One of the most enduring and iconic images of the Old West is the cattle drive—where a cowboy crew moved several thousand head of cattle a thousand miles from Texas to Kansas. There, in one of the Kansas rail towns, the herd was then sold and transported to stockyards in the east. This major undertaking happened yearly after the spring roundup, and typically, the cattle from several ranches were all pooled into one large herd for the drive (rather than each individual ranch doing its own drive).
So what happened on a cattle drive? The easy answer is that the cowboys pointed the herd north and started the longhorns moving. In reality, there was a lot more to it than just “drive the herd north, fellas!” In fact, the cowboys on the drive fell into one of several specific jobs or positions.
|Cowboy during a cattle drive, circa 1903|
Trail Boss—The head honcho of the outfit. This seasoned cattleman plotted the day’s course, including any breaks, watering holes, and the end-of-day campsite. He was also in charge of keeping track of the brands in the herd. Likewise, the Trail Boss’s job was to make decisions on how to handle injured animals, newborn calves, any strangers they came across along the trail, and mediate any disputes that cropped up among the crew.
Point Rider—The Point Man rode out in front of the herd, setting the pace for the day and acting to lead the herd in the direction the Trail Boss had told them to go. The Point Rider became the focal point for the herd, and everyone else followed after him. In larger drives, there might be two Point Riders.
Swing Riders—The Swing Riders were situated about one-third of the way back in the line of cattle where the herd began to widen out. There would be one Swing Rider on either side of the herd. This position helped keep the herd bunched and also helped the Point Riders turn the herd as needed. The men riding Swing would constantly watch for any animals trying to make a break away from the herd. It was their job to catch them before they got too far away and turn them back in with the main group. If for any reason, the point rider left his position, a Swing Rider would move up to lead until the Point man returned.
Flank Riders—Similar to the Swing Riders, these cowboys rode one on either side of the herd, although about two-thirds of the way back. Their main job was to back up the Swing Riders and keep the herd from fanning out across too wide an area.
Drag Riders—This was the least desirable position in the cattle drive, often reserved for the greenest cowboys. The Drag Rider rode behind the herd, driving the back end of the herd to stay up with the front and rounding up any stragglers or strays who break free from the tail of the herd. The Drag Riders had the unfortunate daily experience eating the dust that the thousands of cattle in the herd kicked up.
Wrangler—The Wrangler was in charge of the remuda (or horse herd). An average cattle drive would require some 100 or more horses to keep the cowboys mounted and moving each day. The Wrangler’s job was to drive the horse herd along the day’s course, doctor any sick or injured mounts, as well as help with camp chores, such as collecting fuel for the fire, washing dishes after the meal, and the like.
Cook—The cook’s job was to provide the food for the crew each day, among other things. Look for a more detailed post on this position and his mobile kitchen on October 25.
The average pay for those on the cattle drive was as follows: the Trail boss earned roughly $100-$120/month. The cook could count on about $60/month. And a typical drover (any of the other positions) would earn roughly $40/month. All were paid at the end of the trail after the herd was sold.
While western cattle were capable of covering roughly twenty-five miles a day, few if any cattle outfits moved at such a pace. Why? Because at that pace, the cattle would lose weight and thus, wouldn’t fetch as high a price when sold. Instead, the Point Man set a pace to cover roughly twelve or fifteen miles a day—whatever the Trail Boss laid out. After traveling several days in a row, the herd would be allowed to rest a day or two in a spot with lots of good grazing and water. At this rate of travel, the approximately-one-thousand-mile trek would take several months to complete.
|Map provided by the National Parks Service (in the Public Domain)|
There were four principal cattle trails that led from Texas to the railroads far to the north. The earliest was the Shawnee Trail, in use from the 1840s until just after the Civil War. It departed Texas and took a north-easterly course through the eastern corner of Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma), then ended in various places in Missouri (anywhere from St. Louis to St. Joseph and Kansas City, depending on the time in history). When disease affected the cattle along the trail in the 1850s and 1860s, farms near the route balked at the Texas cattle continuing to use this route to the rails.
The Goodnight-Loving Trail was in use in the late-1860s after the war’s end. Founded by Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, the trail struck west through Texas, then turned north into modern-day New Mexico. Continuing from there, it drove on into Colorado where it eventually intersected with various railroad lines such as the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe at Pueblo, Colorado, or the Kansas Pacific in Denver. Some even went as far as the Union Pacific line (the Transcontinental Railroad) just over the border into Wyoming.
The next major trail was the Chisolm Trail, which traversed north from Fort Worth, through Indian Territory, and into Abilene, Kansas or Ellsworth, Kansas. Its popularity rose in 1867, but dwindled for a time in the early 1870s, only to resurge again later in the decade.
The last important trail was the Great Western Trail, which left Southern Texas, cut through the western edge of Indian Territory, through Kansas, and up into Nebraska. This trail held the greatest popularity from 1874-1885 but became harder to travel due to the implementation of barbed wire fences and farmers’ fears of the spread of Texas Tick Fever.
It’s Your Turn: Would you have wanted to participate in a cattle drive? Why or why not? Leave your answer with an email address, and you'll be entered in a drawing for a copy of the 4-in-1 novella collection, The Cowboys.
Jennifer Uhlarikdiscovered the western genre as a pre-teen when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has finaled and won in numerous writing competitions, and been on the ECPA best-seller list numerous times. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers, Women Writing the West, and is a lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, college-aged son, and four fur children.
Taming the west—one heart at a time.Healing Hearts by Cindy Ervin Huff
Lonnie Holt’s external scars remind him of his failures, his internal scars torment him. Genny Collins seeks safety at the ranch once owned by Lonnie’s uncle. When Lonnie and his brother arrive, sparks fly and distrust abounds. While Lonnie and Genny fight the love growing between them, his past haunts him, and her past pays them a visit.
Becoming Brave by Jennifer Uhlarik
When Coy Whittaker stumbles upon a grisly scene littered with bodies, he wants nothing more than to get his boss’s cattle out of Indian Territory. But when a bloodstained Aimee Kaplan draws down on him, his plans—and his heart—screech to a halt.
Trail’s End by Sandra Merville Hart
Wade Chadwick has no money until his boss’s cattle sell, so he takes a kitchen job at Abby’s Home Cooking. The beautiful and prickly owner adds spice to his workday. Abby Cox hires the down-and-out cowboy even though the word cowboy leaves a bad taste in her mouth. Just as she’s ready to trust Wade with her heart, money starts to disappear … and so does her brother.
Loving a Harvey Girl by Linda Yezak
Eva Knowles can't imagine why the local preacher doesn't like Harvey Girls—women who work serving tables instead of finding a husband and falling in love. But if Eva can get the handsome and wayward cowboy Cal Stephens to join her in church, maybe the reverend will accept the girls. Or maybe she'll forfeit her job for a husband, hearth, and home!