One of the most iconic aspects of life in the Old West, something that plays a prominent role in my new series, The Brides of Paradise Ranch, is the whole idea of the ranch itself. When settlers first poured out West as the various trails, and later the railroad, opened things up, many of them thought about farming the rich land or mining for gold or silver. It wasn’t until slightly later that someone looked around and said, “You know what? We could raise livestock here.”
Okay, so right about now I bet you’re wondering… How did cows get to the Old West? The short, stupid answer is “Just like everybody else.” Livestock was originally brought over by settlers from Europe. Not just English settlers in the original colonies, though. Quite a few cattle were brought over to Mexico by Spanish settlers. In fact, the whole cowboy, cattle drive industry that we think of today when we think of the Old West really started in Texas around the time of the Civil War. And if you remember, “around the time of the Civil War” is not all that long after the Mexican-American War ended in 1848. Mexican rancheros had been raising longhorn cattle in the area for quite some time.
The interesting thing to me is that by 1861, with Texas now part of the United States, there was actually a huge surplus of longhorn cattle. Beef was incredibly popular back East, but the problem was getting it there from the remote, railroadless ranches of Texas. A clever, forward-thinking man by the name of James McCoy realized that shipping cattle by rail back east would send profits through the roof. McCoy began buying up land around the village of Abilene, Kansas where the railroad already ran. He built up the area and made it more than just a sleepy frontier town, he made it a destination. All, of course, designed so cattle could be driven from the ranches in Texas to the railhead in Abilene, enabling McCoy and other enterprising ranchers to make money hand over fist.
And so, the iconic cattle drive was born. I once had someone tell me that the term “cowboy” wasn’t actually in use in the 19th century, but as far as I have been able to tell from my research, it actually was. But so were the words “cow-poke” and “cow-hand.” Whatever the term, cowboys were, in a way, like glorified shepherds. They were hired to mind the vast herds of cattle that lived out on the Open Range and were owned by specific ranchers. The advantage of the Open Range was that cattle were mostly allowed to just roam free, with little maintenance or interference by ranchers. Cowboys would keep the cattle from getting entirely lost, and once a year, usually in the fall, they would bring the herd together and drive them up to the railhead.
So who were these cowboys that we’ve all heard so much about? A lot of them were men who were displaced at the end of the Civil War. The war had vast and far-reaching effects, particularly on the economy of the South. Too many of the men coming back from war had no jobs once they returned, especially if they were undereducated or unskilled. The West was just beginning to open at that time, and the advantage of ranches and the boom in the beef industry was that strong men were needed, whether they had education or connections or not. Being a cowboy was a tough life, but it beat a life of poverty and struggle in the decimated economies of the South and East.
Texas wasn’t the only area where ranching sprouted. In my new series, The Brides of Paradise Ranch, much of the action takes place in the town of Haskell, Wyoming, which was founded by enterprising rancher, Howard Haskell (this is fiction, btw, but based off of a few very interesting actual people). The Wyoming ranching industry began to grow and boom by luck. Yes, the land was ideal for raising cattle (as my character Howard saw from the first), but the luck came about in the decision to bring the Union Pacific Railroad through Wyoming instead of Colorado. That decision made all the difference.
The Open Range and the cattle industry were one of the things that gave the Old West a huge boost. Ranching is almost if not more important to the settlement of the West than the discovery of gold and silver. It brought men and money to an unfolding land, gave hopeful young men jobs at a time when they were scarce back East, and helped to settle the frontier. (All, sadly, at the expense of the Native Americans, but that’s a whole other blog post)
Of course, nothing lasts forever, and neither did the Open Range and the era of the cowboy. Believe it or not, one tiny invention changed everything…barbed wire. But we’ll talk about that next time.
If you’re curious, the first book in The Brides of Paradise Ranch series, His Perfect Bride is available now!
(Photos are public domain, courtesy of Wikicommons)