“The Chisholm Trail: Joseph McCoy’s Great Gamble” is Jim Sherow’s great masterwork. Sherow, a professor of history at Kansas State, has produced an interesting and thoroughly researched book about a transformative era in the nation’s history. It happened in Kansas.
The central figure of the book is Joseph McCoy, a livestock broker from Springfield, Illinois. McCoy had the vision and daring to connect post-Civil War demand for beef with longhorns ranging free in Texas. His solution was to find a railhead in Kansas, to which he could recruit Texas ranchers to move their cattle and subsequently ship to markets in the east. When McCoy settled on Abilene as his shipping site, it would become the first of the infamous Wild West cowtowns. The success of this venture was dependent on countless uncontrollable variables of weather, markets, native tribes, railroads and politics. This was McCoy’s great gamble.
Sherow wisely points out that the situation was even more complicated than the simple summary described above. Chapter 1 of Sherow’s sweeping story begins in the squalor of New York City, where local butchers slaughtered sheep and hogs and dumped the offal in the back alley for feral swine to consume. A push for health and sanitation led to creation of more centralized shipping and slaughter facilities, which ultimately made an efficient target to which McCoy could ship cattle.
Sherow takes an even larger view of the ecosystem in which McCoy’s system would function. Sherow repeatedly refers to the stored solar energy of grass, which could be converted by grazers into protein. When the market called for those grazers to be collected and moved north to the Kansas railheads, an ecosystem – and the American diet – was forever changed. This was also the era when the legend of the cowboy came to life. McCoy was no particular fan of the everyday cowboy, but he considered ranchers and stockmen to be the ultimate heroes.
Sherow describes the panoply of challenges faced by McCoy. These included unscrupulous rail shippers, extreme weather, native tribal land claims and market volatility. A major problem was what was then called Texas fever, a condition that U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists eventually found was caused by a tick-borne microorganism. Longhorns who grew up with this protozoa in Texas were essentially immune, but when domestic cattle in Kansas were exposed, mortality rates could reach disastrous levels. In one example, 448 of 450 dairy cows perished. Irate farmers pushed the Kansas legislature to create quarantine lines to keep Texas cattle out. As the quarantine line moved west, the cattle drives did also.
Weather extremes also had an impact, based on Sherow’s perusal of frontier weather records. In 1860, Kansas temperatures reached a high of 97 in June, 113 in July, and 108 in August (an early dose of global warming?). Once the cattle trade was established, the blizzard of 1871-72 also had devastating results. At Fort Hays, temperature readings fell from nearly 60 degrees to 10 in just over 24 hours (an early dose of climate change?). McCoy and the cattle trade persevered, but by 1885, the era of great cattle drives had come to an end.
This book is grounded in meticulous scholarship (it has 588 footnotes, from all kinds of sources) and is packed with fascinating anecdotes. For example, who would have considered that one of the problems caused in Texas by the Civil War was the prevention of importation of ice? This forced the cattle business to seek out artificial ice-making systems that led to modern refrigeration, which ultimately helped bring about the system of slaughter and shipping that we have today. Sherow even includes a touch of whimsy when describing the mating habits of the infamous cattle ticks.
Joseph McCoy’s great gamble paid off for the nation, although he probably didn’t realize the financial returns that he had hoped. Yet the impact of his vision blazed the Chisholm Trail in a way that transformed America.
Sherow describes this great gamble in a way that is scholarly enough to be a reference book yet entertaining for the casual reader. It is a masterwork.
Ron Wilson is a rancher and writer near Manhattan.