Cattle on the road. Photo by Karnegie Musa. Copyright 2010.
More cowboys than cows moved by. Yet it still sounded the echoes of an potent economic force more than a century ago that still brands Texas.
The economic equation was simple. Just after the Civil War, cattle in Texas hovered around $4 a head. Cattle in the East cost $40 a head.
So with hard times hitting Texas after the war, the solution was simple. Gather cowboys, gather a herd, drive it to Kansas, and sell it to the middle men.
The tales of the trail and the cowboys continue to spawn movies, shows, and Wild West shows that will live on long after these words hit cyberspace.
So last week, I went to see longhorns cross the Brazos.
At most, only 20 longhorns came herding down the street. There were more cowboys, including cowgirls, than long horns.
In addition, the long horns crossed the Brazos in the wrong direction. They crossed the Waco Suspension Bridge going south toward the Rio Grande, not north toward the Red River. They looked remarkably well fed, well bred and well cared for, as did some of the cowboys.
Before they crossed the bridge, the cowboys kept them bunched together across a traffic median of University-Parks Drive while a small parade of stage coaches, wagons and the 1st Cavalry Division, Horse Cavalry Detachment from Fort Hood. The soldiers were outfitted with 1875 Model 45-70 Springfield "Trap Door" carbines, the 1875 Colt single action 45 Caliber revolvers and 1860 model light cavalry sabers. The Civil War era sabers I thought a bit ironic considering the Confederate heritage of Texas during the cattle drives, but it’s a minor point.
And the mayors of every tiny Waco suburb, the state legislators and the wife of the U.S. Representative all made speeches and or made proclamations. No mention was made of the nearby location of Waco Reservation, the nation’s first legalized whorehouse district that sprung from the commerce crossing the river, and later was legalized by the city of Waco as the first legally sanctioned prostitution in the U.S.
Like the rest of the small crowd, I bided my time.
My great-grandfather, Starr Nelson, participated in a cattle drive after a taking a freshman year at what was then Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas. He was forced to end his association with the Aggies after running out of money, and went on a trail drive. Whether he went through Waco or not I have not been able to determine. But one of his favorite stories passed down was sharing the stew of some of the Native Americans still eeking an existence off the trail. One of the folk told him to “dig deep, puppy on bottom.”
Though he ended up in Colorado as a railroad engineer, farmer and pilot, he continued to participate in reunions of Old Trail Driver association decades after the cattle economics that created the Chisholm trail evolved and made it obsolete.
The Chisholm Trail was a trail used in the late 19th century to drive cattle overland from ranches in Texas to Kansas railheads. While there’s continuing debate on whether it actually started at the Red River in Texas, or down south in the Rio Grande, historical associations create historical markers.
Thus, the Chisholm Trail markers are being installed across the state. Last week, the Chisholm Trail marker was unveiled in Waco, along with a memorial donated by a local cemetery marker business.
So whether this particular area of Texas was the Chisholm Trail or not, the marker stands. We do know cattle came through Waco from the south, and continued up the natural geography over which the Interstate 35 corridor has been laid. We’re part of that chain of consequence linking back to those cowboys driving those cows north. Move ‘em out.