This blog was written by Graduate Student Scott Anderson.
Recently, I helped assist a researcher who had become interested in an article written by W. A. “Bill” Poage, the father of United States Representative William R. Poage. This article, published in the July 20, 1941, edition of the Dallas Morning News (and later reprinted in the Hon. W. R. “Bob” Poage’s autobiography, After the Pioneers) told of Bill Poage’s time on the Chisholm Trail in 1874. The Chisholm Trail was a popular cattle trail in the late nineteenth century that stretched from Texas to railways across Kansas. As Bob Poage noted, very few primary recollections of the Chisholm Trail exist, so Bill Poage’s account serves as one of the most important records of this important time in American history.
Bill Poage’s journey northward on the trail began on April 1, 1874. With ten other men, Bill’s job was to help guide three thousand cattle from Texas up to Kansas and westward into Colorado. Beginning at the southern border of McLennan County, the cowboys travelled for nearly one thousand miles to Julesburg, Colorado, over the course of six months, with nothing but several horses and a wagon’s worth of supplies to assist them along the way.
The trip was extremely dangerous. Unseasonably cold weather in April killed off a good number of the herd and some of the men’s horses. Buffalo stampedes in Kansas threatened to do the same. Rivers were only crossed with the greatest of danger. Grass was often short, and storms were frequent. Most annoyingly, the herd of cattle became skittish toward the end of the journey, stampeding at the slightest provocation. Besides the natural dangers, the cowboys faced frequent run-ins with cattle inspectors, Indians, and farmers—each of whom sought to either take some of the cattle or impede the herd’s northern progress. And, even in a well-led outfit, internal disputes among weary cowboys were frequent as well.
But in addition to the danger and hard work, Bill’s account also underscores the more enjoyable aspects of his time on the trail. On the northward trail, the cowboys got a thrill out of pestering the resident farmers. For example, the appearance of a white house beside the trail in Kansas inspired the men to halt the herd to inquire of the owner if President Grant resided within. Even more enjoyable to Bill was the return trip from Colorado. Unencumbered of their particularly troublesome herd of cattle, the men retraced their steps to Texas in only one-third of the time. Instead of having to maintain watch over a herd of cattle, the men could build a large bonfire at each rest point and drive away the chill of the approaching winter.
By the time Bill returned to Texas, he had been gone eight months, but his descriptions of the duties and struggles of life on the trail still serve as important reminders of the difficulties of life on the Western plains in the late nineteenth century.