LONGHORN HISTORY

Painting by Don Crook, www.doncrook.com
 

 

Longhorn cattle have been a part of the history of North America since 1493 when Spanish settlers accompanying Christopher Columbus brought the first few long-horned Iberian cattle with them to the Antilles Islands (Puerto Rico, Cuba, Jamaica, and Hispaniola). Beginning in about 1519, many of those cattle (which had propagated profusely in the interim years) were taken by Antillean settlers when they traveled to Mexico in search of gold and other treasures. Antillean cattle were landed all along the eastern coast of Mexico during the 16th and 17th centuries. The most popular port of entry was Vera Cruz, but they also came ashore as far north as Tampico (less than 200 miles south of the Texas border).

 

From Vera Cruz, ranches were established quickly, and soon large populations of Iberian longhorns were seen throughout the Panuco Delta as well as south and west of the port of Vera Cruz. From there, long-horned cattle gradually migrated, with Spanish explorers, settlers, and mission priests, north along both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. The first known cattle in Texas arrived in the early 1700s with Franciscan missionaries as they began to build a chain of missions extending through the San Antonio River valley and out to the present city of Goliad. Spanish expeditionaries brought sheep, goats, horses and “horned” cattle on their overland voyages both as food on the hoof to sustain them during their travels and also as seed stock for settlers once having arrived at their destinations.

 

While entry of long-horned cattle into Texas has been well documented in Frank Dobie’s classic work The Longhorns, it is also established fact that long-horned cattle populated California as early as 1769.  Little, however, is known about the long-horned Iberian cattle for the next century other than they typically roamed freely on the large ranchos and mission lands as did cattle throughout the southwestern states as well as California and Texas. Since those early days preceded the introduction of barbed wire fencing, their range also extended well beyond the unsecured boundaries of those properties. It has been estimated that by 1860 about 4 million to 6 million wild long-horned cattle could be found in Texas alone.

 

In Texas, by the 1780s the influence of the missions had declined greatly, and cattle ranching largely passed into the hands of private ranchers, most of whom had acquired large land grants from local governors. Similarly in California, the demise of the missions (which occurred there in the 1820s) gave rise there too to the rapid spread of land grants and resultant large ranchos. In both regions, the numbers of long horned cattle which had populated those vast land holdings, quickly spread throughout both southern California and south Texas as well as lands now encompassing Arizona and New Mexico. In Texas, the heaviest concentrations of longhorns were located in the region sometimes referred to as the Nueces Strip, a strip of land in south Texas lying between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande.  

 

Meanwhile, most of the European settlers living in American during those early years resided in colonies located along the eastern seacoast. Of those, South Carolina was the primary cattle raising region. Although British settlers had brought British breeds to the new world, the early cattle population in South Carolina appears to have had significant Iberian influence. That influence traces back to 1704 when British troops and their Creek Indian allies raided Spanish strongholds in Florida in an effort to displace Spanish influence. They captured a number of the Antillean cattle, which had come north to Florida with Spanish settlers from the Antilles in the early 1600s, and they took them to South Carolina where they were crossed with the British cattle which already existed in that colony.

Overall, it can be said, then, that between 1493 and the mid-19th century, feral longhorns flourished in the Americas. During that three hundred fifty year period, they used principles of natural selection  to develop hardiness, disease resistance, ease of calving, strong mothering instincts, and other traits vital to their survival. What evolved was an animal which could survive in harsh environments, one which had sound legs and could walk miles to water, to breed, and to utilize available forage, and one which could also produce and raise a live healthy calf year after year. The evolutionary process, in which only the fittest could contribute to the gene pool, also produced a body commensurate with the availability of food, gave them hard hooves and lethal horns with which to protect themselves and their young, and provided them with a hardy immune system which made them largely resistant to disease. Furthermore, the cows developed excellent udders in order to be able to successfully feed their young in a harsh land of generally poor forage, and the bulls developed tight sheaths in order to avoid injury in the thick scrub they frequented.

 

One of the best descriptions of the hardiness that longhorns had developed as feral animals is contained in a passage from Frank Dobie’s The Longhorns.  Dobie described the following episode which occurred about 1850 on Noah Smithwick’s property near Bushy Creek in Texas. Smithwick had a herd of domesticated cattle, but there were also wild longhorns nearby. He described the following:

 

Two of the [longhorned] bulls took up with Smithwick’s cattle and became “quite domesticated.” About the same time, lobo wolves began to depredate. When the milch cows and other gentle stock were attacked, they would try to get to the house. The wild cattle, on the other hand, “would form a ring around their calves and, presenting a line of horns, would fight the lobos off.”

 

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the commercial importance of longhorns (since they were at that time the predominant breed of cattle) was to supply the hide and tallow industries of Europe and, after the Revolutionary War, of New England as well. Before the advent of electricity in the early 20th century, candles were the world’s chief source of night light. Tallow, the main ingredient in candles, soaps and lubricants, was obtained by rendering animal fat. Hides were important to the shoe, boot and leather industries. Therefore, “Hide and Tallow” companies became the major users of cattle carcasses, first in California and later in Texas and other southern states. In the absence of refrigeration, meat was largely a byproduct and of little commercial value.

 

An effort to supply the hide and tallow markets began in Texas shortly after the end of the Civil War. During the war, many longhorns from Texas had been driven into the Southeast where they supplied the field kitchens of the confederate forces.  Those first drives had taught the Texans that longhorns could be driven long distances successfully and without much, if any, loss of weight. Having learned that lesson well, enterprising southerners began driving their longhorns north to the railheads at Abilene and Dodge City, where they were loaded on to trains and taken to Chicago and points east to supply leather and tallow (and to a  far lesser extent, beef) markets of the wealthier northern states. That was the beginning of the glory years of cowboys and long distance cattle drives. By 1895, it has been estimated that over 10 million head had been driven the length of the Chisholm, Goodnight and other trails from Texas and other southern states to the northern markets. These drives, which lasted in total less than 30 years and were often led by very young cowboys and “vaqueros,” became a part of the romantic western lore as the “legendary cattle drives of the old west.” Many of the more docile animals were also used, before being slaughtered, to pull wagon trains westward.

 

During the memorable cattle drives, those millions of longhorn bulls, cows, steers, and calves walked north along well worn trails and actually gained weight as they walked, all the while protecting themselves and their calves from predators, swimming rivers, and surviving desert heat and winter snows. The fact they could not only survive but actually thrive under those conditions is a remarkable testament to the evolutionary advantages these animals had gained.

 

While the cattle drives of the 1870s and 1880s have become romanticized and legendary, the greater influence of these drives was in the exportation of the “Texas Longhorn system.” This system embodied not only the longhorn animal but also the management technique used in southern Texas that was characterized by allowing cattle to care for themselves year-round in stationary pastures on the free range, without supplementary feeding or protection.  While it worked well in the tropical climates of Mexico and south Texas, it was inadequate in the more hostile climates further north. The failure of this system in northern climates, plus the influence of “Cattle Tick Fever, “ resulted in the near demise of Spanish long-horned cattle in this country. Northern ranchers, who were enjoying relative success during those hard times by utilizing the British system of close penning and winter supplement feeding, lost faith in the longhorn. While it was probably unfair to blame the longhorns for the bad management practices of their owners, the fact remains that the “Texas Longhorns” were rapidly seen as scrub cattle that should be eliminated rather than propagated.

 

The downhill slide of the breed was exacerbated by one of the strengths of the longhorns – their immune system – which now worked against them. Their immune system enabled longhorns to survive while carrying a tick on their hides which, in turn, carried the disease, Cattle Tick Fever. Cattle Tick Fever was devastating to British and other cattle that were not immune to it. When populations of other breeds began to decline because of this disease, that was the last straw, and the result was large scale destruction of the nation’s longhorn population.

 

By the 1880s, after consumers had slaughtered millions of longhorns, the demand for higher fat content in both tallow and beef also played some role in the drop in the marketability of longhorns. All things being considered, the population of Texas Longhorn cattle went into a steep decline and by 1910 the breed, which only 30 years before had numbered well into the millions, was considered nearly extinct.

 

In 1927, Congress (at the behest of conservationists and historians) appropriated money to establish a federal herd of purebred Texas Longhorn cattle. Over the next several years, two U.S. Forest Service rangers, working mainly in south Texas and portions of northern Mexico, inspected over 30,000 head of cattle and found only 20 cows, three bulls, and four calves that were in their opinion purebred Texas Longhorns. These cattle were taken to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge near Cache, Okla., as seed stock for what has become the “Wildlife Refuge” (WR) herd. Of interest, the WR herd was compiled only from “remote” herds and did not include any influence from six other purebred herds then known to exist (Marks, Phillips, Yates, Butler, Peeler, and Wright). By then, the longhorn had almost certainly, and for a variety of reasons, become extinct in California, and it is probable that none existed in Arizona or New Mexico either.

 

Most present day Texas Longhorn cattle are descended from those seven families, each of which had its own distinctive attributes. To a longhorn producer today, it is vitally important to have an understanding of an animal’s pedigree and the degree to which it has been genetically influenced by one or more of those families.

 

In 1964, the first registry was established to perpetuate breeding records and confirm the purity of blood lines for breeders of Texas Longhorn cattle. Since that time, the numbers of registered Texas Longhorn cattle has soared, and by the late 1990s, it had exceeded 250,000. Breeders now exist in all 50 states as well as Canada, Mexico and many other countries.

 

(Article courtesy of Mike Casey)