The Longhorns

[ Texas ]

The Longhorns

By J. Frank Dobie

Folklore about the famous breed of Texas cattle.



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6 x 9 | 440 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-74627-5

The Texas Longhorn made more history than any other breed of cattle the world has known. These wiry, intractable beasts were themselves pioneers in a harsh land, moving elementally with drouth, grass, Arctic blizzards, and burning winds. Their story is the bedrock on which the history of the cow country of America is founded.

J. Frank Dobie was a tale spinner who appreciated the proper place of legend and folklore in history. In The Longhorns, he tells of the Spanish conquistadors, who brought their cattle with them; of ranching in the turbulent colonial times; of the cowboy, whose abandon, energy, insolence, and pride epitomized the booming West. He writes of terrifying stampedes, titantic bull fights on the range, ghost steers, and encounters with Indians.

A tireless prospector of the history and legends of the Southwest, Dobie spent most of his life preparing to write this book. He was born in the Texas brush country where the Longhorns made their last stand; he back-trailed them into Mexico; he pursued the vivid lore of Texas cowboys and Mexican vaqueros. No historian or naturalist has ever so related an animal to the land, its people, and its history.

  • Introductory: Makers of History
  • I. The First Spanish Cattle
  • II. The Texas Breed
  • III. Mavericks and Maverickers
  • IV. On the Trail
  • V. Stompedes
  • VI The Way They Ran
  • VII. Epitaph on the Lone Prairie
  • VIII. Bulls and the Blood Call
  • IX. Cows and Curiosity
  • X. Smell and Thirst
  • XI. Vitality, Drifts and Die-ups
  • XII. Horns
  • XIII. Rawhide
  • XIV. Oxen and Tails
  • XV. Sancho and Other Returners
  • XVI. Lead Steers and Neck Oxen
  • XVII. Outlaws of the Brush
  • XVIII. Hidden in the Thickets
  • XIX. Molded by Horn and Thorn
  • XX. Sundown
  • Photographic Record of the Longhorns
  • Notes
  • Index

The Texas longhorn made more history than any other breed of cattle the civilized world has known. As an animal in the realm of natural history, he was the peer of bison or grizzly bear. As a social factor, his influence on men was extraordinary. An economic agent in determining the character and occupation of a territory continental in its vastness, he moved elementally with drouth, grass, blizzards out of the Arctic and the wind from the south. However supplanted or however disparaged by evolving standards and generations, he will remain the bedrock on which the history of the cow country of America is founded. In picturesqueness and romantic realism his name is destined for remembrance as long as the memory of man travels back to those pristine times when waters ran clear, when free grass waved a carpet over the face of the earth, and America's Man on Horseback--not a helmeted soldier, but a booted cowboy--rode over the rim with all the abandon, energy, insolence, pride, carelessness and confidence epitomizing the booming West.

The Longhorn was, as will be detailed, basically Spanish. Yet, when he entered upon the epoch of his continent-marking history, he was as Texan as his counterpart, the Texas cowboy. Cavalier means "horseman." The Texan had behind him the horse-riding tradition of the more literal than figurative "cavalier South." In the lower part of Texas he met the herd-owning Spanish caballero--which word also means "horseman." He met the Spaniard's vaquero, the mounted worker with cows. He met the ranching industry of the open range, appropriated it, and shortly thereafter began extending it beyond the limits of the wildest initial dream. The coming together, not in blood but in place and occupation, of this Anglo-American, this Spanish owner, and this Mexican vaquero produced the Texas cowboy--a blend, a type, new to the world. The cow that called forth both him and the industry he represented was the mother of the Texas Longhorn.

The same cow was in California. The Anglo-Americans that towards high noon of the last century suddenly rushed into that land and took it over were all gold-mad. They went to eating up the cow. With gold to buy with and the cow almost consumed, the price of meat rose to such heights that early in the 1850's Texas cowboys, ready to fight Comanche or Apache, began driving herds to California. Geology, geography and the character of Texas cows, cowboys and cowmen, together with movements of population and with economic conditions, conspired to put the Texan stamp upon the range industry of all Western America.

When it had nothing else, Texas had more and more land for the raising of cattle and more and more cattle for the world beyond. At the very hour of the battle of San Jacinto, which gave Texas her independence, a herd of Texas cattle was being trailed to New Orleans, which for decades continued as a market, cattle being shipped thence north by boat. Shreveport and Vidalia (opposite Natchez on the Mississippi) and New Iberia were other loading points. A good many cattle were shipped from Texas ports. Before the Civil War thousands had been trailed to Chicago. During the forties and fifties, Missouri and other states of the Middle West received many small herds. At least one went to New York.

Meanwhile ranches were expanding. If a range became crowded, all the owner or the self-dependent cattle had to do was to push on. The depredating Indians were a hundred times more avid for horses than for cattle: they raided down from lands swarming with buffaloes, and generally they preferred buffalo meat to cow meat. A reserve of cattle was mounting from which the exports and the negligible home consumption amounted to hardly a tithe. Beef for eating was virtually free to whoever wanted to go out and kill.

According to Department of Agriculture figures, in 1860 the United States (including Texas) had 31,417,331 people and 25,640,337 cattle; in 1870, more than 40,000,000 people and a decrease in cattle to the number of 21,633,069. Yet during the first half of this period the Texas cattle had probably doubled in number. Here in Texas was a population so sparse that half the state's area still belonged to the Indian and the buffalo. At the same time, cattle were so plentiful and capital so utterly lacking that at the end of the War they could not be sold for a dollar apiece. As late as 1874, "Fine fat beef sells at three cents per lb. in San Marcos market stalls." Before the Texans put a single branded cow on the luxuriant grass of their own Panhandle-Plains territory--which began to be stocked in 1876--they had driven millions of Longhorns up the trail.

The Chisholm Trail was a canal out of the mighty dammed-up reservoir of Texas beef to meat-lacking consumers with money to buy. That Trail became a fact when in 1867 Abilene, Kansas, with a railroad carrying stock-cars eastward--and with construction pushing rails on towards the Pacific--established a definite, dependable market for Texas cattle. The year before this, it is true, more than a quarter of a million of Longhorns had been trailed northward without specific destinations--like the boll weevil, "just looking for a home," and with results generally disastrous.

The Chisholm Trail was a lane opening out of a vast breeding ground swarming with cattle life to a vacant, virgin range of seemingly illimitable expanse. It initiated the greatest, the most extraordinary, the most stupendous, the most fantastic and fabulous migration of animals controlled by man that the world has ever known or can ever know. During the seventies the Plains Indians were all being killed off or rounded up; at the same time the buffalo were all but annihilated. An empire of vacated grass awaited occupation--an empire fringed with population far to the east--being traversed, but not halted in, by streams of human beings migrating to the Pacific slope.

Governor O. M. Roberts, the "Old Alcalde" of Texas, said "Civilization follows the plow." Over a great part of Texas and west of the Missouri River, the plow followed riders of cow ponies; and these riders followed Texas Longhorns. During a swift, dramatic, sweeping generation, the Longhorns, their trails crossing at right angles the trails of population, occupied the world being left empty by the buffaloes. The Chisholm Trail, with many prongs flowing into it from the south, was pushed farther and farther west, taking on other names and sprangling out with many extensions. These trails became rivers of Longhorns, surging and flowing to locate themselves and to establish the ranching industry--in the Indian Territory; on the high Plains of Texas; over New Mexico, Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana; in parts of Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, and away on into Canada.

By the hundreds of thousands these Longhorns were dispensed at agencies to Indians whose natural supply of meat had vanished. Their frozen carcasses, in the seventies, were being shipped in such quantities from the Atlantic seaboard that the economy of the British Isles was disturbed. To Texas they brought financial recovery from war and reconstruction far in advance of the other Southern States, laying foundations for fortunes now hardly computable. They were the makers and shakers of a ranching boom into which syndicates from across the Atlantic and capitalists of New England frenziedly pitched millions.

After 1888 the north-flowing stream of Longhorns became a dribble. By 1895, the trails out of Texas were all fenced across or plowed under. Ten million cattle, it has been authoritatively estimated, were driven over them between 1866 and 1890.

Emphasis on the great number of Texas cattle, and on their low values at times, is likely to be misleading. Prices, as of all produce, fluctuated. Even before 1836 mature steers sold for ten dollars a head in Texas, though cash buyers were scarce. This was far more than they brought in 1866. But ten years later they were worth twenty dollars, other classes of cattle advancing accordingly. In the early eighties, prices went out of sight and the demand for stock cattle was so great that some ranges in South Texas were virtually denuded of cattle. In 1893, Texas cows--"calves throwed in"--that had sold for twenty-five dollars in 1884 brought six dollars.

It cost about a dollar a head to drive an average herd from Southern Texas to the far Northwest. At the same time, the spread in prices between the two regions was from three to five dollars a head. In some years the big trail operators made "barrels of money." Most of them, however, died broke. A common range term for cattle trader was "speculator." A man who in January contracted for June delivery of big steers might make or lose from five to twenty dollars a head. Uncertainty of rain and grass and certainty of price fluctuation have made the cattle industry the most speculative of businesses.


But this book is not a history of the cattle industry, least of all of economic development over the cow country. It is about the animal itself that generated cowboys, brought ranches into existence, gave character to the grazing world of America, and furnished material for political economy.

It attempts to show the animal's wild beginnings and his life during the times when he walked up the greatest cattle trails of history and dominated an ocean of grass, brush and mountain, before he suffered a displacement as absolute as that he was employed to make of the buffalo. His horns, hide, and hardihood will loom large in the picture. Not a psychologist, I have attempted to master cow psychology and to picture its manifestations in stampedes and silent thickets. With no claim to being a naturalist, I have gone into the habits and instincts of the animal. I am a teller of folk tales, and as a historian I have not hesitated to use scraps of folklore to enforce truth and reality.

While this book is not about the men of the range, necessarily they come into it many times, in many ways, in many episodes. They come into it as men of cattle. The psychological impact--of which they were as unconscious as the impactors--upon them by their iron-sinewed, wild-living cattle, creatures primordially harmonized to a nature that they at times defied, is a part of the Longhorn record.

"How can they be wise whose talk is of oxen?" the son of Sirach asked. John Lockwood Kipling, who begat not only the author of the Jungle Books but a very interesting book of his own entitled Beast and Man in India, calls the ox "the chief pillar of the Indian empire." The "close association of the ploughman with his cattle," he says, "the slow steady tramp at their heels over the field and over again in infinite turns, has given a bovine quality to the mind of those who follow the plough all round the world. Perhaps the Irish potato-digging cottier, the English market-gardener, the French vine-dresser and spade cultivators generally are smarter and more alert. The lagging, measured step may compel the mind to its cadence, and the anodyne of monotony may soothe and still the temper. However this may be, it is certain that the Indian cultivator is very like the ox. He is patient, and bears all that drouth, flood, storm and murrain can do with the same equanimity with which the ox bears blows. When the oxen chew the cud and their masters take their nooning, the jaws of man and beast move in exactly the same manner."

But no "brother to the ox" was the cowboy of the Longhorn range. The men that have ridden down the dawn have never been fat and scant of breath. They often rode into camp and drank coffee sitting in the saddle, ready to spring forward. At pools they dipped up water with the hand, in the manner of the chosen fighters under Gideon, with eyes averted, made ceaselessly alert by the alert animals they watered with. Many a night they slept booted and spurred and ready to ride. They knew how to linger; they had "ample time"; but their repose was the repose of strength capable of steel-spring action and not that of constitutional lethargy.

I myself have ridden a few good horses, not only on the range but as a mounted artilleryman. Directing a battery of field artillery in a hot gallop, the caissons rumbling and rattling, the harness jingling, the eager horses pounding the earth into a tremble, gives a wonderful exhilaration. It must be a fine feeling that some men get from riding a proud and beautiful horse on exhibition before admiring spectators. The chase of cat or wolf to the music of hounds and horn is dawn itself. But I do not believe that any kind of riding will pump virtue into a man like that in pursuit of wild, strong, mighty-horned cattle plunging for liberty or just walking like phalanxes of destiny towards the tail end of the world. In any just comprehension of the Longhorn, his effect on men emanates constantly--like the effect of sailing ships and oceans upon "the Children of the Sea."


I appeared on this spinning globe just as the Texas Longhorn was being whirled off it. But it was my fortune--good fortune, I have always regarded it for myself--to be born in that part of Texas where the Longhorn was most at home and where he made his last stand. I was born on a ranch in the brush country, to a father who had gone up the trail with his brothers, sons of ranch parents, and to a mother whose father and brothers were range men and trail drivers also. Until I was a young man the only people I knew were people of the Longhorn and vaquero tradition.

Seventeen years ago I began making notes from reading and from the talk of men who had lived with Longhorns. For years I sought these men in widely divergent places, interviewing them, drawing them out. Often and often I have wished that I had been born earlier with opportunities for more firsthand observation and experience. I have back-trailed the Longhorn into Mexico, whence he came, and Mexican vaqueros on both sides of the Rio Grande have told me much. Many of these men who "learned me their lore" are dead now. In places through this book, mention is made of some of their names, as well as of others who still make the earth a saner place by living on it. By the time the grass greens and this book is published, some of these will be lying still in the earth they belong to. A long list, still incomplete, of men to whom I am indebted appears in the Notes.

Parts of some of the chapters of the book have appeared in the Southwest Review, Saturday Evening Post, Southwestern Historical Quarterly, the Southwestern Sheep and Goat Raiser, The Cattleman, the New York Herald-Tribune Magazine (which syndicated), Frontier Stories, and elsewhere. I here acknowledge the courtesy of various editors concerned. The Section of Fine Arts, Federal Works Agency, Washington, District of Columbia, has graciously given permission to reproduce the design of "The Stampede," by Tom Lea, in the post office at Odessa, Texas. My wife, Bertha McKee Dobie, has not only read proof but given me the benefit of her acute criticism.


Since Joel A. Allen's noble work on the American bison appeared in 1876, there has been a succession of books and studies on Bos bison, the work of Hornaday and Martin S. Garretson's recent The American Bison being outstanding. No book on the Longhorn (Bos texanus) has ever before this been attempted. Scattered facts about him may be found in Evetts Haley's History of the XIT Ranch and in his life of Charles Goodnight, in Oscar Rush's little-known but excellent The Open Range and Bunk House Philosophy, in J. L. Hill's pamphlet on The End of the Cattle Trail, in Jack Potter's two booklets, Cattle Trails of the Old West and Lead Steer, in Sam P. Ridings' monumental The Chisholm Trail, in R. B. Townshend's A Tenderfoot in Colorado, in that rare and information-packed volume entitled Prose and Poetry of the Livestock Industry of the United States, and in a few other books I might mention; but generally in range histories and reminiscences of old-time cowboys facts about cows are as meager as facts about bears in the autobiography of America's best-known bear hunter, David Crockett. I believe that I have virtually exhausted all printed and all available manuscript sources in the search for facts.

The Longhorn has been more essayed by art than by history. He bellowed to the stars in a call for the color and form and swiftness of art. About 1879 Frank Reaugh began painting the Longhorn from life. Although lacking in the barbaric virtue necessary to a realization of such primitive strength, he has nicely expressed the color harmony between grassland, sky and cattle. His contemporary in Texas, Harvey Wallace Caylor (1867-1932), less schooled and more rangy, caught something of the animal's elemental vigor and pride in life, but violated its anatomy.

The greatest artist of the West was Charles M. Russell. He knew the range from working on it and yearned towards it with primal gusto. He had a genius burning inside him that hardly another American artist has felt. He painted magnificently the Longhorn's fire, muscle and movement. Frederic Remington needs no adjective. He painted stampede and trail herd too. The etchings of Ed Borein (Santa Barbara, California) are authentic. Boyd Smith, who illustrated the books of Andy Adams, was faithful with the fidelity that The Log of a Cowboy and other works by Andy Adams stand for. Maynard Dixon and Will James--poles apart, for Dixon is finished, exact and historical, while James is sensational--belong in the gallery of Longhorn translators through art. The names of artists who have depicted or tried to depict the Longhorn are as numerous as the titles of Wild West magazines.

I wish it were possible to reproduce in a folio the best of the good Longhorn pictures. Some day, many of them will be gathered into the RANGE MUSEUM that is inevitable for Western America and that should, above all other places, be built where the Longhorn originated.

In 1886 Doctor William T. Hornaday, then chief taxidermist of the National Museum in Washington, realizing that the buffaloes--of which not a quarter of a century preceding perhaps sixty million, and possibly as many as one hundred million, blackened the Plains--were in imminent danger of extinction and that the great museum he represented did not have a single specimen, undertook to secure a few individuals for mounting. He was successful, and now there are magnificent habitat groups of the buffalo, magnificently mounted, in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, Denver, and perhaps elsewhere.

There is not in all America a properly mounted example of the Longhorn.

In 1905 the American Bison Society was organized to preserve for the American people not merely mounted specimens of dead buffalo but living examples on their native ranges. At that time there were probably 2000 specimens in the world. Today there are over 25,000.

Since about 1922, the Texas Longhorn has been nearer extinction than the buffalo ever was. The Federal Government has a herd on the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. They are doing well and are being intelligently handled, but they will never become the counterparts of the wild-antlered creatures that ranged over southern Texas.

Except for a limited rescue, mostly of steers alone, by a few individuals, no effort at all is being made to preserve the Longhorn in the Texas that marked him and that he marked no less.

We turn to the past. Readers who object to facts will do well to skip the first three chapters--and then merely to skim all the others. Like Mark Twain, I "seem to exude facts."

J. Frank Dobie
Austin, Texas
When the work's all done this fall, of 1940


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