When Texas became a part of the United States certain obvious phenomenon of nature were at once recognized. Take a Texan steer, bred and born there, carry him northerly, and the same grass that fatted the Buffalo would improve the gaunt flanks of the southern beast. On the sun cured grasses, the succulent buffalo grass, or the gamma, or mesquite groves, a Texan steer of five or 600 pounds would rapidly increase in bulk of fully 33%. Here was business, and an easy way of making money. As early as 1857 Texas cattle were driven to Illinois. Then the cattle driving went on and on, until the Civil War broke it up. Now came the time when Texas, with no outlet for her stock, had pent up within her domain a million head of horned animals, which had no actual or determined value. The war over, then there burst forth his overwhelming mass of beef and hides.
At the same time, the innovations of men like Gustavus Swift and Philip Armour helped to cause U.S. meat–consumption patterns to change significantly from pork to beef.
The primary cattle drive era extended from 1866 to 1886. Between 1867 and 1881 alone, more than 4 million cattle were driven out of Texas to the northern railheads, where they were shipped, chopped and consumed on the east coast.
A single herd of cattle on a drive ranged between 500 and 3,000 head.
A crew of approximately 10 cowboys was needed to drive a herd along the trail. The ratio of cows to cowboys ranged from about 30 to 1 to 40 to 1.
Every drive was led by a trail boss who picked the route. Large trails such as the Chisholm trail could be fifty miles wide in places.
Point men to lead the herd from the front. Swing riders maintained front flanks. Flank riders maintained herd shape on the back flanks. The rear cowboys rode drag.
The crew also usually had a cook and a wrangler.
The Chisholm Trail was established in 1865 by Jesse Chisholm. The Chisholm trail ran approximately 600 miles from San Antonio, Texas, to Abilene, Kansas. In order to ensure that the cattle didn’t lose too much muscle along the drive, the herds only traveled an average of 12 to 15 miles a day.
In 1871 alone, more than 700,000 head of cattle were driven along the Chisholm Trail.
The Goodnight–Loving Trail extended from Texas to Colorado and New Mexico.
The great cattle drives ended by the mid-1880’s. The expanded use of barbed wire blocked the right–of–way the drives used to use. Mostly, the continued expansion of the railroad into the south and west made the drives unnecessary.