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The Birthplace of the American Cowboy

Early Spanish Ranching

The Spanish created rodeos, says Tom Jackson of San Antonio, a sixth generation Texan, professional living historian and descendant of Texas trail drivers. “It was business to round up cattle and brand them,” he said.

“The Spanish brought the Longhorn cattle here in 1690 to service the missions in East Texas. When those missions failed and moved to San Antonio in 1718, they brought the cattle with them.” Each of the five San Antonio missions had working ranches with sheep, goats and cattle to supply meat, wool, cheese, milk and leather. The Longhorn cattle were mainly used for their leather, said Jackson.

The Texas climate and terrain were conducive to cattle raising, especially Longhorn cattle, whose genetic traits gave them “extremely good health, fertility, teeth, disease resistance, and soundness of body and limb,” according to the International Texas Longhorn Association.

American Cattle Industry Takes Hold

Out of Spanish ranching grew the American cattle industry, and by 1865, there were between 3 and 4 million Longhorn cattle in Texas. The first barbed wire fence was demonstrated in 1876 at Alamo Plaza.* San Antonio figured prominently as a center for cattle taken along the Goodnight-Loving, Shawnee, Chisholm and Western trails after the Civil War. From 1866-1886, 10 million cattle were driven north by 32,000 cowboys on the Western Trail alone, which extended from south Texas to Miles City, Montana. The invention of barbed wire and the construction of north-south rail lines brought the cattle drives to an end.

The Cowboy's Dangerous Life

The cowboy’s life was fraught with danger, including bad water, quicksand, bandits, snakes, stampedes, Indian raids and unpredictable weather, said Jackson. They earned one dollar per day and were on the cattle drive for about 35 to 45 days.
Cattle round-ups took place in the spring and the fall. “They had to round up the cattle, brand them, figure out how many to sell, and drive them hundreds of miles up the trail,” said Jackson. “Longhorns were fast, ornery, big-horned animals and it took a tough cowboy to manage them. These guys took a lot of pride in being a good cowboy and knowing how to rope. They liked showing off their skills and there was a lot of status in being a great rider. They loved the life and that’s true of cowboys today. Hopefully, cowboy culture will never die.”

*Donald E. Everett, San Antonio Legacy, Maverick Publishing Co., 1999.