Monday, April 23, 2012

A funny thing about early trail drives from Kerr County

A cattle drive.  Source
I found a first-hand account of the start of the cattle business in Kerr County which had an unexpected twist.
Last week I reported here on the memories of J. J. Denton, a Kerr County pioneer who recalled family incidents with bands of Indians, his fondness for bear meat, and what life was like here in the very earliest days of the county. I found this story in an old issue of J. Marvin Hunter's "Frontier Times," published long ago in Bandera.
Denton's memories about cattle drives were quite surprising.
"When the men were at the front during the Civil War the cattle went wild," he remembered. "There was nobody to brand them, and, in the absence of marks, after the war, they belonged to the first man who could clap a hot iron to them. There was a wild scramble to see who could brand the greatest number."
Without a market, though, the cattle were "almost worthless."
And then markets sprang up in Kansas.
I've written in this space about trail drives, about the hardships endured by the cowboys who made the trip, about how young many of those cowboys were.
I once heard T. R. (Ted) Fehrenbach, author of numerous works on the history of our state and region, and one of my favorite authors, give a talk about the Cowboy era. Mr. Fehrenbach suggests that the fellows we recognize from the Westerns, the flickering black and white matinee images, the Cowboys, were really a part of the short-lived Cattle Kingdom that sprang up right after the Civil War and was virtually gone by the 1890's. What gave rise to this important, but brief, part of our history was pure economics: cattle were worth 50 cents a head in Texas, but worth $16 per head in Kansas. The invention of the cowboy was created to meet the challenge of getting the cattle from here to there.
The cattle of Mexico were largely used for their hides; the markets in Kansas focused on the value of the beef needed to feed the growing industrial cities of the American North. All types of people were needed to help move the cattle north to market, and many of the Cowboys were Hispanic or Black, foreign or Yankee, and they blended together into their own culture. They were almost uniformly young, "teenagers out in a dangerous area making their own rules."
Young people responded to the dangerous job of moving the cattle north for several reasons: the adventure, the challenge, but mostly for the freedom. "There were no structures in the Texas West, where you had 1 person in 100 square miles -- because you couldn't impose structure in that environment."
The job itself wasn't the glamorous Hollywood picture we've grown accustomed to: you could get killed on a trail drive, and cowboys seldom made two trips. The work was hazardous, cold, dirty, wet and often brutal, and all for little pay. Yet the trail drivers seldom lacked recruits.
And yet there was something funny about the very start of the cattle business in Kerr County, according to J. J. Denton.
"In 1872 or 1873 the first trail herds of South Texas were gathered up. Reports that settlers could get actual money for cattle for the mere trouble of driving them to Kansas at first found little credence among us and many refused to believe until men who were known to have started north with cattle came back and showed the gold pieces.
"From that time on the movement of cattle north increased every year. They went by the tens of thousands, making people along the route wonder where they all came from and why, after so heavy a movement, there appeared to be as many of them as there ever were still on the range."
Disbelief. That was Kerr County's initial reaction to driving cattle north.
Until next week, all the best.
Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who couldn't drive cattle to water, much less make them drink. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times April 21, 2012.

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