The cattle trails and cowboys are essential elements in the mythos and romance of Texas. This aspect of Texas culture, more than any other, has enthralled worldwide audiences for years. Cattle drives and cowboys have been the subject of numerous books, films, and television shows.
A Path Through Ellis County
For years, Ellis County was located in the heart of cattle drive territory. During the years prior to and just after the Civil War, cattlemen moved cattle along a trail that ran from Austin to the north, through Waco, Waxahachie, and Dallas. It crossed the Red River into Oklahoma and ended in Missouri where the herds of cattle could be transported to northern markets by rail. This trail was known by several names. Pioneers often called this route the Sedalia Trail, the Texas Road, and the Kansas Trail, but it was most commonly known as the Shawnee Trail. Before it was used for cattle, this trail was already well-defined. Indians used this route for years as they hunted and traded throughout the territory. Later, settlers traveled this route to Texas from the Midwest. Cattlemen began driving their herds north on the Shawnee Trail as early as the 1840’s. The Trail followed a path that was roughly the same course as modern-day Interstate Highway 35 East. Chambers Creek provided an ideal to place to stop, rest, and water the cattle. Pecan Springs Ranch lay as a wide-open space at this time, carpeted in prairie grass. Therefore, it can be assumed that a fair number of cattle crossed over its borders, eating its nourishing grass and drinking from Chambers Creek.
The End of the Trail
Historians credit a small insect with bringing an end to the Shawnee Trail. Ticks, carried by Texas cattle, spread a deadly disease called Texas Fever to herds in the north. The Texas Longhorns were immune to the disease, but northern cattle were not. Texas Fever infected herds on farms along the cattle trail in Kansas and Missouri, causing them to sicken and die. In 1853, angry farmers met Texas drovers at the border of Missouri and turned back the cattle. Tempers flared for several years as Texas drovers sought ways to sneak their cattle across the border or circumvent the most populated areas.
Cattle drives on the Shawnee Trail abated during the Civil War because much of Texas’s manpower was off fighting for the Confederacy. Few men were driving or tending cattle, so the unattended longhorns multiplied in the wild. Men returned home in 1866 to find approximately six million unbranded, wild longhorns on the open ranges. There were so many longhorns available that they sold locally for only two dollars a head. However, meat deprived Northerners were willing to pay forty dollars a head, so cattle drivers took to the trail again. That year more than 200,000 head of cattle were driven to up the Shawnee Trail to railways in Missouri. However, tensions were still high. Farmers and vigilante groups in Missouri continued to turn back and kill Texas Longhorns that they caught crossing the border. At least one cowboy was reportedly killed in an altercation.
In order to protect their herds, Missouri and Kansas farmers petitioned the state government for laws against the import of Texas cattle. State legislatures responded by passing laws that prevented any sick cattle from Texas to cross into Kansas or Missouri. The Legislation was ineffective, however, because the Longhorns themselves were immune to the disease and showed no symptoms while carrying the disease-bearing ticks. Some drovers managed to get through the Kansas and Missouri barricades with their cattle, while others began to drive their herds on longer, more circuitous routes to avoid populated hostile areas. The drovers realized that the answer to these problems was to find a new route that would allow Texas cattle to bypass farming communities to get to market. As a result, they began to use the more westerly Chisolm Trail that ran through Fort Worth. In 1867, Joseph McCoy established market facilities at the terminus of the Chisolm Trail in Abilene, Kansas, thereby ensuring the transport of cattle to northern markets. With the success of the new route, the Shawnee Trail fell into disuse and was eventually abandoned.i
i1 Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Spring 2003, Gene Krane, editor, Journal/Magazine/Newsletter, 2003; http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45378/ (accessed March 20, 2015), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation, Austin, Texas.