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Pale Horse Revelations: #11 - Cattle Drives

Hello readers and welcome back to Pale Horse Revelations where we explore the historical elements of my debut novel "Behold a Pale Horse: The Legend of the Pale Rider Part I." This week's entry takes a deeper look at cattle drives. In my novel, the protagonist participates in a short cattle drive, driving 3,000 head of cattle from Jesse Chisolm's trading post (near present-day Wichita, Kansas) to the Sac & Fox reservation. As mentioned in an earlier entry, this cattle drive did actually occur. Of course, the participants (with the exception of Chisolm) and events described in the novel are products of my imagination. In truth, there's not much in the way of detail regarding this event in the historical record. Every indication is that it was relatively uneventful.

But that wasn't always the case. In fact, cattle drives could be fraught with danger. They were physically and mentally grueling. While Chisolm and company traveled a relatively short distance, the majority of cattle drives covered hundreds, if not thousands, of miles. In the early days of the cattle boom, large herds were driven from all over Texas up through Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), and on to Abilene, Kanas. The goal of this week's entry is to give readers a deeper insight into one the defining elements of the American Old West.

By the end of the American Civil War there was an overabundance of cattle throughout the state of Texas. The laws of supply and demand made these cattle virtually worthless in their home state. But four years of war and devastation had created a different reality in the North and East. Here there was an overwhelming demand for fresh beef. By 1866 the going price was as much as $40 a head in the northern markets. The challenge faced by the Texas cattlemen was how to get their herds to market.

Joseph McCoy, a cattle buyer from Illinois, was instrumental in meeting this challenge. He was able to persuade the Kansas Pacific Railroad to lay track to Abilene, Kansas in 1867. Mccoy also built holding pins and loading facilities in Abilene. When all was ready, he sent messengers throughout Texas spreading word about the new market in Kansas.

The Texas cattlemen, desperate to sell their herds, responded with enthusiasm. They followed the trail previously blazed by Jesse Chisolm through Indian territory. Although originally referred to as simply the Trail (or sometimes McCoy's Trail), this route would eventually become known as the Chisolm Trail. O. H. Wheeler and his partners were the first to use this route when they drove 2,400 steers from San Antonio up the trail all the way to Abilene in 1867. But they would certainly not be the last. An estimated 35,000 head of cattle made their way up the trail that year. That number doubled each year thereafter until 1871. All told, an estimated five million cattle made their way from Texas to Abilene, Kanas by way of the Chisolm Trial.

The long trip up the Chisolm Trail was hazardous for cattle and cowboys alike. The trip typically took over two months. Cattle could be safely driven an average of fifteen miles per day. Anything over that caused them to lose so much weight that they became almost impossible to sell.

The terrain was challenging. Herds had to cross major rivers including the Arkansas and Red Rivers. They had to traverse deep canyons and low mountain ranges. Cattle are easily spooked making stampedes a constant threat. Prairie fires posed another serious threat.

As if these natural risks weren't enough, there was the human element to consider as well. Attacks by Native Americans were common. Rustlers posed an additional risk. Both groups could be ruthless.

The average drive consisted of 3,000 head of cattle. This number required a minimum of ten cowboys. Each cowboy required at least three horses. In addition to the drovers each crew also included a cook, who drove the chuck wagon. In addition to being in charge of the food, the cook was also in charge of medical supplies and typically had a working knowledge of medical practices. Another key member of the crew was the wrangler. It was his job to take care of the spare horses. This crew member was often a very young cowboy and/or of a lower social status.

This brings us to the end of this week's edition of Pale Horse Revelations. I hope you enjoyed it. As usual, I have tried to provide some interesting background information that may enhance your reading experience while trying not to bog the casual reader down with too much detail. I encourage anyone interested in learning more to dig in and do a little research of their own.

As I bring this edition to a close, I need to ask for your assistance. This blog started out focusing on historical elements from my novel and giving readers a more in-depth look. I knew from the start that eventually I would exhaust that avenue and run out of historical elements from the book to explore. Now eleven issues in, that point will soon be reached.

This is where I need your help. I would love to hear from you, my readers, about topics related to the Old West that you would like to know more about. All you need to do is fill out the Contact form found near the bottom of my home page ( and indicate your suggested topic in the message box at the bottom of the form. I look forward to hearing from you all.

Please be sure to check back next week for the next installment of Pale Horse Revelations and thank you for your continued interest and support.

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