Economics and Business

Bonanza Farms

When did the American cattle industry begin?

As a large-scale commercial endeavor, the beef industry had its beginnings in the decades following the American Civil War (1861–65). Longhorn cattle, a breed of cattle descended from cows and bulls left by early Spanish settlers in the American Southwest, spurred the growth of the industry. Named for their long horns, which span about four feet, by the 1860s they had multiplied and great numbers of them roamed freely across the open range of the West. Ranchers in Texas bred the longhorns with other cattle breeds such as Hereford and Angus to produce quality meat. With beef in demand in the eastern United States, shrewd businessmen capitalized on the business opportunity, buying cattle for $3 to $5 a head and selling them in eastern and northern markets for as much as $25 to $60 a head. Ranchers hired cowboys to round up, sort out, and drive their herds to railheads in places like Abilene and Dodge City, Kansas, which became famous as “cow towns,” raucous boom towns where saloons and brothels proliferated. After the long trail drive, the cattle were loaded onto rail cars and shipped live to local butchers who slaughtered the livestock and prepared the beef. For a 20-year period the plentiful longhorn cattle sustained a booming livestock industry in the West: at least 6 million Texas longhorns were driven across Oklahoma to the cow towns of Kansas.

By 1890 the complexion of the industry changed. Farmers and ranchers in the West used a new material, barbed wire, to fence in their lands, closing the open range; railroads were extended, bringing an end to the long, hard, and much-glorified cattle drives; the role of the cowboy changed, making him little more than a hired hand; and big business took over the industry. Among the entrepreneurs who capitalized on beef’s place in the American diet was New England-born Gustavus Swift (1839–1903), who in 1877 began a large-scale slaughterhouse operation in Chicago, shipping ready-packed meat via refrigerated railcars to markets in the East.


This is a web preview of the "The Handy History Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App