At the end of the Civil War, there were five million cattle in Texas, but the market for them was in the North and East. A steer worth $4 in Texas could be sold for $40 in those markets - if the cattleman could get the steer there. So Texas ranchers began using “cowboys” to drive their herds north to “cowtowns” on the railroad in Kansas. The great cattle drives began in 1866 and went on for 20 years. Their routes became famous: the Western Trail, the Loving Trail, and the Chisholm Trail. At the cowtowns – Abilene, Ellsworth, Wichita, Dodge City – the steers were loaded aboard trains and sent to market.
Cattle drives were hard and dangerous work. Herds could be stampeded by lightening or thunder. There were flooded rivers to cross, but in dry times water was scarce. Cowboys had to guard against Indians and rustlers. The cowboys took their meals at the chuck wagon and at night slept under the stars. But in the end of the drive they could “cut loose”. In Dodge City, a cowboy wrote, “glasses clinked, dice rattled….violins, flutes, and cornets sent eager strains of waltz and polka…As the night sped on, the saloons became clamorous with….songs and laughter.”
The largest cattle drive on record took place in 1869, when 200 cowboys set out for Texas with a herd of 15,000 steers.