Cattle ranching in Wyoming began in the 1850’s but it was not until the end of the Civil War and the coming of the Union Pacific Railroad that cattle drives became big business in Cheyenne. During the Civil War marketing of range cattle in Texas was slow, creating a large buildup of cattle having little value. About the same time it was discovered that if a Texas steer was wintered in the north it took on additional flesh/value, making double-wintering desirable. Cattle valued at $5.00 a head in Texas often brought ten times that amount when delivered north to a railhead. With Native Americans now confined to reservations and the American bison herds diminished, the vacated country became cattle range and the government needed increasing quantities of beef to feed Indian wards and the army. In 1865 Philip Danforth Armour opened a meatpacking plant in Chicago and, with the expansion of this industry, profitability of shipping by railroad increased substantially. This was the impetus for the major cattle drives as well as the heyday of large open range cattle herds owned by international investors and Cheyenne’s cattle barons.
In 1883, it was estimated that 260,000 head of cattle were driven north. On average a herd would move about 15 miles per day, since faster would cause the cattle to lose weight. The typical herd consisted of 1,500 to 2,500 head of cattle, requiring a trail boss and about a dozen men to see them through. Each wrangler had a string of five to ten horses. Larger herds had 15,000 cattle and required bigger crews…including a cook (usually driving a chuck wagon pulled by oxen) and a wrangler to maintain the spare horses. Wranglers were usually young cowboys of lower social status but cooks were more accomplished. In addition to being in charge of food, cooks usually had a practical working knowledge of medicine and maintained a variety of medical supplies.
Crews had bedrolls but no tents or tarps (these were considered an excess luxury). A few were lucky enough to possess slickers. Since there was no way of preserving beef, their food was mostly limited to non-perishables such as kidney beans, dried fruit, sugar, biscuits and coffee. An occasional delicacy on the trail was “slow elk”, a cow from another outfit. “S.O.B. stew” was made of tallow, tongue, liver, sweet breads, brains, marrow gut and just about anything but hooves, horn and hide. Wages were about $40 per month and cowboys were paid when the herd sold. Bonuses were often provided for those who rounded up “slow elk” and managed to brand them and sell them with the herd…rustling.
The most famous cattle towns were railheads, where herds were shipped to the Chicago stockyards. Cattlemen and investors made these towns headquarters for buying and selling cattle. Cowboys who were paid off following months of monotonous work were turned loose on the towns. Businesses that thrived were barbershops, places that sold clothing and gear, and of course brothels and gambling establishments. While violence often had to be quelled by town marshals, the number of killings was small by the standards of eastern cities.
Overgrazing, drought and finally the exceptionally severe winter of 1886-87 brought an end to most of the open-range cattle business.