The Texas Longhorn Legacy
A historical look at the development and appeal of the world's most iconic cattle.
Photo courtesy Darol Dickinson
“The Texas Longhorn made more history than any other breed of cattle the civilized world has known. As an animal in the realm of natural history, he was the peer of bison or grizzly bear. As a social factor, his influence on men was extraordinary. An economic agent in determining the character and occupation of a territory continental in its vastness, he moved elementally with drouth, grass, blizzards out of the Arctic and the wind from the south. However supplanted or however disparaged by evolving standards and generations, he will remain the bedrock on which the history of the cow country of America is founded.”
- J. Frank Dobie, The Longhorns (1941)
Their image defines the Old West. They are as rugged as the land they once roamed and as colorful as the cowboys who worked them. Today, Texas Longhorns are in high demand for many of the same reasons that made them legendary: their gentle nature, varied colorations, resistance to disease, ease of calving, longevity, and ability to thrive in marginal conditions. For both dedicated ranchers and weekend hobbyists, the longhorn serves as a link to the past and a harbinger of the cattle industry’s future, as demand for lean beef and drought-resistant breeds continues to grow.
The Texas Longhorn’s history in the Americas began in 1493, when Spanish settlers introduced their domestic cattle to the New World. Gold-seeking Spanish explorers first brought their long-horned Iberian cattle to the Antilles Islands, then, as Spanish conquistadors and priests made their way to the mainland of North America, larger populations of the then-thriving Spanish cattle migrated with them. Modern fence materials had yet to be developed, so the cattle were allowed to forage and run loose. Over time, many were abandoned and left to survive on their own.
Buck Taylor, the actor famous for playing Newly in the Gunsmoke television series, became involved with longhorns because it was part of his dream to live the cowboy lifestyle. "I love longhorns because they're symbolic of Texas and the early beginnings of the cattle industry," Taylor says.
These new herds of wild cattle underwent an intense process of natural selection as the weaker animals died off. Generations passed and the stray animals grew stronger and hardier, becoming disease resistant and enhancing their ability to defend themselves and their calves from predators with their enlarged horns. By the time of the Mexican-American War in 1846, the Texas Longhorn had become a recognizable breed, distinct from their Iberian ancestors. They were multicolored and lean, weighing between 800 and 1,500 pounds, and sported a horn spread of up to 5 feet.
Texas was the main habitat for the wild long-horned cattle, although they could be found as far west as California. Anglo settlers venturing into the Southwest encountered vast numbers of the feral animals, but it was not until the end of the Civil War that they became an attractive commodity. Returning soldiers found themselves in a cash-poor state with few sources of income, so many began to claim unmarked cattle and brand them as their own.
By 1865 there were millions of longhorns roaming free, while the cattle herds in the Eastern states were largely depleted. In 1866, a longhorn steer worth as little as $2 in Texas was worth as much as $50 at the Kansas City railheads. Some enterprising men, like Capt. Charles Schreiner, saw the potential for moving longhorn cattle to Eastern markets. Upon returning to San Antonio after the war, Capt. Schreiner used the money from the sale of his longhorns to buy more than 566,000 acres of Texas land, ultimately acquiring the YO Ranch along with its cattle and distinctive brand.
Retired four-star general Tommy Franks enjoys his cattle when he's not traveling the world for one of his many speaking engagements. "I have always liked longhorns because they're very special. They're tough, adapt themselves to rough environments, don't ask for much, and they have personalities," he says.
Other trailblazers included Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, who partnered up to drive longhorns to market, breaking the Goodnight-Loving trail in the process. Goodnight recognized that his cattle would follow a dominant steer, so when he found such a leader — a steer named Old Blue — he brought him back home to head up the next cattle drive. Over the next eight years, Old Blue would lead thousands of cattle north to market. In the evenings, he would often hover around the campfire to be hand-fed by the cowboys. Eventually, Old Blue was retired to Goodnight’s JA Ranch in Palo Duro Canyon, where he lived a pampered life until he died at age 20.
In 1867, Abilene, Kansas, became the first cow town and a major railhead for shipments east as cowboys on horseback drove thousands of cattle from Texas to points north in Missouri and Kansas. It could be said that longhorns were the first cash crop of Texas, and the cattle drives became an economical turning point for the region.
Savvy drovers soon identified a number of good routes to market, but the work was hard and dangerous. Stampedes, floods, and attacks by roving bands of Indians were all too common. Despite these hardships, by 1895 more than 10 million head of longhorn cattle had been driven the length of the Chisholm, Goodnight-Loving, and other trails from Texas and neighboring Southern states. During this memorable era, countless longhorn bulls, cows, steers, and calves walked north along well-worn trails and, surprisingly, gained weight as they traveled. The fact that they could not only survive but actually thrive under those conditions was a remarkable testament to the evolutionary advantages these animals had developed.