Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Junction City and the Cattle Drives

Anyone who is interested in the cattle drives knows that Abilene, just a short drive down the road, is the place to go for cowboys and western history as they were the end of the Chisholm Trail. What many may not know is that Junction City also had a brief stint as a cow town.

 Carl Olson and John O’Neil work cattle on the Dewey Ranch.

 In 1865, at the end of the Civil war, Texas men were arriving home to find huge herds of longhorn cattle.  With so many men gone to war there was a shortage of cowboys to cull the cattle and the herds just kept multiplying. This abundance of cattle gorged the market in Texas where the average price was $2 a head. However, back east there was a vast market for cattle as that part of the country was still rebuilding from the Civil War. Chicago prices were as much as $40 a head.

Early cattle drives headed to Sedalia, Missouri. From there they would ship the cattle east by train. Sedalia would have gone on to become the largest shipping point in the United States for Texas cattle if it were not for a tiny parasite, the tick.

The hardy Texas cattle brought with them ticks that carried the Spanish Fever, also called Texas fever. The Texas cattle were not affected by the ticks but everywhere the cattle lingered, local herds were decimated. Missouri passed laws prohibiting Texas cattle entering the state to preserve their local livestock.        

Kansas also prohibited Texas cattle, but by 1867 portions of the laws had been repealed allowing cattle to be driven as far north as present day McPherson and west to Colorado. With the railroad reaching Junction City in 1866, it made the town a prime location for shipping cattle. A June 8, 1867 article from the Junction City Union documents, “A gentleman by the name of McCoy proposes erecting all the sheds and buildings for a stock yard on the railroad track at Kansas Falls. Messrs. Streeter & Stickler gave him five acres for that purpose and the railroad company [lent] him a side track a half mile long. He proposes making a large business of shipping all kinds of stock. His yard will be about five miles from town.” This offer was later withdrawn and McCoy moved on to Abilene.       

June 22, 1867 Weekly Union

Though we are close to the famous Chisholm Trail it is more likely that the cattle coming to Junction City traveled the lesser known Shawnee Trail.  Starting at the Red River in Texas, it ran nearly parallel to the Chisholm Trail until it veered northeasterly on the north side of Shawnee Hills, crossing the Canadian River, traveled through the Creek Reservation and onward to Baxter Springs. It was the West Shawnee branch of this trail that brought cattle to Geary County.  At the Canadian river crossing the trail branched north and followed the river valleys to Clarks Creek.

It is believed that 1871, the last major year for the cattle drives, saw almost a million head of cattle driven north on the trails. Junction City received around 300,000 of these. 

Junction City saw a relatively short cattle boom. Even with the prosperity that the cattle drives would have brought to this town, it is not surprising that local land owners fought vehemently to keep the cattle out of then named Davis County. “Texas Cattle” printed in the Junction City Union by George W. Martin in 1867 documents the political leanings of the time. “We understand that people of Davis County, south of the Smokey Hill River, will meet at the place of Samuel Orr, on the 15th of January to petition the legislature, concerning the introduction into the state of these infected Texas Cattle… During the past season, the people of Humboldt, McDowell, and Clarks Creek in this county have lost over six thousand dollars’ worth of cattle due to this tick-borne Spanish fever. It is rumored that when the grass starts again in the spring that large herds from Texas will again be driven this way. It is proposed that if legal steps are of no avail in stopping such cattle beyond the state line, that the farmers turn out and drive them back. The people of these neighborhoods have suffered greatly. Enough is enough!”  

If you are interested in Cowboys and the Trails stay tuned because we are working on several projects and exhibits for next year. In the meantime join us at our Spring Valley site located at the corner of K-18 and Spring Valley Road on July 25th from 10am-1pm for a Wild West show with the Old Abilene Town Gunfighters. Admission is free thanks to our sponsor Jack & Dicks Pawn Shop. We hope to see you there!