On February 11, 1877, the Daily Fort Worth Standard printed a brief recollection by Harvey Gordan of his days as a cowboy on the Chisholm Trail.
Some background: Cattle trails from south Texas north to the railheads in Kansas consisted of major trails and minor trails. The minor trails fed the major trails like tributaries feed a river. Historians debate the names that should be applied to various parts of this network of major and minor trails, including the trail that passed through Fort Worth. For example, the late Donald E. Worcester, TCU history professor, wrote: “The Chisholm Trail was the major route out of Texas for livestock . . . from 1867 to 1884.” From the south, he wrote, “The Chisholm Trail continued on to Fort Worth, then passed east of Decatur to the crossing at Red River Station. From Fort Worth to Newton, Kansas, U.S. Highway 81 follows the Chisholm Trail.”
The late Fort Worth historian Julia Kathryn Garrett contended that the trail through Fort Worth was the McCoy Trail, a tributary trail of the Chisholm, although she conceded that trail drivers would later refer to the trail through Fort Worth as the “McCoy Trail,” “Dodge City Trail,” and “Chisholm Trail.”
A plaque on Elizabeth Boulevard agrees with Garrett.
No matter what you call it, the cattle trail that passed through Fort Worth stimulated the young town’s economy, which had suffered after the Civil War ended and before the railroad arrived in 1876.
The top clip, from the Galveston Tri-Weekly News of March 30, 1870, is part of an open letter written by railroad agent W. N. Fant to Texas cattle drovers about how to ship their cattle by rail after the herds reached Kansas. Fant, later president of the Indianola, San Antonio and El Paso Railroad, lived in Goliad and surely was William Nevitt Fant (1822-1888), who was father of early Texas cattle trail driver Dillard Rucker Fant (1841-1908), also of Goliad. The middle clip is from the Dallas Daily Herald of April 4, 1876. The bottom clip is from the Emporia (Kansas) News of September 30, 1870.
With that background, here is Harvey Gordan’s glimpse of life on the Chisholm Trail as written for the Daily Standard in 1877:
“’Twas in the spring of 1868 . . . when my father and I had a little disagreement, and he took it into his head to give me a ‘sound thrashing,’ which I richly deserved. But I could not see it in that light then, so I left my parental roof to seek my fortune elsewhere. . . . I had often wished to cow drive. . . . Soon I met a stranger who was in need of a cow hand. . . . I soon found myself mounted on a noble horse, bound for Omaha City, Nebraska. . . . On my first day’s drive all seemed in good spirits. Toward evening we came to a halt and struck camp. While some of the boys were engaged hobbling the ponies and otherwise making preparation for supper, I busied myself watching the expert sons of Mexico lassoing the cattle for the purpose of learning them to haul the ‘grub wagon.’ . . . At length came supper, then all the boys seated themselves upon the grass in a huddle around a crackling fire. Each drew from his pocket a knife, with which he fashioned a sharp stick to answer the purpose of a fork, and then all ‘dived in.’ Each one was given a tin cup into which was poured the almost boiling coffee, without either sugar or cream. . . . As I sat and munched my bread and beef and drank my coffee ‘straight,’ I thought ‘cow boy’s life’ is indeed a pleasant one. But I was soon to be undeceived, for no sooner were ‘cigarettes’ indulged in than I was placed, with two others, to stand night guard around the herd.
“My companions were both lively fellows, and we did very well ’till time for the second relief to go on duty, when I found myself free. I retired to my virtious [sic] couch upon the grass with nothing but a saddle blanket for cover. We were astir betimes next morning. . . . [O]n the third day’s drive after crossing Red River I witnessed my first stampede. . . . I beheld a dark cloud rising in the west, and at nightfall, when we stopped to encamp, it seemed to envelop the whole earth. We had barely done our lunch and cigarettes—for I had begun to smoke—when the rain commenced to fall thick and fast, and the first guard, of which I was one, was ordered to hold the cattle through the storm.
“‘Great God,’ I exclaimed. ‘In this rain?’ This was a new phase of cow boy life, and to me who had always been used to a house to shelter me from the rain and storm. It seemed horrible; nevertheless the order was given, and I had no other alternative but to obey.
“Reluctantly I mounted my horse and rode off to the herd. When I arrived the cattle were going round and round in a circle, and it required the persevering efforts of the other guards and myself to keep them together.”
This illustration is from Harper’s Weekly.
Harvey Gordan continued: “The night was . . . dark, . . . and we could scarcely see anything except by the occasional flashes of lightning. . . . We had stood about half through when a gang of those infernal loafer wolves that infest those regions came yelling and howling toward us like a pack of fiends, and away went the cattle in every direction.
“I started out in pursuit of a small squad while the other boys followed suit in another direction.
“I urged my horse forward, trusting to his good eyesight rather than my own, for I could only see indistinctly a moving mass and hear the roar of hoofs ahead. . . . I gave rein to my horse, and as I sped along, I knew not where, I thought of my brothers and sisters, of how they were enjoying their nice warm beds while I dared not think what I was doing.
“But many times as I sped on and on through the almost impenetrable darkness did I ask myself the question: ‘What would I not give to be at home?’
“After what seemed an age to me, the cattle began to slack their pace and finally toned down to a walk, and then I succeeded in bringing them to a stand, and there I held them the rest of the night.
“Daylight next morning found me on Red Fork [Oklahoma], sore and stiff in every joint and limb and drenched to the skin, while just twenty miles lay between me and where I started. I rounded up and drove into camp just in time for my supper, having done without both breakfast and dinner.”