The cattle industry grew tremendously in the two decades after the Civil War, moving into western Kansas and Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas in the 1870s and 1880s with the expansion of the railroads. While motion pictures, television, and novels have helped make cowboys —the men who rounded up, branded, and drove the cattle to market — the most heroic and best known symbols of the West, cattle ranching was in fact a big business that attracted foreign investment and required considerable organization.
The long drive. The rise of the cattle kingdom coincided with the spread of the railroads across the country. In 1866, Texas ranchers drove their herds of longhorn cattle north to the railhead at Sedalia, Missouri, for shipment to the slaughter and packinghouses in the East. As the railroads moved west, the terminus of the long drive moved with them. The famed Chisholm Trail went from San Antonio to Abilene, Kansas, while the Western Trail ended in Dodge City. These drives covered approximately 800 miles and took about two months; the Goodknight‐Loving Trail, which swung through west Texas and then north into New Mexico and Colorado, was considerably longer.
The cattle business was a profitable one. A steer purchased for less than ten dollars in south Texas might sell for three or more times that amount in the Kansas cow towns. Since the herds grazed on the open range and as few as a dozen cowboys could handle several thousand heads of cattle, a rancher's operating expenses were low. Given this positive outlook, it is not surprising that the cattle industry attracted capital from investors both in the East and overseas. Many ranchers simply managed cattle and land for outside corporate interests. Two of the largest corporate ranches — the Anglo‐American Cattle Company (1879) and the Prairie Cattle Company (1881) — were established in England and Scotland, respectively.
Few cowboys made driving cattle their life's work, and after a year or two, most moved on to some other occupation. Although there were certainly cowhands who hoped to save enough money to start a ranch of their own, this was not easy. The cowboys were basically wageworkers, paid a meager $25 to $40 per month plus room and board. Ranch hands in the Texas Panhandle and in Wyoming even went on strike demanding higher salaries in the 1880s. Although whites were invariably hired as foremen in the ranch‐hand hierarchy, nearly 20 percent of the cowboys were African and Mexican Americans. Indeed, the techniques for handling cattle on the range and the clothes the cowboys wore owed much to their early Mexican counterparts, the vaqueros.
Range wars. As settlers advanced into cattle country, a conflict was inevitable between the farmers who fenced their land with barbed wire and sought to control water sources and the ranchers whose livelihood depended on keeping the range open. But the so‐called range wars also pitted cattlemen against sheepherders (sheep were notorious for eating grasses down to the stubble so that the land was unsuited for cattle grazing) and cattle barons against smaller ranchers. In what was known as the Johnson County War (1892), the Wyoming Stock Growers Association hired gunmen to get rid of small operators accused of stealing cattle.
The collapse of the cattle kingdom. A combination of factors brought an end to the cattle kingdom in the 1880s. The profitability of the industry encouraged ranchers to increase the size of their herds, which led to both overgrazing (the range could not support the number of cattle) and overproduction. As with crop production, more beef on the market and the rise of foreign competition led to declining prices. In addition to the loss of grazing land, nature took its toll. Successive harsh winters in 1886 and 1887, coupled with summer droughts, decimated the cattle herds on the Great Plains and forced ranchers to adopt new techniques. With some notable exceptions, such as the fabled King Ranch in south Texas, the trend shifted toward smaller ranches. Cattlemen fenced in more manageable herds averaging 200 head, feeding them hay or grain in the winter and turning to selective breeding to increase the amount of beef produced.