Like the state they come from, the Texas Longhorn has had its ups and downs with a near extinction thrown in. Known for its extended rack of horns (up to six feet from tip to tip), the legendary bovine has amazing durability, extraordinary adaptability, and were easy to herd on extended cattle drives. Unlike other cattle breeds, the Texas Longhorn is the only breed to have developed naturally within the United States.
The Longhorn originated from feral cattle brought over by the Spaniards then released over time on the open range. After two centuries, they were cross-bred with English cattle brought over by U.S. settlers. By the time of the Civil War, a distinct American cow had emerged. After the great buffalo herds were hunted off, wild longhorns took their place on the rich grazing lands of the Great Plains. As longhorn herds grew, so did the demand for beef. The problem was rounding them up and getting them to market. Inclement weather, hostile Indians, and cattle rustlers were just a few of the hazards.
The cattle drive was developed to herd thousands of cattle across Texas, the Indian Territory and Kansas to the railroads that carried them to packing plants back East. For twenty years, the cattle drives brought ten million cows to Kansas rail heads. The average drive usually required ten to fifteen cowboys, along with a cook, to manage it. Longhorns had the long legs and tough hooves to travel long distances. Also, they had the horns to fight off predators. What they didn’t have was a less than skittish nature. Loud sudden noises, like thunder, or the flash of a match lighting a cigarette could set off a stampede. Cowboys would try to stop a stampede by dispatching their best riders to the front of the herd where they reigned in their horses to slow it down. Another trick was to turn the herd by waving their coats or firing their pistols near the longhorns’ heads, forcing them to change their direction. If a cowboy fell from his saddle, he was at risk of being trampled.
In the early 1880’s, a fatal cattle disease brought about a quarantine followed by legislation banning longhorns from Kansas. Texas fever was carried by ticks that dropped from their immune longhorn hosts and infected Northern cattle breeds. Kansas dirt farmers, armed with Winchesters, would block cattle drives at the border. Sometimes the farmers were actually extortionists or cattle rustlers looking for a cash payment or a cut of the herd before letting the cattle pass. One trail hand recounted what his boss did when a group tried to stop his drive:
‘The Old Man got a shotgun loaded with buckshot and led the way, saying: “John, get over on that point with your Winchester and point these cattle in behind me.” He slid his shotgun across the saddle in front of him and we did the same with our Winchesters. He rode right across, and as he rode up to them, he said: “I’ve monkeyed as long as I want to with you,” and they fell back to the sides, and went home after we passed. If they had done a thing, we would have filled them so damned full of lead they’d never have got away.’
Other trail bosses complied with the farmers and turned their herds west. “Bend em West boys,” one frustrated boss ordered. “Nothing in Kansas anyhow except the three suns – sunflowers, sunshine and sons-of-bitches.”
The barbed wire fence brought about the end of open range cattle raising and long cattle drives. Cattlemen turned to railroads instead to get their cows to market. By 1927, the longhorns were almost bred out of existence. For ranchers, the quality of beef replaced a longhorn’s durability. To save the few remaining longhorn herds, wealthy Texas oilmen and government officials placed longhorn herds on wildlife refuges in Texas and Oklahoma. The Texas Longhorn is now a curiosity, but a new demand for lean longhorn beef has emerged from diet conscious Americans. The Longhorn is also assisted by being the mascot for the University of Texas.
Famed cattle baron, Charles Goodnight, best summed up the qualities of the Longhorn:
“As trail cattle their equal has never been known and never will be. Their hoofs are superior to those of any other cattle. In stampedes they hold together better, are easier circled in a run, and rarely split off when you commence to turn the front. No animal of the cow kind will shift and take care of itself under all conditions as will the longhorns. They can go farther without water and endure more suffering than others.”