Cattle droving played a significant role in the agricultural economy of early America, as it allowed farmers to transport large numbers of cattle to market. This article explores the challenges and adventures of cattle droving in early America, including the different types of drovers and drives, the equipment and tools used, and the hazards faced along the way such as inclement weather, highwaymen, and disease. Dogs also played an important role in cattle droving, serving as guardians of the herd and protectors of the drovers’ possessions. (Bierman, 2023) Despite the risks and uncertainties, cattle droving could be a lucrative business, with drovers sometimes winning small fortunes or facing bankruptcy depending on the fluctuating prices of cattle.
In colonial America, cattle droving became a necessary practice as the population grew and settlements expanded. Farmers in the hinterland areas needed to find a way to transport their cattle to market, and droving was the most efficient method. Droving involved moving large herds of cattle over long distances, sometimes hundreds of miles, to reach markets where they could be sold for meat. The proximity of pasturage to towns was limited, and it was not practical for farmers to transport their cattle one by one to the town butcher. Instead, they would gather their herds and drive them to larger markets further inland. This allowed for greater efficiency and profitability, as well as opening new opportunities for ranchers and cattle breeders. Furthermore, the need to reserve pasturage near towns for dairy cows and horses meant that beef-cattle grazing had to take place further inland. This pushed the boundaries of settlement and led to the expansion of the frontier. Overall, cattle droving played an important role in the development of colonial America’s agricultural economy and helped to shape the country’s history.
By the 1820s, there were six major mountain trails in the eastern United States that were used for driving cattle to markets in the east. These trails are often referred to as “drover’s roads.” Here is some more information about each of these routes:
The Wilderness Road: This trail ran from Virginia to Kentucky, through the Appalachian Mountains. It was originally used by pioneers and settlers moving westward, but by the 1820s it had become a major route for driving cattle to markets in Virginia and beyond.
The Great Kanawha route: This trail followed the Kanawha River in West Virginia and was used to transport cattle from the western part of the state to markets in Virginia and North Carolina.
The Cumberland Road: This was a major east-west highway that ran from Maryland to Illinois. Cattle were driven along this road from western Pennsylvania and Ohio to markets in the east.
The Pittsburgh-Chambersburg route: This trail connected Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and was used to drive cattle from western Pennsylvania to markets in the east.
The Greensburg-Juniata road: This trail ran from Greensburg, Pennsylvania to Juniata, Pennsylvania, and was used to transport cattle from western Pennsylvania to markets in Philadelphia and Baltimore.
The Erie-Mohawk trail: This route connected Buffalo, New York with Albany, New York, and was used to drive cattle from western New York to markets in the east.
These six trails played a significant role in the development of the cattle industry in the eastern United States during the early 19th century.
Spring was a difficult time to drive cattle to market because of the conditions of the roads and streams. The thawing of snow and ice, combined with spring rains, often turned roads into muddy quagmires that were difficult for both humans and animals to navigate. Streams and rivers were also swollen with runoff from melting snow and spring rains, making them difficult to cross. Drovers had to be skilled at finding safe places to ford the streams and avoid dangerous currents that could sweep cattle away.
By June the rivers were usually lower, which made crossing them easier. However, this also meant that the trails were often dusty and rutted from the passage of thousands of cattle. The dust kicked up by the herds could be seen for miles, and was a common sight during the summer months as drovers drove their cattle to market. Macadam roads, which were made of small, angular stone, could be hard on the hooves of the cattle, leading to injuries and lameness. Some drovers found it necessary to shoe their animals in order to protect their hooves from the sharp stones on macadam roads. However, not all cattle were suited for wearing shoes, and some drovers preferred to avoid macadam roads altogether. The stress and strain of walking on a hard surface for extended periods could cause lameness or other injuries, which could have a negative impact on the animal’s value at market.
The weight lost by an animal on a long drive to market was commonly referred to as “drift” or “shrink,” and it was an important factor in determining the value of the animal at market. Sheep and cattle generally suffered less drift than hogs. This was because sheep and cattle were better able to maintain their weight and condition on a long journey, due to their ability to graze and digest fibrous plants along the way. Hogs, on the other hand, were more susceptible to losing weight and becoming fatigued on a long drive, which could lead to increased drift and lower prices at market. Drovers worked hard to minimize the amount of drift suffered by their animals during a long drive. They would often allow their herds to rest and graze periodically along the way, and would provide them with water and supplemental feed to keep them healthy and well-nourished.
Types of Drovers
The different types of drovers played important roles in the cattle industry of the 19th century, and their expertise and knowledge were essential for getting cattle to market and ensuring that they fetched the best possible prices. The first type of drover was the cattleman who was his own drover. These were farmers or ranchers who raised their own cattle and drove them to market themselves. They were responsible for all aspects of the drive, from selecting the best route to managing the health and well-being of their animals along the way. The second type of drover was the hired man who did the driving. These were men who were hired by cattle owners to drive their herds to market. They were skilled at managing large groups of animals and were often experienced in handling difficult or unruly cattle. The third type of drover was the agent who drove and kept informed on market conditions. These were men who were hired by buyers or sellers to transport cattle to market and to keep them informed about market conditions. They were responsible for ensuring that the animals arrived at market in good condition and for negotiating prices on behalf of their clients. The fourth type of drover was the freelance professional drover. These were independent contractors who specialized in driving cattle to market. They were experienced in managing large herds and navigating difficult terrain, and they often had a reputation for being able to get cattle to market quickly and efficiently.
There were two categories of cattle drives in the 19th century. The first category of drives was the movement of thin cattle from range to feeding area. This typically occurred in the spring, when cattle were brought in from the open range to be fattened up on feed before being taken to market. These drives were usually shorter and involved moving the cattle from the open range to a nearby feeding area, where they would be fed a combination of grain, hay, and other supplements to help them gain weight. The second category of drives was the movement of fat cattle from feeding area to market. This typically occurred in the fall, after the cattle had spent several months on a feeding program and had reached a desirable weight and condition for market. These drives were usually longer and involved moving the cattle from the feeding area to a market center, where they would be sold to buyers and then shipped off to slaughterhouses or other destinations.
A typical herd or drove would usually number around 100 to 120 head, although it could occasionally be as large as a thousand or more. The size of the herd would depend on a variety of factors, including the size of the ranch or farm it came from, the market demand for cattle, and the availability of grazing and water along the route to market. If the cattle were fat, a drove of hogs might go along to eat the droppings of the cattle and the grain that the cattle wasted. This was a common practice, as it allowed the hogs to fatten up quickly and provided an additional source of income for the drovers. In terms of travel speed, the statement notes that a drove of horses could travel up to 22 miles per day, while a drove of stock cattle could travel about 9 miles per day, and a drove of fat cattle could travel about 7 miles per day. If the cattle were accompanied by hogs, the travel speed would be slower, at about 5 miles per day.
The boss was the leader of the crew and was responsible for managing the drive and ensuring that the cattle arrived at their destination in good condition. He would ride on horseback, typically with a small group of men on foot to help manage the cattle and keep them moving in the right direction. The boss would carry a variety of supplies with him, including a change of clothes for himself and the men in his crew, as well as extra garments for use in bad weather. He would also carry a whip, typically a blacksake or Centerville whip, which he would use to help control the cattle and keep them moving. In some cases, particularly for larger droves, a second man might also be mounted on horseback to help manage the drive. This person would typically work closely with the boss and would help to ensure that the cattle were moving smoothly and that any issues or problems were addressed quickly. Together, the boss and his crew were responsible for ensuring that the cattle arrived at their destination safely and that they were in good condition for sale or slaughter.
Cattle drovers and their herds were often at risk from a variety of threats during their journeys. Highwaymen were a particular concern, especially on the more isolated roads and trails. These criminals would often target the drovers and attempt to steal their cattle or other valuables. In addition to the threat of theft and robbery, drovers also had to be wary of diseases that could affect their cattle. As they traveled through new areas, they were exposed to different environments and potentially infected animals. This could lead to outbreaks of diseases like foot-and-mouth disease or anthrax, which could spread quickly and devastate a herd. Horse thieves and cattle rustlers were also a concern for drovers, particularly in areas where these crimes were common. These criminals would often operate in groups and would set up stations or camps along popular routes in order to prey on passing drovers.
After selling their cattle, drovers would often be carrying large sums of money, which made them a target for thieves and bandits. This was especially true in the early days of cattle drives when banks and other secure places to deposit money were not yet established in many areas. To protect their earnings, drovers often employed a variety of strategies. Some would carry their money on their person, hidden in a belt or other secure location. Others would entrust their money to a bank or trusted individual in the area, who would hold it for them until they were ready to return home. In some cases, drovers would hire a guard or “shotgun rider” to accompany them on their journey and protect their money and other valuables. These guards were usually well-armed and trained in self-defense, and they would ride alongside the drover to deter would-be robbers.
The pay for drovers in the first half of the nineteenth century varied widely, depending on a range of factors, including the size of the herd, the distance traveled, and the market conditions at the end of the trail. A professional drover could typically buy cattle for two to five cents per pound, which meant that a herd of 100 cattle could cost between $200 and $500. The cost of driving the herd to market could run from $1,200 to $1,500, depending on the actual distance traveled. At the end of the trail, the drover’s profits would depend on the prevailing market conditions. If cattle prices were high, the drover could make a significant profit, but if prices were low, the drover might be forced to sell at a loss or break even.
In conclusion, cattle droving was a challenging yet essential part of the early American agricultural economy. The drovers faced many hazards, including inclement weather, highwaymen, and disease, but their skills and experience allowed them to successfully transport large herds of cattle to market. The use of dogs as guardians of the herd and protectors of the drovers’ possessions added an additional layer of security. (Bierman, 2023) Despite the risks and uncertainties, cattle droving could be a profitable venture, with drovers sometimes winning small fortunes or facing bankruptcy depending on the fluctuating prices of cattle. Overall, cattle droving played a significant role in shaping early American agriculture and remains an important part of the country’s history.
- Henlein, P.C. 2021. Cattle Kingdom in the Ohio Valley 1783–1860. University Press of Kentucky. http://esbt.us/bn.
- Bierman, T. 2023. “The Rise and Fall of Drovers’ Dogs in the Eastern U.S.” Farm Shepherds. March 12. http://esbt.us/bl.