Created By: Old Cowtown Museum
The Cowboy Camp in the Wichita Beginnings District at Old Cowtown Museum represents the on the trail home for the cowboys as they brought their most important commodity, cattle to Wichita. At the end of the civil war, with beef stocks in the east exhausted because of need to feed soldiers on both sides, America looked for a ready supply. The Texas Longhorn with its roots in Spain had gone largely unattended during civil war and reproduced at a great rate. While their meat was considered lean and very stringy, it was beef and that is what the public demanded. With no rail system into Texas the only means of getting them east and west was by trailing them north overland to meet up with the railroads.
The fever to acquire the railroad, to become a railhead for the Texas cattle spread all through southeast and south central Kansas. Wichita joined that drive and had high hopes that the Santa Fe railroad would come through the area. Wichita hoped that The cattle trade provided the economic bridge between the hunting and trading, and the developing farming economy.
The inability to settle land ownership in a timely manner meant that the railroad that had wintered in Newton, 20 miles north had to push west to meet the state deadline. Not to be undone, the citizens of Wichita and Sedgwick County passed a bond issue to fund its own railroad, with Santa Fe help, to meet up at Newton.
Once the rail link was established the cattle drives could cut 90 miles from going to Abilene Kansas and 20 miles from the route to Newton. Wichita became a booming cattle town for 4 years, providing profits for businesses and limited city taxes.
Unfortunately the acquisition of the railroad, while necessary to secure and sustain the role as a rail head, unwittingly led to an increase in town and farm population that later pushed the cattle trade west. Farmers and local anti-vice groups persuaded the State Legislature to move and north south quarantine line west of Sedgwick County, prohibiting Texas cattle east of that line. The texas cattle trade moved to Ellsworth and Dodge City.
The cowboys who moved the cattle from Texas to Wichita were a mixed group. The majority were white men some who had direct investment in the cattle. Mexican Vaqueros, part of the long Spanish tradition of cattle working were joined by newly emancipated slaves. While still slaves, they had learned their craft and now with their freedom found relative prestige because of their skills, as well as the same amount of pay as white men. There were also a large number of Native American cowboys from the southwest, and some who had herds in Oklahoma.
The drive from Texas to Wichita took from twenty‑five to one hundred days, depending how long the herd lingered in Indian Territory fattening on grass. They traveled between 8 to 15 miles a day guided by about 12 cowboys (the norm was two men for every three hundred cattle). They often spent 18 or more hours a day in the saddle.
At night the cattle would be bunched together and sung to by cowboys riding in opposite directions to keep them from stampeding. Anything could spook a herd of cattle and running cattle could injure themselves or the cowboys, as well as lose up to 50 pounds of valuable weight.
The cattle drives, in addition to the natural hazards of heat, wind and lightning, faced hostility from homesteaders as the cattle trampled fields, and the longhorns infected the local herds with Texas Tick Fever.
At the end of the trail laid profits, gambling, prostitution, and drinking, from which Wichita profited to the degree that for three years there were no property taxes and the profits for local businesses made many fortunes in Wichita. With the defeat of the plains Indians, the demise of the Buffalo, and westward moving farming population, cattle were slowly confined to ranches, rather than overland drives.
This point of interest is part of the tour: Old Cowtown Museum Tour