Cattle drives in Brown County

Staff Writer
Brownwood Bulletin
Donnie and Ronnie Lappe

The cattle drive was slow. Herding the cattle along usually went about eight to twelve miles a day which was not helped at all when the trail driver ran into snow in the mountains of western Texas and blizzards on the plains of Native Americans Territory and Kansas, These storms were blizzards that turned the weather cold quickly, but did mot last long.

Some of the cows became pregnant with a calf. t was difficult to try to drive the cattle on the trail with the calves. They could not walk fasr, and had to nurse. It was impractical to provide wagons to carry them. It was necessary to kill them.

When the ranchers came to an occasional settlement along the trail, farmers in the area came to meet the herds, and the ranchers let them pick up the calves. Sometimes the trail boss might trade a calf for some butter and eggs, or other food staples.

The longhorn mothers were tough fighters and protected their young. They refused to leave their calves. The cowboys had to tie the mother to another cow in order to keep her in the herd and away from the calves . Problems started as soon as a rope was slipped over her head. If the cow charged suddenly, she could go after the man who tossed the rope. He had to struggle to get out of her way, and, at the same time, tighten the rope. The second man was always on hand to get his rope on too, and it wasn't long until the cow turned a somersault from both ropes holding her, and then they could yoke her to another cow with a short length of rope.

If a cow managed to break back to her calf, she discovered she could do nothing about it and was willing to trail along. It was customary for each herd to pick up the strays and follow the previous ranch herd and bring them with their bunch.

The owners worked out a solution. The cattle were marked with a road brand in addition to their own original ranch brands. The trail boss had a bill of sale with the brand records. At most important river crossings, and at all stockyards and terminals there were inspectors who inspected the brands, checked them with the bill of sale and cut back all cattle not accounted for, which included the usual strays and drags picked up. They were then held or sold for the rightful owner.

Hoof wear on the cattle caused considerable trouble. The hoof would wear down to the foot. Grass and mud would lodge in the hole and the feet became so sore the cattle could not travel. Cowboys had to leave the loose cattle behind, and hope they would find their way into another herd and ultimately be paid for at the sale by the ranch brand. If the sale had no inspector to watch the cattleman's interests, the cow was sold and sometimes the owner got the money, and sometimes, they did did not.

A crew of fifteen or twenty men get along reasonably well on a cattle ranch where there was a system to get everything done. Even then nerves got on edge. When the boss could see thing were getting to a high tension, he would shift the men to new duties or send them away where they could reduce pressure by taking some to town.

On the other hand, there is no chance for diversion while on the cattle drive. A lot of times, if there were a diversion, it would probably cause trouble. Storms or unexpected excitement might start a stampede. Cool weather meant boggy trails, trouble crossing the streams, and hard work pulling cattle out of the mud. Dry weather, heat, and drought brought dust, insects, sweat, and sores on the men and the cattle both.

The cowboys were covered with the trail dust that the the herd kicked up. Even when bandanas were pulled up over their faces the acrid dust sifted through and burned their noses and throats raw. Lips became so dry and cracked it was hardly possible to smoke.

A spot which was chafed in riding became either a sore, or a callous. Fleas, mesquitos, gnats, and flies all caused irritation. Fights started over small things. And some of them were settled with bullets when the men got to town.

A lot of the men chewed tobacco. They thought chewing took their mind off of the problems and away from hunger. They also used to try to spit on stinkbugs as they rolled manure balls along the trail.

One cowboy remembered a storm. Off in the southwest they could hear a distant rumble. They did not know whether it was a cyclone or a hailstorm, but eigher would have caused trouble. The herd was excited and ready to take off. The sound moved toward the men, and passed high overhead in the darkness. The whine and whistle caused a still vibration in the air and it seemed to suck away the cowboy's breath in a sort of vacuum. In a few moment the sky was dead quiet and then heavy rain set in. The men had to stay in the saddle all night, wet, miserable and cold!

Static electricity began bouncing on the horns of the cattle and along their backs, and little fireballs bounced over to the horses. The cowboys said the strange sight was spine chilling because a glow took over the entire herd, with the heavy blackness of night as a background.

The cattle were skittish and they milled restlessly. The slightess little sound could set the cattle off. Every man was on the job. They expected the herd to stampede any minute, but, as the hours passed, they held the herd and, when morning came, the cattle had drifted only a couple of miles from camp.

A day or two later the men overtook another Rancher's cattle that had scattered everywhere. They were gathering up the stray cattle and their supplies. They sard that they had been caught in a cyclone, which would have beenwhat passed over the first group and, it scattered their herd, and demolished the chuck wagon.

For several days afterwards the men from the first group had to sleep in their boots and let them dry overnight on their feet. If they had taken them off, the boots would have hard, shrunken leather and be hard to pull on in the morning.

Even though the cattle drive was rough, and cattle were lost on the way, it was better for the rancher to drive the cattle to Kansas and sell them for a good price, rather tham have a lot of cattle in Texas with little market for them.

There is a display of brands and branding irons at the Brown County Museun of History.

Cattle rancher Brooke Smith was gone on a cattle drive for three years. His wife thought he was dead. He walked in suddenly one day and frightened her. He had a large bag of gold coins from selling the cattle. There had been difficulties on the way.

The Brown County Historical Society has copies of the memoirs of Brooke Smith for sale.