The Cattle Industry on the Great Plains Click here to find out about the development of the Cattle Industry
The Cattle Industry on the Great Plains The Civil War The Plains Indians The Open Range Cow Towns Demand in the East The US Army The Railroads Goodnight & Loving The Cowboys
Between 1861 and 1866 the USA was split by a Civil War between the Northern States of the Union and the Southern States of the Confederacy. Texas was on the losing side. During the war the Ranchers of Texas were cut off from their markets in the North and East. A small time rancher, Charles Goodnight, was away from Texas and had no contact with his herd of cattle. Yet in this time it increased from around 180 to 8 000 head. All over Texas the impact of the Civil War was to lead to a massive increase in the number of cattle; by 1866 there were an estimated 5 000 000 cattle in Texas. The economy of the East went into boom and the demand for meat grew after the end of the war. Texan Cattlemen looked for a way to meet this demand and make a profit. Click here to go back to the factors slide.
The 1860s were a decade of Plains wars between the Indians native to the area and the incoming white settlers backed by the US Army. The army built camps and forts on the Plains to maintain its control, protect its soldiers and safeguard the new migrants or homesteaders. These forts were given names such as Fort Laramie and Fort Sumner. The soldiers in these forts needed feeding with fresh meat, and contracts were available to those who could supply the demands of the army The US Army also had the job of ensuring the supply of food to the Indians on the reservations. Click here to go back to the factors slide.
One big problem of moving the cattle from Texas to the cities of the East was transport. The building of the Trans-Continental Railroad by 1868 solved this problem. It was now possible to drive the cattle to a rail depot, sell them to a dealer, who could then transport them in refrigerated wagons to the growing cities of the East such as New York and Chicago. Vast profits were now available for those with the cattle to sell. The railroad arrived at Sedalia in 1865, and by 1870 it extended into Kansas. It was here that the cow towns such as Abilene were built at railheads for the transport of cattle to the East. Click here to go back to the factors slide.
The 1860s were a period of reservation life for many of the tribes of the southern Plains. They had been defeated by the US Army and were now trapped on reservations controlled by the army and government agents. The reservations were usually in the worst areas of land and the Indians found it impossible to support themselves through farming. The agents appointed by the government had the responsibility of ensuring that the Indians were ‘looked after’ and fed. Contracts were available to those who could supply the cattle needed. By 1870 the US Army was buying between 60 and 70 000 head of cattle a year to feed the Indians and its own soldiers. Click here to go back to the factors slide.
The middle of the nineteenth century saw an industrial revolution in the northeast of the USA. Vast cities were growing and with this growth came millions of new immigrants and workers who needed to be fed. The end of the Civil War in 1866 had sped up this process. The market was there, and the Cattlemen of Texas, with their vast herds, were determined to fulfil it. The railroads of the 1860s and 1870s offered the required transport to bring the beef to the marketplace. Click here to go back to the factors slide.
The cattle industry in Colorado owed much to Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, who were Texan ranchers. By the end of the Civil War Goodnight had a herd of about 8 000 cattle. With few chances for selling beef in Texas, he looked to the mining towns around Denver in Colorado. In 1866 the two men drove the herd towards Colorado. The Goodnight-Loving Trail swung west into New Mexico. Here, by chance, they discovered another market. A Navajo Indian reservation had been established at Bosque Rodeo near Fort Sumner. By 1866, the Navajo were starving, and the government was keen to buy Goodnight’s beef. Goodnight and Loving repeated their drive in 1867. Their success and profits of 1866 led to many other ranchers following them into the trail driving business and the cattle trade of the 1860s was born. Click here to go back to the factors slide.
As the profits available to cattlemen continued to flow in the 1860s, a new breed of rancher was born. This was the era of the Open Range and the Cattle Barons. The first of this new breed was John Illif. He set up a ranch in the new territory of Wyoming in 1867. Illif won a contract to supply beef to the Union Pacific Railroad and its construction crews. He bought $45 000 worth of steers from Charles Goodnight and sold them for a huge profit. The profits of men such as Illif attracted many more to try their hand at ranching on the Great Plains. Land for ranching was cheap; often it was simply taken. Cattle ranching took place on the open range – acre after acre of unfenced land. This was the heyday of the cowboy, but it did not last long. Click here to go back to the factors slide.
In 1867, 35 000 cattle arrived at Abilene. By 1871 600 000 steers a year were moving up the Chisholm Trail. The railroad shipped them north from Abilene, mainly to Chicago, which established itself as a meat packing centre. Joseph McCoy eventually went bankrupt, and other cattle towns, such as Elsworth, Hays and Dodge City, began to compete for the cattle business. However, McCoy’s initiative and enterprise had been crucial to the growth of the cattle industry. The traffic on the Chisholm Trail later shifted to the Western Trail. This took Texan cattle to Dodge City, which became the main Kansas cattle centre from 1875. Click here to go back to the factors slide.
Cattle could not drive themselves northwards to the markets! They needed the cowboys to guide them. The 1860s to the 1880s were the high point of the cowboy era. Young men from many different backgrounds, white, black and Spanish became cowboys. Their job was to escort the herds from Texas to the markets along the set Trails. It was a very hard life, with low pay and cowboys were always short of sleep when on the Long Drive. Cowboys continued to be important in the cattle industry during the time of the Open Range on the Plains. They did the job of patrolling the edges of the vast ranches, protecting the cattle and rounding them up when it was time for the herd to go to market. Click here to go back to the factors slide.