My current work in progress focuses on a cattle drive. From watching Western movies like Rawhide, I knew there were positions for each drover. Unfortunately, the only position I could remember was Drag, because the poor cowboy riding this position had to bring up the rear and eat a lot of dust. The research was so interesting that I thought I’d share what I learned.
After the American Civil War there was a great demand for meat in the northern and eastern parts of the United States. It is estimated that at this time there were over 5 million Longhorns in Texas. The task of the cowboy was to take part in cattle drives where cattle were driven from Texas to the railroad cowtowns of Ellsworth, Abilene, Dodge City, Wichita and Newton. The cattle business eventually spread to Kansas, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona.
Between 1866 to 1895 some 10 million cattle were taken to the railroad cowtowns. The main route from Texas to Kansas was the Chisum Trial and the Goodnight Trail. These trials were over 1,000 miles long and would take between 12 and 16 weeks to complete.
The order of the drive was important – the Trail Boss would ride ahead scouting for water, pasture and the best route, while up front and to one side would be the cook and chuck wagon. The cattle would usually be guided by a lead steer who knew the trail from numerous previous trips. Of all the lead steers, the most famous was Charles Goodnight’s “Old Blue.” Old Blue—I like that name. Maybe I’ll name my lead steer something similar.
Alongside the herd would ride the Point, Swing and Flakers, with the Drag bringing up the rear and choking in the dust; drovers would change positions throughout the drive. The wrangler working the remuda would be near the rear to one side and each drover would have about a dozen horses in the remuda, switching out every three hours. Some of a drover’s horses would be dedicated to a particular task, such as riding herd at night or branding.
The herd typically moved about one mile per hour, or about ten to fifteen miles per day. While Indians, who were mainly interested in stealing horses, and rustlers, who would take anything, the most feared by the cowmen was the stampeded, particularly at night. Any sudden noise—a clap of thunder, a startled rabbit or a broken twig—could set the herd to running, so horses were kept saddled during the night. In case of a stampede men would dash to the front, hoping their horses would avoid the prairie dog holes, to try to turn the lead group into a spiral heading back into the side of the herd and thus set them milling again.
During a stampede the herd collectively began running with no clear direction or purpose. So, other than a sudden noise, what makes cattle so entirely nervous that they spook? According to scientist, it is believed to originate from biological responses in the brains and endocrine systems of herd animals. The response is believed to have evolved to help animals escape from predators.
A large stampede would frequently eliminate anything in its path. Cowboys would attempt to turn the moving herd into itself, so that it runs in circles rather than self-destructing by running over a cliff or into a river, or from damaging human life or property by overrunning human settlement.
One of the most painful movies I’ve ever watched was The Cowboys starring John Wayne; when twelve year old Charley dropped his spectacles, his friend rode in and among a herd of nervous cattle. The boy’s horse reared and well, if you’ve seen the movie, you know the rest. If you haven’t seen the movie, let me warn you to have a box of tissues sitting next to you during that particular scene, and unless you’re totally hard hearted, your popcorn will get all soggy.
Besides the danger to men and cattle, a four mile run could burn off fifty pounds from a steer and at the end of a drive that meant money. Men would therefore speak to one another in low voices and would often sing at night to soothe a jittery herd. Night shifts would change every two to four hours with time being told by the rotation of the Big Dipper around the North Star.
The objective of a drive was to keep the herd fairly in a constant, elongated bunch without gaps.
Most of the time the herd would be shaped in a long oval. There were six positions along the outside of the herd: They were Right Wing, Right Flank, Drag, Left Flank, Left Wing and Point. Each position had a specific job to so and with all the positions working together the moving of the cattle usually went smoothly.
Drag: the cowboys riding Drag would push the herd forward without letting strays drop off behind.
Flank/Wing: The Flank and Swing riders would keep the herd intact by keeping the sides intact.
Wings: The Wing riders kept the cattle moving in the general direction of the Point Leader. This was done by both sides working in tandem.
It was a pretty basic process that even after 100 years is still used today. Remember the movie, City Slickers, where Billy Crystal and his friends vacationed at a dude ranch and herded cattle? Well, one of these days, before I need a hoist to lift me up on a horse, I’d love to realize my own city slicker dream. Yee-haw!