Visit the Texas Heritage Trail Regions and see where it all happened

Historic Cattle Trails & Cowboy Culture

Cowboy exhibit in a museum.


Texans like to believe we invented the cattle drive, the 19th century means of moving herds of livestock to market, but "it ain’t necessarily so." In reality, cross-country cattle drives in America date to the 17th century when early American colonists pushed tame cows to market on foot with the help of shaggy dogs. But hold on to your satire Gary Larson fans! Texans redeemed the cattle drive from its provincial and sobering domesticity with our wild, out-of-control mavericks, hulking longhorn cattle, ornery broncos, and plenty of beans around a campfire.

Our cattle drive trails were also long, arduous, and dusty, requiring drovers to push their charge across open territory exposed to intemperate weather, free of stampede barriers, and host (on occasion) to unfriendly locals. The advent of barbed wire fencing and quarantine mandates ("Texas fever," a bovine disease infecting our southern cattle, unfortunately spread to the North’s cattle population) and finally the arrival of the railroad ended the historic cattle drives. But the trail routes that helped repair the Texas' post Civil War economy remain. The Chisholm, Great Western, Goodnight-Loving, Shawnee—all the major livestock thoroughfares from Texas to parts north can still be traced today by visiting points along the way, meaning you can now enjoy both cattle trail history and a good burger without chasing your beef down on horseback.

Texas leads the nation in cowboy culture, dominating the western genre with its lineage of cowpokes, vaqueros, wranglers, bronc busters, cowgirls, bull riders, charros, rustlers, and drovers. In fact, today's lamentations about the end of the cowboy era are somewhat premature, particularly here in Texas where the working cowhand is alive and well and still getting kicked around by his charge, on occasion.

Many historic ranches, in operation for more than a hundred years, are still grazing and raising cattle before relying on the traditional roundup, with its choir of "whoops" and "gittiups" and "ti youpy yeas," to bring the livestock in from the pastures. Although 18-wheelers and train cars are the transports of choice today for getting cattle to market, the historic cattle driving trails once used by our cowpunching ancestors still track the Texas countryside, making it possible for cowboy culture enthusiasts to trace the remnants of the Goodnight-Loving, the Goliad, and the Great Western among others. Rodeos thrive in rural ranching communities across the state and chuck wagon campfires, complete with a guitar sing-along, still flourish under the stars. You don't even have to carry a tune to join the chorus; everybody sounds good in a cowboy hat.


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Read more about cattle trailing in the Handbook of Texas Online.