Herding cattle over long distances was an arduous job. Most of the time it was also a tedious job, but the tedium was occasionally broken abruptly by emergencies such as storms, swollen rivers, and stampedes. Storms in particular were dangerous because the lightning and thunder could frighten the cattle and cause a stampede. The men themselves also feared for their safety during such storms. G. W. Mills wrote of a sudden hailstorm so intense the men’s hands and backs were covered with welts, and the hail was four inches deep on the ground. Following that storm, “We had no supper nor breakfast; when we got to camp the next morning, we found the cook fixing to leave, thinking surely that all the men had been killed by the hail.”
The drovers lived spartan lives as they carried just enough goods to be self-sufficient for two months. Each drover usually carried a change of clothes and a blanket or tarp for bedding. His saddle became a pillow but a tent was out of the question. Drovers carried no medical supplies so if one became sick or injured he could only hope for a quick recovery or quick death. The most common cause of illness was contaminated water drunk from streams on the trail. The still-popular red bandanna was tied around a cowboy’s neck, to be pulled over his nose and mouth when the dust clouds swirled around the herds.
One drover, J.C. Davis, wrote to his girlfriend that they had a string of bad luck with “1 killed, 1 with his back broke, 1 collar bone broke, & I came near getting drowning in the Canadian River yesterday.” Jack Bailey wrote in his journal about the loneliness and isolation after weeks on the trail, “i was such a fool to come on this trip. one consolation is that I am not afraid to die.”
River crossings could be as routine as wading through shallow water, but it was extremely dangerous when the herd had to swim across a river. Once in the water, cattle tended to start milling in circles or trying to turn back. Several drovers had to be on the opposite shore to keep them moving after crossing and not block the way for other cattle. In 1877 J.M. Nance wrote of crossing the Brazos River in Texas with 2,100 head of cattle swimming the swollen river. “It looked as if I had no cattle at all, for all I could see were the horns,” he wrote.
Nance later wrote of crossing the Canadian River at flood in Indian Territory. After waiting several days for the river to lower, he began moving the herd across. He wrote, “The cattle were started across and were going fine, when it came a terrific hailstorm and the hail began pelting us. One of the men was on the other side, naked, with his horse and about half the herd.” They delayed the crossing until the next morning when Nance wrote, “The naked man reported he had a good saddle blanket which kept him ‘warm enough’ during the night.”
A chuck wagon, earlier called a mess wagon, carried food enough for the journey. Incidentally, one of the many meanings for the word chuck is “food” or “provisions.” The chuck wagon usually carried flour, bacon, coffee, dried peaches, grits, beans, pickles, and black pepper. Meals were simple but hearty and the menu was repetitious, consisting of bacon, beef stew, beans and biscuits. If dried fruit was included in the chuck wagon provisions, cowboys could also expect an occasional pie. A cast-iron Dutch oven was essential for camp cooking. A shallow pit was dug in the ground with a hot fire built at the bottom; the Dutch oven with the stew or beans inside was lowered into the pit, and hot coals placed on the lid. This cooked for hours to create tender meat or beans. Biscuits and pies were also baked this way. Cast-iron skillets cooked bacon over an open fire.
At night the cattle were kept close together and allowed to graze. Riders rode around the herd in shifts to prevent straying and to keep predators at bay. It was during the nighttime that riders sang to help keep cattle calm. Probably most cowboys sang without a real tune or lyrics, “Git Along Little Dogies” was first mentioned in a journal from 1893. The first reference to the song “The Old Chisholm Trail” is from a diary in 1870. Both these songs were based on Irish and English songs dating back to 1640. It is unclear how the American cowboys adapted the lyrics to their situation. Western singers such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers sang it as part of their regular repertory. Go to YouTube for audio versions of the songs.
The lyrics to “The Old Chisholm Trail” ring true to the trail drover’s experience.
“Well, come along boys and listen to my tale
I'll tell you all my troubles on the ol' Chisholm Trail
Come a-ti yi youpy, youpy yea, youpy yea
Come a-ti yi youpy, youpy yea.
I started up the trail October twenty-third
Started up the trail with the U-2 herd
On a ten dollar horse and a forty dollar saddle
Started out punchin' them long horn cattle
With my seat in the saddle and my hand on the horn
I'm the best dang cowboy that was ever born
It's cloudy in the west and lookin' like rain
And my danged old slicker's in the wagon again
“Git Along Little Dogies” This song depicts the cowboy driving cattle to Wyoming. A dogie is an orphaned calf.
“As I was walking one morning for pleasure
I spied a cowpuncher riding along
His hat was throwed back and his spurs were a-jingling
And as he approached he was singing this song
Whoopee ti yi yo, git along little dogies.
It's your misfortune and none of my own.
Whoopie ti yi yo, git along little dogies
You know that Wyoming will be your new home.
Early in the springtime we round up the dogies
Mark 'em and brand 'em and bob off their tails,
Round up the horses, load up the chuck wagon,
Then throw the little dogies out on the long trail.”
Despite the many books, movies and songs about the cattle trails, we can never fully know the experience of herding cattle in nineteenth-century conditions.