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The Great Cattle Drives: Frontier life in Oklahoma 1866-1889

Eric Standridge is a freelance writer with an interest in history. His main focus is writing about Oklahoma.

The terrain was treacherous, the heat unbearable, and the pay was paltry. Still, through the wild frontier of Indian Territory, these spirited cowboys braved disaster and desolation in search of the American dream.

Many of these cowboys were born from one of the worst wars this country has ever fought. The Civil War had left many people destitute and homeless, barely surviving during a time of great national turmoil. While most of the nation was trying to rebuild, there were those who still longed for adventure. While some of those men turned to outlaw and banditry, most put their ambition into more profitable ventures.

By the end of the Civil War, Union and Confederate forces had consumed most of the beef east of the Mississippi. Meanwhile, during the Civil War, untended herds of wild longhorns in Texas multiplied by the thousands. Ranchers were soon burdened with large numbers of unsold cattle. While steer would sell for as much as fifty dollars a head back east, Texas ranchers were fortunate if they could make three dollars a head. This shortage of beef in the east, together with the overwhelming supply of cattle in Texas, created a demand that promised great profits if the ranchers could get their herds to the eastern cattle markets.


The Chisholm Trail is Born

Joseph McCoy is credited with being the first to take advantage of this situation. Prior to the Civil War, much of Indian Territory was considered off-limits to the white man. The only trails that stretched across this wild expanse of land prior to the Civil War were the military roads established between the small frontier forts. These trails were used to drive the cattle, but the journey was long and demanding.

The earliest drives in 1866 generally followed the old Texas Road. This trail was filled with difficulties and danger. Many cattle were lost in the deep streams, cattle strayed in the rough, timbered areas only to become tangled in the thick brush, and unpredictable weather harassed these early cowboys all along the drive. In addition to having to fight the wild forces of nature, they also had to fight off frustrated Indians who resented the cattle drives across their insufficient pasturelands.

As railroads stretched further across Missouri and the Kansas Territory, Joseph saw promise in a shorter, more direct route. While many of the hardships would remain, a shorter trail would cut down on the time it took to make the drive. He made a deal with the railroad, and soon began construction on new cattle pens and a hotel at the railhead in Abilene, Kansas. While construction was progressing, McCoy hired surveyors to mark a new route south towards Texas. Beginning with a route almost due south of Wichita, the survey team then followed Jesse Chisholm's trade road two hundred and twenty miles to his trading post on the North Canadian River.

From Jesse's trading post, they headed almost due south to Texas to the closest practical Red River crossing along the way. This river crossing was later known as the Red River Station. With a safe, easy route from Texas across Indian Territory to Abilene, now marked, McCoy distributed handbills throughout southern Texas inviting cattlemen to bring their herds to Abilene. Thus, the legendary Chisholm Trail was born.

The Chisholm Trail grew to be the preferred route for the cattle drives. This route crossed the Texas border at Red River Station and went directly north to the present site of El Reno. From there it forked, one branch going north and west towards Dodge City, known as “the cow capital of the world”, and the other heading north through Caldwell, Kansas, to Wichita. The Chisholm Trail crossed the Kiowa and Comanche country, part of the Chickasaw Nation, the Unassigned Lands, and the areas reserved for the southern Siouan and western Algonkian tribes, paralleling the 98th Meridian.

This great artery of the northern drive was named for Jesse Chisholm, the trader. Jessee was the son-in-law of the proprietor of Edwards' Post at the mouth of Little River. The Chisholm Ranch, near the site of Asher, drove cattle nearly one hundred miles to King Fisher's stagecoach station, where the Texas cattle passed on the way to Kansas. Jesse Chisholm, more interested in trade than livestock growing, hauled provisions south from Caldwell, Kansas, to supply the crews on the great cattle drives. The Cherokee Indian trader thus became the best-known person on the trail, and it was natural to designate the route by his name.

While the Chisholm Trail wasn’t the only trail that these iconic cowboys followed, it is perhaps the best known. Other major trails included the East Shawnee Trail that generally followed the Texas Road, the West Shawnee Trail, which split off from the east trail at Boggy Depot, and the Great Western Trail in the western part of the state.


The Rise of the Cowboy

Cowboys have often been portrayed as rugged, restless men intent on making a name for themselves.  While this is true in some circumstances, most of the heroic cowboys wanted nothing more than to make a living, and to be proud of what they accomplished.  These were mostly young men, driven by determination and high ambition to create a new life for themselves.

Many of these young men had fought in the Civil War.  If they hadn’t been involved in the fighting, then they were impacted in other ways.  Many lost their homes and families, while others simply didn’t know what to do with their lives after the war.  Eventually, they made a life in the great cattle drives.

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When they went into town, they always dressed in their finest.  They would put on their best hats and boots, and do their best to impress both women and friends.  Of course, this was all for show.  The cowboy was a rough and hardy breed of man.  When they went out on the trail, all facades of high class were lost to prudence.  Wearing work clothes and well-worn boots, these trailblazers quickly returned to business.


On The Trail

Hardships faced by the cowboy along the trail were immense and numerous. Not each trail was created equal. Each trail had its own advantages and disadvantages. Before the men rode out, they had to consider the best route to take. One point that always had to be considered was the Indian lands. During the great cattle drives, Native Americans were becoming despondent with their lot in life. There were only a few skirmishes at first; a few eager Indian warriors would attack a cattle drive simply to prove a point. As time progressed, these small skirmishes quickly grew enflamed. The Plains Tribes were at war with all Texans, but particularly with cowboys.

Quarrels arose among the Indians, and soon the quarrels flared into fights. Even though numerous forts were established, there were never enough soldiers to protect both cowboys and settlers. Still, the U.S. Government did its best to restore order. Newspapers dubbed the Plains Indian wars of the late 1860s and the 1870's "the worst war this country has ever fought, and all the worse for being undeclared." The "battle" of the Washita, fought in the early morning of November 27, 1868, when the Seventh Cavalry under Col. George Custer attacked a Cheyenne peace village under the old priest-chief, Black Kettle, was typical of the skirmished fought in western Oklahoma.

While the Indian wars were the biggest concern to the Cowboy, they also had to contend with the many notorious outlaws that roamed throughout the Indian Territory. In fact, many cowboys, unhappy with their chosen profession, turned to a life of crime. While there were soldiers in Indian Territory, the only true law was located in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

The forces of nature also had a huge impact on the cattle drives. Heavy rains flooded established fords, numerous heads of cattle would quickly become lost in tangled vegetation, and the long, dry summer months wore the cowboys to exhaustion.

The End of the Drive

Like the life of the horse Indians of the Plains, the life of the range cattle industry of the same region was relatively short.  Between 1866 and 1885, about 6,000,000 head of cattle were driven north from Texas to the Kansas railroad lines or to northern ranges in Nebraska, the Dakotas, Wyoming, or Montana.  The Missouri, Kansas and Texas railroad, completed in 1872, the Santa Fe line completed across Oklahoma lands in 1886, and other lines from Texas to Kansas quickly reduced the cattle drives to local operations.

By the end of 1885, there was little open, unfenced range left.  The old cowboy saying "barbed wire ruined Texas" was just as true in Oklahoma.  As soon as homesteads, fields, and pasturelands were fenced, the range cattle industry and the trail herds were gone. 

The Great Cattle Trails Today

Many of these historic trails have now turned into multi-lane highways. I-40 has replaced the California Road, U.S. 81 is aligned along the Chisholm Trail, and U.S. 69, follows the old Texas Road and the Shawnee Trail.

Eighty miles west of Colbert's Ferry the Chisholm Trail crossed Red River near Ringgold, Texas, and extended north to the Kansas line. This famous route, slightly irregular because of the locations of the best fords, was roughly parallel to the 98th meridian and to the line followed later by the Rock Island railroad and U.S. Highway 81.

As you travel these roads, take a moment to remember those hardy cowboys who blazed trails across Oklahoma.


All of the information was collected through in-person visits while on assignment for Oklahoma Traveler and verified from the following sources:

Oklahoma Historical Society archives

Cowboys, Ranchers and the Cattle Business: Cross-Border Perspectives on Ranching History, Edited by Simon M. Evans, Sarah Carter, and Bill Yeo

Storm and Stampede on the Chisholm, Hubert Edwin Collins, U of Nebraska Press, 1998 (First published 1928 - very fascinating book!)

© 2010 Eric Standridge

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