Historical Details

Once Trails Crossed Near Lusk; Now It's Highways

Courtesy of The Lusk Herald, 08/17/1961

(By Mae Urbanek)

Two important highways of travel crossed Runningwater, now the Niobrara River, where Lusk nestles, before Lusk existed, and before the coming of the railroad. They were the Cheyenne-Deadwood stage line and the Texas Trail.

Three miles east of Lusk on Highway 20 is a Texas Trail marker, decorated with local brands. This monument, picturing a cowboy and long-horned cattle was dedicated in August 1940. Russell Thorp, Jr., son of the owner of the Cheyenne-Deadwood stage, spoke on this occasion. The Texas Trail entered Wyoming near Pine Bluffs, angled northward to cross the North Platte River between Torrington and Lingle, and continued north along the eastern border of the State, ending in the vicinity of Miles City, Montana.

Before and during the Civil War, vast herds of wild, long-horned cattle built up in Texas. At the end of the war the herds were rounded up by adventurous cowboys, branded, and driven northward though Kansas, and the Territories of Oklahoma and Nebraska, to railroad terminals, where they were shipped to Eastern markets. Some herds were pushed on into the territories of the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana, to stock the ranges emptied by the slaughtering of the buffalo for their hides and tongues. Government agencies also bought these cattle for the Indians who had been crowded into reservations.

Hon. John B. Kendrick, later U.S. Senator from Wyoming, as a young man was a cowboy of the Texas Trail. The last herd he helped drive was delivered to the head of Runningwater. The following is a condensation of his account of “The Texas Trail” which appeared in the September 16, 1916 issue of the Wyoming Tribune:

“The millions of cattle ranging in southern and western Texas at the close of the Civil War were all of the Spanish breed and originated from the cattle taken to Mexico by the Spaniards in the 16th century. The movement of these cattle began in the early 60’s, and reached its floodtide in 1884, when it was estimated that 800,000 head were moved over the Trail. After this the volume greatly subsided because of the occupation of the country by homesteaders who objected to the trespassing herds.

“The Trails resembled the form of a great river with many branches and tributaries. Side trails led in and out in all directions. Cattle included all ages and kinds except calves, which were either given away or destroyed to avoid delaying the herd. The foundation of many a valuable herd started with the acquisition of these calves by settlers along the route. As a rule the size of the herd driven was about 3,000 head; 3500 was known as a large herd.

“The ordinary outfit with a herd was usually the foreman, cook, horse wrangler and from seven to eight cowboys; a mess wagon drawn by four horses or mules and a band of about 50 saddle horses. The horses were furnished by the owner, but the saddles and bedding were supplied by the cowboys. The foreman received about $100 per month, the cook $40, and the cowboys $30. We started by branding. At that time we roped and threw the cattle almost entirely on foot, as were saving our horses for work on the Trail. The roping was very hard on them and extremely dangerous because of the viciousness of the cattle. It was less difficult for a man to dodge and escape fighting cattle than for a horse.

“Employers thought it best to use men and hire extra help than risk the horses. Men were cheaper than horses. Our best help were Negros and Mexicans, who were the most proficient ropers on foot that I have ever known. The cattle were thrown by roping them by the front feet.

“When our herd was complete we started on our travels in the early days of April, ending on August 27, when we turned the herd loose on the Runningwater, just a mile west of the present town of Lusk. The only sign of civilization for miles around that point was a ranch road on the banks of Runningwater on the Cheyenne-Deadwood freight road.

“We averaged about 15 or 20 miles a day with the cattle. The men were divided into two reliefs in the daytime, and four reliefs of night guards. The last guard in the morning called the cook, and turned the cattle from the bed ground to grazing. After breakfast the foreman would go ahead, followed by the cook wagon, and locate water for the noon site. After discipline of a few days the cattle would take the Trail and march like soldiers following owing their natural leaders. If possible they were not allowed to take one step except in direction of their destination. In this way they would often cover two or three miles while grazing in the morning and again in the evening. I have often viewed these trailing cattle from a hilltop when they were strung out half a mile in length. They resembled an immense serpent with its sinuous, undulating movements.

One-half the men would be detailed to stay with the cattle, while the other half would go to noon-day camp. Then they would go back to the herd, which as a rule would be on water and resting. When cattle were bedded won for the night, the cowboys not on relief would gather about the camp fire and tell their most vivid tales, each trying to outdo the other.
“The vicissitudes of the trip were many, including long drives across barren country with shortage of grass and water. Whole herds of cattle were known to go blind after suffering intense thirst for several days. Swollen streams had to be forded at any cost. When the herd would become confused and “mill” in the water, a number of cattle might be lost through drowning. Once in a while and man and horse would drown and wash away in the muddy river. The crossing of mess wagons involved much risk to the provisions, as we were long distances from the source of supplies. Miring of the cattle was another great risk. I have seen mud so tenacious that cattle could be gotten out only by working around each hood and releasing one foot at a time. Any attempt to pull them out by roping would have pulled the animal to pieces.

“During the frequent electric storms at night, instead of being ’off and on’ relief, we were ‘on and on’ to hold the frightened herd together, and prevent stampeding. The only thing visible was electricity on our horses’ ears, and lightening crawling along on the ground. More than once I have seen cattle killed within thirty feat of me. When the cattle did stampede and break away, we would gallop with them in the darkness and try to turn them to mill in a circle. I do not recall a single instance, when without rest for 24 hours; we did not start on the trails, next day with the plan of making our usual 20 miles.

“Our neighbors on the Trail included men with other herds, both in front and behind us, traveling within a radius of a few miles. If a foreman allowed a neighboring herd to get in ahead of him to water or a desirable bed ground, he was criticized by his men, although not to his face. I do not remember coming in contact with or seeing a wire fence between Fort Worth, Texas, and the head of the Runningwater in Wyoming.

“Shortly after entering Indian Territory we encountered numbers of Indians, who hung on our trail, demanding pay for pasture in their territory. Usually we would give them what they wanted in order to be rid of them. Then they would ask for ‘paper, paper.’ They wanted a written word to show to the foreman of the next outfit to prove they were good Indians and worthy of consideration. Since the Indians could not read, it gave the cowboys endless opportunities to play jokes on them. The messages were anything but recommendations. If the Indians became disgruntled, they would attempt to stampede the cattle at night, and thus steal strays from the herd. The time lost in rounding up stampeded cattle was important, as in most cases the herd was under contract for delivery on a certain date, and the distance to be covered each day was carefully mapped out.
“One of the astonishing things in moving these cattle was the moderate loss in numbers and the trifling expense of traveling great distances. When the cattle were started they were generally very thin, and many became foot-sore. We started with 3470 head on the last herd I came through with, traveled some 1,500 miles, and turned loose 3430 head without doing any ‘recruiting’ along the Trail. The actual expense, not counting the cost of the cattle lost, was between 40 cents and 50 cents a head.

“The scenery which impressed me so strongly was ever-changing and ever-beautiful. As we traveled northward we had almost perpetual spring. The trip was indeed beautiful; the wide level stretches of country covered with a splendid growth of grass and ornamented with all kinds of fragrant flowers. The element of danger that was part of every day’s experience did not distract from the fascination of the trip.”

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