Post-Civil War Americans Move Westward to Make Money from Animals

After the Civil War, Texas soldiers returned to find as many as five million cattle roaming around the state. The cattle were descendants of animals brought to the area hundreds of years before by Spanish explorers. There was plenty of grazing land and enough water, and the cattle were a hardy breed.

Now, Texans were as fond of beef as the next state’s inhabitants, but they really wanted to find a way to share their wealth on the hoof with the rest of the nation. Cattle worth $3 to $4 a head in Texas could be sold for ten times that much in Eastern states, if you could get them there.

Cattle drives to the East and even California had been tried before. But many of the cattle died before the drives were over, and the survivors were worn thin by the effort.

After the war, however, someone got the idea to shorten the distances by driving cattle to the railroads that were moving west, and then shipping them east by rail. Rail met cow at “trailheads” in Abilene and Dodge City in Kansas, Ogalalla in Nebraska, and Cheyenne in Wyoming.

By 1871, 750,000 head of cattle were moving through Abilene alone. By 1875, the advent of the refrigerated car allowed cattle to be slaughtered and butchered in Midwest cities like Kansas City and Chicago before being shipped east.

The rise of the cattle industry also gave rise to an American icon: the cowboy. Hollywood turned the cowboy into a romantic figure who was quick on the draw with a six-shooter and spent most of his time drinking whiskey and playing poker in town, with a dance-hall girl hovering at his shoulder.

In truth, the cowboy was more likely an ex-Confederate soldier or former slave who spent most of his life on the back of a short-legged cow pony, hundreds of miles from the nearest bar or woman. He was brave and tough, but he was far less likely to use his pistol on his fellow man than he was on rattlesnakes or as a noisemaker.

He was likely in his late teens or early 20s, and about one in five was African American. He worked for $25 a month and ate beans, bacon, and black coffee day after day.

By the early 1890s, the day of the cowboy and the cattle drive was coming to an end. Like other aspects of American life, inventions (such as barbed wire) and investments (by Easterners and Europeans) turned ranching into big business, and cowboys became caretakers on large fenced ranches rather than riders of the range. A far less glamorous, but much more numerous, type of Westerner was now dominant: the sodbuster.

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