Saving the Longhorns

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All the breeding stock obtained by Barnes and Hatton was at least twelve years old. The best of the bulls was so ancient that he died soon after being transferred to Oklahoma but not before he had done his job and sired some fine offspring.

The late J. Frank Dobie, author and historian, also had a hand in preserving the longhorn breed. In the early 1930’s, with the help of rancher Graves Peeler of Jourdanton and the financial aid of Fort Worth oilman Sid Richardson, Dobie assembled a small herd that formed the basis for today’s longhorns exhibited in the Texas state parks. Peeler, who is well past fourscore years, today runs his own private herd of longhorns on his ranch in McMullen County, Texas.

Increasing interest in these historic cattle, encouraged by the availability of purebred animals through the auctions at the two government refuges, led in 1964 to the formation of the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association, whose purpose is to establish longhorn standards as well as to serve as a medium of communication between longhorn owners. The roster of active members numbers approximately a hundred seventy. While most are in the West and South, the list includes breeders as far east as Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

Just what is a Longhorn, anyhow?

Texas Longhorns are big, raw-boned, and rangy, with slabbed sides and a squarish look. They have long legs, with the huge forequarters making the front legs seem shorter. The head is large and long, giving the eyes a wide-spaced appearance. The neck is short and stocky. In color they do not rival a rainbow; they eclipse it, although the hues are more akin to muted earth tones. They range from black to white, solid and dotted, splashed and spotted, with all the colors in between—mulberry, speckled and ring-streaked blue, slate or the highly prized mouse color, duns and browns, yellows and creams, all the spectacular shades of red. No two are exactly alike in color.

The above description, taken from a current publication of the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association, could just as well have been written a century or more ago; it aptly describes the 3,500,000 longhorns living in Texas in a virtually wild state when their former owners returned from service in the Confederate army.

Descendants of Spanish cattle from Mexico that had wandered off from the beef herd of an explorer or were left behind when some Texas mission closed down or a ranching venture failed, the earliest longhorns had thrived on the mild climate and abundant herbage of southern Texas. They had adapted themselves admirably to both the coastal prairies and the higher brush country. During four years of war, with few humans around to interfere, their numbers had increased amazingly by 1865.

Longhorns could travel incredible distances without water, rustle food where other breeds would starve, swim rivers, and survive the heat of the desert sun. In short, when the first railroads began inching westward across Kansas in 1867, the longhorn was the ideal animal for the long overland drives that were the first leg of the journey to the packinghouses of the Midwest.

Many thousands took the longer walk to stock the ranges of Montana and Wyoming. Others went north to feed Uncle Sam’s wards on Indian reservations after the buffalo were killed off. That famous narrative of the old trail-driving days, The Log of a Cowboy, by former cowpuncher Andy Adams, describes a mixed herd of three thousand longhorns (breeding cows as well as steers) being driven from Brownsville, Texas, near the mouth of the Rio Grande, to an Indian agency in northwestern Montana, more than two thousand miles away.

Why did the horns of Texas cattle grow so much longer than those of the same Spanish breeds that ranged the California coast? J. Frank Dobie, in his book The Longhorns, says it takes nourishment to make horn and “some soils more than others seem to provide a substance especially conducive to horn growth.” Dobie points out that what he calls “the common cattle of East Texas seldom had the horn growth, just as they generally lacked the frame and weight, of the same blood of cattle west of the Guadalupe River,” which empties into the Gulf of Mexico about seventy-five miles northeast of Corpus Christi. In a Darwinian spirit Dobie also comments:

Under primitive conditions only the fittest could survive; predatory animals and the adversities of climate promoted selective breeding. Left to make their own way, the cattle developed hardihood, fleetness, and independence. They grew horns to fight off wolves, to hook down succulent mistletoe out of trees, to sweep out of the way thorned branches protecting sparse tufts of grass on the parched ground.