the lead cattle to direct the herd. The point man, who rides near the front of the herd, determines the direction, controls the speed and gives the cattle something to follow. Larger herds sometimes necessitate the use of two point men, A privileged position on the drive. This job is reserved for more experienced hands who know the country through which they are traveling. Flankers, who rode beside the herd, kept the cattle from straying too far. The flank riders rode near the rear, about two thirds of the way back. Their role is to back the swing riders up and keep the cattle bunched, preventing the back of the herd from fanning out. Larger cowhands rode in the rear or drag position to keep cattle from straying behind. The drag riders keep the herd moving, pushing the slower animals forward. Because of the exhausting work and insufferable dust, this unpleasant job is typically reserved for green cowboys. Swing riders rode closely along each side of the herd, about a third of the way back from the point rider. Their responsibility is to keep the herd together and they are constantly looking for any animals that might try to break away. They are also instrumental in backing up the point riders as the herd turns. If the point man leaves his position, a swing rider will ride in his stead until he returns. Wranglers took care of the extra horses. Each cow hand took along several horses. The men would switch horses a few times a day to keep the horses from tiring. The wrangler is responsible for caring for the drive's remuda, ensuring the horses are fed and doctored. He typically drives the horses with his wagon, as his secondary duties include helping the cook, rustle firewood, unhook the team or any other odd jobs around the camp. Some free of San Antonio wrote the following about how he felt during his time in the saddle during a cattle drive. I have never forgotten the feel of the saddle after a long day, the weight and pull of old six shooters, and what a blessing to cowman was the old yellow slicker. There were the days when men depended upon themselves first but could rely on their friends to help if necessary. Days of hard work but good health, plain fare but strong appetites, when people expected to work for their living and short hours and big pay was unknown. In conclusion, I wish to say any movement that will preserve the memories of the old trail days is valuable For in a few years most of those who bode the trail will have crossed the great divide. All honor to the old timers who have gone before and good luck to all of you who are left. The distance from the starting point at the Red River to the Kansas Cowtown was some three to four hundred miles. Over this vast expansion of a relatively uninhibited and drab landscape, the Texas cowboy drove his cattle to market. The conditions he met caused him to lead a monotonous and lonely life. The only break in his daily routine was the campfire and the evening stories, which often were sacrificed for more vitally needed sleep. Teddy Blue Abbot tells the story of how he felt the hardships of sleep deprivation on many occasions while on the trail hurting cattle. But when you add it all up, I believe the worst hardship we had on the trail was the loss of sleep. There was never enough sleep. Our day wouldn't end until about nine o'clock when we grazed the herd onto the bedground, and after that every man in the outfit except the boss, horse wrangler and cook would have to stand two hours of night guard. So if my guard watch was from twelve to two, I would stake my night horse, unroll my bed, pull off my boots and crawl in at nine, get about three hours of sleep and then ride for two hours. Then I would come off guard and get to sleep about an hour and a half till the cook yelled roll out at half past three. So I would get maybe five hours of sleep when the weather was nice and everything smooth and pretty, with cowboys singing under the stars. If it wasn't so nice, you'd be lucky to sleep an hour, but the wagon rolled on in the morning. That night guard got to be part of our lives. They never had to call me. I would hear the fellow coming off herd because laying with your ear to the ground you could hear that horse trotting a mile off, and I would jump up, put my hat and boots on and go out to meet him. We were all just the same. Sometimes we'd rub tobacco juice in our eyes just to stay awake. It was like rubbing them with fire. I've done that a few times and have often saddened my saddle sound to sleep for just a few minutes. The drives moved at a pace of 10 to 12 miles a day from watering hole to watering hole and took three to four months to complete Depending on the landscape, the width of a cattle herd could span several miles to, at some river crossings, the width of a few longhorns. Weather, water access and feeding grass availability altered the courses. The following is from we Pointed them North. Recollections of a cow puncher by EC Abbott and Helena H Smith. Even in the daytime, those deep, cooly, dry creeks could open up all at once in front of you before you had a chance to see where you were going, and at night it was something awful if you'd stop and think about it, which none of them ever did. If a storm came along and the cattle started running, you'd hear that low rumbling noise along the ground and the men on herd wouldn't need to come in and tell you You'd know. Then you'd jump on your horse and get out there in the lead, trying to head them off and get them into a mill before they scattered to hell and gone. The cowboys would attempt to make the cattle run in an ever-tightening circle until they could no longer move. It was riding in a dead run in the dark, with cut banks and prairie dog holes all around you in a shallow grave. Each day was like every other day. Each new scene and repetition of the locations already witnessed that being adrift on the prairie was similar to being out at sea, leaving a vague, confusing impression. After a few days of the march, a spirit of depression was often noticeable in the entire outfit. Contributing to a cattle drive's outfit of confusion was the lack of sleep and facing the constant challenges of abrupt movements Mother Nature offered on the prairie, including thunderstorms causing stampedes. Hiram G Craig of Brenham, in his memoirs entitled Days Gone by, writes in the trail drivers of Texas of his experience surviving a stampede caused by a thunderstorm. After midnight, as I rode into camp to wake up the second relief I noticed an approaching storm cloud in the northwest, and before the boys could saddle their horses and get around the herd, it was thunder, lightning and a downpour of rain all in one. The herd started drifting south and there was no way to hold them. They did not stampede but kept moving and as it was very dark we could only see them by the flashes of lightning and drift with them. We must have traveled some three or four miles when I called my brother to ask what had become of the other two boys. He said they had found a tree and had climbed up in it. We had not heard a sound from them since leaving camp. I knew the man near me was my brother by his voice, as he was always in the habit of singing and talking to the cattle to quiet them In a stampede. There are no road laws. Everything in its path must clear out or get run over. After a few minutes of silence, my brother called out everybody, look out, trouble ahead. My horse won't go any further. A flash of lightning revealed the banks of the Guadalupe River, the cause of the horses refusing to go further. We worked our way back through the cattle as the river would hold the cattle at this end, and waited for daylight. We found that we had drifted seven miles during the latter part of the night and just the two of us in charge of the whole herd. After the Chisholm Trail crossed the Red River and entered Indian territory, the country's terrain changed somewhat. Most Texans had never seen such beautiful rolling hills covered with rich prairie grasses. Wild horses, deer, antelope, turkeys, prairie chickens, wolves and buffaloes were seen along the trail. Some hunters and trappers were also in the territory. Many prairie dogs were found in this section of the country. Often the cowboys had never seen them before. They were a source of great amusement and helped to break the monotony of the long days. The men would listen to their chatter and talk back to them. Caution had to be taken to keep the horses from stepping into prairie dog holes and crippling themselves. Had these little trail animals been called something else instead of prairie dogs, trail men probably would have eaten them, but instead their flesh was as clean as that of squirrels and their diet was about the same. Wf QD of San Antonio, texas, in his memoirs of the Trail Drivers of Texas writes about his experiences on the trail in 1868 after crossing the Red River into Indian Territory. My first trip to Kansas was in the year 1868. I went then by the name of Forehand and C Cochral. The cattle were steers, 600 in number and we gathered them near Sister and Post Office in Bastrop County. There were eight hands beside the owners and the cook. After we passed Dallas, lightning struck the boys in camp killing one and three others were so badly burned that one of them quit, so we only had six. All the way to Kansas, we were told by the citizens of Dallas that we would reach the Chisholm Trail a few miles north of Dallas, and we followed it through Fort Worth, a small town and through the Chickasaw Nation on to Wichita, kansas, and thence to Solomon City on the Kansas Pacific Railroad nine miles west of Abilene. There were but few settlements on the way after we passed Dallas, and when we reached the settlements in Kansas we were all joyful again. We passed through many prairie dog towns and over rattlesnake dens and lost only one horse from a rattlesnake bite. Many kinds of wild animals were to be seen along the way, such as antelope, elk and buffalo, and we killed one buffalo calf and brought it into camp, though I did not like the meat as well as that of our cattle. The country was one vast stretch of rich land, no timber except on creeks or rivers, and when we came inside of timber we knew that there would be water. In some instances we had to haul our wood to cook with, but generally we would have to gather buffalo chips, dry dung, for that purpose. Driving a herd of cattle across prairies was hard, dangerous work, for the terrain was difficult and the cattle would get spooked and stampede at any time. The difficulties increased when the cowboys crossed lands controlled by hostile Native American tribes or patrolled by cattle rustlers. Jb Pumphrey of Taylor, texas, wrote about Indian troubles in his chapter on Experience on the Trail. In 1873, I made another trip to Kansas with WT Avery. On this trip, just north of the Arkansas River, we had another experience that I think is worth relating. There were about four to five big herds camped near together and we had a very severe storm. Consequently, our herds were badly mixed and it took us all the following day to separate them, each fellow getting his own cattle. After we had separated the cattle, we counted ours and found that we were about fifteen head of cattle short. So Mr Avery and myself and one other man that we could rely on, made a circle around where the cattle were lost to see if we could find the trail where they had gone off. We finally found the trail and followed it for ten or fifteen miles when my horse was bitten by a rattlesnake and of course we knew it would not do to attempt to go further on a snake bitten horse. So we retraced our steps to the camp, finally getting the snake bitten horse into the camp. About twelve o'clock at night, during the absence, some of the neighbors told the bosses that we had been killed by the Osage Indians, and our men, of course, all thought we had been killed until we arrived at camp, or else we would not have stayed out so late. Early the next morning we reported to our foreman, telling him that we had found the trail and that they were being driven off by the Indians. So he reinforced our party by one man and sent us off again to see if we could find the cattle. We did not lose much time in following the cattle, but as they had two days at the start of us, we were never able to overtake them, which was perhaps a good thing, as we were poorly armed and perhaps would have been three men against ten or fifteen Indians. Despite such problems, many of the cowboys found real pleasure in the independence and camaraderie of life on the trail, not to mention the rip-roaring fun they had once they arrived in town With pockets full of money and eagerness for excitement. Cowboys helped create the Wild West that is celebrated in films and fiction. The following is what CH Rust of San Angelo, texas, wrote about the old cow trail. What happened on the old cow trail in those days of long ago was almost forgotten, and it is a sad thought to us today that there is no stone or mile post to mark the old trail's location, the old time cow puncher that followed the trail, his mount, his makeup, the old trail songs that he sang, what he did and how he did. It is left yet to someone to give him the proper place in history what he was then and what he is now. I hope to meet him over there in the sweet by and by where no mavericks or slicks will be tallied. That's it for now. Remember to check out our Wild West podcast shows on iTunes podcast or wildwestpodcastbusproutcom. You can also catch us on Facebook at facebookcom slash Wild West podcast or on our YouTube channel at Whiskey and Westerns on Wednesday. So make sure you subscribe to our podcast listed at the end of this episode to receive notification on all new episodes. Thanks for listening to our podcast. If you have any comments or would like to add this series on cattle drives, cowboys and cattle towns, you can write us at wildwestpodcastcom as we will share your thoughts as they apply to future episodes. Join us next time as we take a look at some primary sources describing the dangers of a cattle drive. Cattle Drive.

Cattle Drives
Dangers and Excitement of Cattle Drives