Texas longhorns are a symbolic part of the Old West. We’ve seen them in movies stampeding across the plain and learned about cattle drives, range wars, and bloody, barbed wire battles. Here in Houston, I can travel along a six-lane highway and view longhorns grazing on both sides of the road. But where did this breed of cattle originate?
We can thank the Spanish for delivering the first longhorns to the area around 1493. Later when settlers arrived in Texas, they brought European breeds of cattle. The new kids-on-the-block and the Spanish longhorns “hooked up,” and we have the longhorns of today. From those early roots grew the huge cattle herds that came to be a part of Texas history.
The vast Texas land, consisting of hundreds of thousands of acres of open range, was perfect for grazing the sturdy, long-legged breed. Yep, partner, you heard right. The cattle owners often used the open range to feed their animals, and that meant they didn’t have to invest in purchasing land while their herds increased and grew fat.
Longhorn cattle thrived on Texas soil. They required little water and fattened on any kind of vegetation. Their hardiness to withstand extreme climate changes and their ability to defend themselves with horns that measured six feet from tip to tip added to their value. The bulls were fierce, so the predators backed away.
An estimated five million longhorns grazed in Texas after the Civil War. Soldiers returned home and saw they needed to find new ways to provide a living. They saw that the north and east needed lean beef, and the cattle drives began. Those trails are historical markers today. The cattle were known for retaining their weight during the long cattle drives and often easier to handle than other breeds. The stockyards of Fort Worth were kept busy transporting cattle to markets where they brought a good price. Imagine a dusty, weary cowboy riding into Fort Worth, seeing thousands of cattle, and hearing their cries, and smelling--well, money.
In Waco, Texas, a cattle bridge was built across the Brazos River in 1869 to handle the thousands of longhorns that made the trek from the ranches on to Fort Worth. In 1871, an estimated 600,000 to 700,000 head of cattle passed over that bridge. Today that bridge is a walkway only.
Next time you’re driving through Texas, I suggest you visit a State Park that houses longhorns. You won’t forget them. But I do encourage you to stay away from the bulls!
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