Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Look at Longhorns

I have been re-reading “The Longhorns” by J. Frank Dobie. Being something of a history buff, especially history that relates to Texas and even more particularly, that relates to the Panhandle region, I have really enjoyed getting reacquainted with this classic work.

When we look at the cattle that cover the plains today, what we see is a far cry from the tough-hided, multi-colored Longhorns of legend. We see fine-haired cattle with rarely a stubby set of horns that is descended from British breeds that were first brought to this country to “upgrade” the breed that could be considered the first in Texas.

Considering Longhorns a breed is probably not especially accurate. There was little uniformity in the original Longhorn cattle that developed in the brush country of central and southern Texas. They were descendants of Mexican corriente and crillo cattle that escaped the first ranchers to venture into the wilds of Texas. But that wasn’t all of the blood that flowed through their veins. Oxen that transported the first Anglo inhabitants from the fledgling ports of the 1830’s often escaped to run wild in the brush and add their genetic diversity to what came to be called the Longhorn. Along with the oxen, Old Bossy, the family milk cow added her characteristics as well.

Longhorns were a product of survival. It took horns to fight off wolves and bears which inhabited the brush country in those early days. It also took fleetness and a sort of natural cunning that enabled the Longhorns, in country beset by cactus, drought, and thickets of thorny shrubs that rabbits could hardly penetrate, to survive.

During the period between establishing the first colonies in Texas until after the Civil War, the wild cattle of Texas were rarely bothered. They were commonly hunted like deer for table beef or for their hides. The hides were generally used as rawhide to make many common items that early settlers were unable to obtain by other means.

During the Civil War, a number of these wild South Texas cattle were trailed north and east to help meet the needs of the Confederacy for beef. It was not until after the war was over and thousands of former soldiers and displaced people headed west to make their fortunes that the Longhorns were seen as a potential treasure.

Beginning in the late 1860’s, the cattle were trapped and gathered into herds to make the trail north or east to railroads where they could be shipped to slaughter houses to meet the growing demand for beef. Those cattle trails really weren’t trails at all. They were marked by general way points where good water could be found. The trails were constantly shifting westward as the prairies became tamed and settlers ventured into lands previously under the control of the Indians.

The first Longhorns to trail into the Texas Panhandle arrived compliments of Charlie Goodnight in 1876. The Goodnight cattle came from the brush country of the Nueces River in South Texas. The cattle likely came west on the Goodnight-Loving trail which headed up the middle branch of the Concho River before heading across country to Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos. Goodnight supplied cattle to John Chisum at Bosque Redondo in New Mexico as well as to a few other hardy ranchers that were able to hold onto large chunks of range by negotiating, sometimes with lead, an uneasy truce with the Apache and Comanche Indians that still ruled. He also supplied beef that ended up at some of the far-flung outposts of the U.S. Cavalry. Ultimately Goodnight decided to establish a ranch on the upper Arkansas River in Colorado. Some of his first stock was purchased from John Chisum and trailed up the Pecos and then cross-country into Colorado.

In 1876, Goodnight decided to pull up stakes in Colorado and move into the newly “tamed” country of the Texas Panhandle. The natural features of Palo Duro Canyon made it easy to hold his Longhorns. It also provided good grass along the banks of the creek and in the various side canyons that fed into it. The high walls provided shelter from the storms that swooped down from the north. Ranching had come to the Panhandle.

Close on his heels came other ranchers and efforts to upgrade the stock from the wild critter that was built for running and for fighting wolves into the tame creature that we see today. The Texas Longhorns helped to tame the land that no longer needed their survival characteristics.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. I never knew longhorns were such a big part of our countries history.

Sandy Kessler said...

I had actually wondered about the depictions seen thorughout the years- Stimulating and educational post ..the teacher learned something

WomanHonorThyself said...

thanks for the history..I wrote a post about may have an opinion on it PP!

Donald Douglas said...

Well, Texas is in the news today, althought not so much the Longhorns!

Have a great election day!!

Anonymous said...

There are people who have Long Horns here in North Georgia. Generally, they are the same folks who keep a wagon and mules for the parades on Labor Day, Fourth of July, etc.