The cattle drive of the Old West has been popularized and romanticized by Hollywood and western genre of novels; however, it was a long, arduous task that was fraught with perils along the way. Possibly, the worst peril was a cattle stampede. If a rancher is driving two thousand head of cattle and they got spooked at night or just about any time, they were almost impossible to stop. Cowboys, horses and even other cattle have been killed as a result of a stampede. There were cattle rustlers along the way, sometimes hostile Native Americans and there was always a fear of running out of water or grazing fields.
As long as there have been cattle in the New World, there have been cattle drives. During the Civil War, cattle from Texas stayed in the south to help feed the soldiers and families. When the war ended, the cattle market dwindled in the south and there were millions of head of cattle stuck in Texas. The ranchers then thought if they could bring their cattle north, they will be able to sell them and the cattle will then be sent to Chicago and other points east. Soon, three trails have blazed for the cattle drives to make the drives a little easier.
The Chisholm Trail originated in southern Texas up across the Red River and into the Indian Territory and finished up in Abilene, Kansas.
The Goodnight-Loving Trail went west from Texas into New Mexico and then north up into Colorado. Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving were both Texas cattlemen and formed a partnership and created the passage from Texas to Colorado and then later went into Wyoming. In popular culture, the Goodnight-Loving partnership is loosely what the Lonesome Dove series of novels and movies were based on.
The third trail, and the biggest of the three major trails was the Great Western Trail. The Great Western trail began in southern Texas and had feeder trails at the Rio Grande. The trail then headed north and pretty much followed the Chisholm Trail, but about 100 or so miles west of it. It too crossed the Red River like the Chisholm and also went through the Indian Territory, which is now modern day Oklahoma. From there the Great Western went to Dodge City, Kansas.
The cattle drive as we know it declined greatly after the bad winter of 1886-1887. This was a brutal winter after having a long, dry summer. The previous winters were milder and ranchers had no idea that this winter would be harsh. Many ranchers didnít even have winter feed stored up because they expected a mild winter as well. Montana was especially hit hard and over 365,000 head of cattle were lost. It warmed up slightly and the top layer of snow had melted but temperatures dipped, some ranches reported that they had temps of 63 degrees below zero, and the top layer of melted snow froze solid and cows could not break through the ice to get to the little bit of grass they needed.
When the Spring thaw happened some ranchers said that there were dead, rotting cattle peppering the ground as far as they could see. Millions of head of cattle were lost that winter.
The long cattle drives ended in the 1890ís when railroads began popping up closer and closer to ranches, making it easier to drive cattle to the railheads. There were still a few small ranches that drove their cattle a distance to a railhead but the arduous and lengthy cattle drives were over.