In the mid-1800s, waves of people were heading West. Some had emigrated from other countries. Some had been born in the United States. Some were seeking to make their fortunes. Some were simply seeking a better life and some breathing room. But they were all headed in the same general direction. Westward, ho! Knowing that man cannot live on cornpone alone, a new sort of businessman entered the scene—the Texas cattle baron.
Cattle barons have long been immortalized in movie and television Westerns. The images of grizzled men driving massive herds of cattle across the countryside are as ingrained in our minds as . . . as ingrained in our minds as . . . well, as something that’s really ingrained in our minds! (Sometimes the analogies come to me and sometimes they don’t!) That grand history is one of the reasons why we here at Stargazer Mercantile are so proud of our Cattle Baron Collection of home décor!
But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. To understand the history of the Texas cattle baron, you must first understand the history of Texas cattle! When Mexico controlled Texas, the Mexican government would give land to settlers who promised to raise cattle. Land grants included 4,428 acres for cattle ranchers! Of course, Mexicans referred to the land as the “desert of the dead”. Still, there were many people willing to accept the offer. And, as it turned out, the Texas climate and geographical features made much of the land particularly suited to raising cattle, as the cattle could graze on prairie grass.
The Civil War threw a kink into the Texas cattle industry. While many cattle ranchers were off fighting for the Confederacy, Confederate soldiers were starving. There was beef to be had, but there was no way of getting it to the soldiers. That’s because the Union soldiers controlled the Mississippi River. Meanwhile, the number of cattle was increasing because the herds were roaming free and grazing to their hearts’ content. That’s where the law of supply and demand entered the picture. Supply was up. Cattle prices plummeted. In 1861, the price of cattle dropped to $2.00 a head! Unfortunately, few people had the money to afford beef, even at bargain basement prices. Ah, but the Civil War ended and it seemed that Scarlett O’Hara wasn’t the only one who had said, “As God as my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”
The Cattle Driving Force
Following the Civil War, demand for beef was at an all-time high. The timing couldn’t have been better. When the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, east and west were irrevocably joined. For all of their differences, people in the East and people in the West had one thing in common. They all had to eat!
As railroads expanded, so did the Texas cattle market. Texas ranchers drove cattle to railroads to be shipped to market. Between 1867 and 1887, an estimated six million head of cattle were driven from Texas to Abilene, Kansas via the Chisholm Trail. As more railroads were built, more cattle trails were developed.
Give Me Land, Lots of Land…
When it came to Texas cattlemen, there were ranchers and there were BARONS. It was sort of the difference between owning a fun size candy bar and owning Hershey, PA. James Taylor White has the honor of being known as the first Texas cattle baron in East Texas. He was ahead of the curve, as he began driving cattle to market in Louisiana in the 1830s. While his operation was small potatoes when compared to those of future cattle barons, Taylor still earned his nickname of Cattle King of Southeast Texas.
It would be impossible to talk about Texas cattle barons without spending some time talking about the real King of the cattle barons, Richard King. King began buying up land in the Santa Gertrudis valley of Texas, in 1853. At the encouragement of his closest friend, Robert E. Lee, Richard King continued to buy up land in South Texas. What was once barren land became baron land! King’s motto was, “Buy land and never sell.”
In the early years, King wasn’t becoming wealthy, but he was accumulating the land that would forever make him the King of ranching. King’s motto paid off. While he built his ranch, he also worked hard to improve the quality of his breeding stock. He was the first person to crossbreed Brahman with English Shorthorns. That breed became known as Santa Gertrudis and was specific to the King Ranch. His work with cross breeding horses gave us the Western quarter horse. He survived a Union Army attack, during the Civil War. He fought off cattle rustlers. And he built a 600,000-acre ranch that made him a multi-millionaire, even in those days. King Ranch continues to be a Texas institution of epic proportions, even today. And, here’s your daily dose of trivia: The King family is said to have been the basis of the television show, “Dallas”.
Many other cattle barons pooled their resources and went into business together. That was the case of five men who formed the Coleman-Fulton Pasture Company. They were also the men responsible for some of the first fences in South Texas.
The J.A. Ranch, founded by the legendary Charles Goodnight and his partner, John Adair, in 1876, is the oldest privately owned cattle ranch in the Texas Panhandle. It covered portions of six counties! The J.A. Ranch remains a working ranch, operated by Adair heirs.
Herd it Through the Grapevine
Whew! This really is a topic too big to be contained in one blog post. The stories of Texas cattle barons seem as endless as the herds of cattle they drove across the land. They were the men who provided employment for countless cowhands and provided food for countless families—all while establishing their place in Western history.
Happy Trails, y’all!