The Chisholm Trail: Joseph McCoy's Great Gamble

The Chisholm Trail: Joseph McCoy's Great Gamble

by James E. Sherow, James P. Ronda

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One hundred fifty years ago the McCoy brothers of Springfield, Illinois, bet their fortunes on Abilene, Kansas, then just a slapdash way station. Instead of an endless horizon of prairie grasses, they saw a bustling outlet for hundreds of thousands of Texas Longhorns coming up the Chisholm Trail—and the youngest brother, Joseph, saw how a middleman could become wealthy in the process. This is the story of how that gamble paid off, transforming the cattle trade and, with it, the American landscape and diet.

The Chisholm Trail follows McCoy’s vision and the effects of the Chisholm Trail from post–Civil War Texas and Kansas to the multimillion-dollar beef industry that remade the Great Plains, the American diet, and the national and international beef trade. At every step, both nature and humanity put roadblocks in McCoy’s way. Texas cattle fever had dampened the appetite for longhorns, while prairie fires, thunderstorms, blizzards, droughts, and floods roiled the land. Unscrupulous railroad managers, stiff competition from other brokers, Indians who resented the usurping of their grasslands, and farmers who preferred growing wheat to raising cattle all threatened to impede the McCoys’ vision for the trail. As author James E. Sherow shows, by confronting these obstacles, McCoy put his own stamp upon the land, and on eating habits as far away as New York City and London.

Joseph McCoy’s enterprise forged links between cattlemen, entrepreneurs, and restaurateurs; between ecology, disease, and technology; and between local, national, and international markets. Tracing these connections, The Chisholm Trail shows in vivid terms how a gamble made in the face of uncontrollable natural factors indelibly changed the environment, reshaped the Kansas prairie into the nation’s stockyard, and transformed Plains Indian hunting grounds into the hub of a domestic farm culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806162935
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 09/27/2018
Series: Public Lands History , #3
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 360
Sales rank: 1,026,076
File size: 32 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

About the Author

James E. Sherow is University Distinguished Professor and Professor of History at Kansas State University, Manhattan, and the author of numerous books and articles, including The Grasslands of the United States: An Environmental History and the award-winning Railroad Empire across the Heartland: Rephotographing Alexander Gardner’s Westward Journey.

James P. Ronda, is retired as Professor at the University of Tulsa, where he held the H. G. Barnard Chair of Western American History. He is widely recognized for his extensive scholarship on the Lewis and Clark expedition, including the pathbreaking Lewis and Clark Among the Indians. He is also a distinguished historian of the early American fur trade, Astoria and Empire. Professor Ronda’s recent publications include The West the Railroads Made.

Read an Excerpt


The Smell of Money

Texas Cattle down Fifth Avenue, New York City, in 1866


In 1866, thousands of pedestrians crowding Lower Manhattan in New York City considered the smell of cattle manure wafting off the streets nothing less than a wretched stench. But cattle buyers and sellers like William McCoy breathed it in as a sweet fragrance, one that filled the air with the "smell of money." He and his brothers, James and Joseph, operated a profitable cattle buying-and-selling business in Springfield, Illinois — by some accounts, one of the largest such businesses in the country. New York, with its nearly one million people, offered aggressive and ambitious businessmen like the McCoy brothers an opportunity to play the nation's largest and best cattle market. William, the eldest of the three, conducted the Chicago and New York City side of the family business while his brothers stayed in Illinois.

McCoy smelled more than money as he made his way to Washington Market, the public outlet where vendors sold vegetables, fruits, and meat. On the way he could have passed some 180 slaughter-butcher shops clustered within a one-mile radius of Canal Street. Crowded into the same area, people lived in some of the worst tenement housing in the nation. The Seventeenth Ward held 95,000 people with about 64,000 of them crammed into 1,890 tenement houses. Over 150 of these rickety three- to five-story dwellings lacked any kind of toilets or sewer connections, and about 2,500 people lived in their dank, dark cellars. Altogether, at least half the population of New York City lived in tenement houses in 1866. These same impoverished men and women made up the majority of the consumers to whom W. K. McCoy and Brothers hoped to sell the meat cut from Texas longhorns.

Washington Market Raises a Stink

Cuts of beef from the cattle that McCoy sold reached four public city markets — Catharine, Fulton, Franklin, and Washington. In 1813, New Jersey farmers had built the first, Washington Market, a large red brick pavilion where they could sell dairy and eggs to the growing population of New York City. The streets of Barclay, Vesey, and Fulton all led to Washington Market on the waterfront of the North River (now Hudson River). Every day, throngs of buyers stood nearly shoulder to shoulder buying most of the food eaten in the city.

Washington Market failed utterly to merit a seal of approval from the Metropolitan Board of Health. As bemoaned in the New York Tribune in January 1867, the place had "within a few years been twice indicted by the Grand Jury as a public nuisance," and the reporter believed the other three markets deserved the same denunciation. From the time it was built, few improvements had been made to the Washington Market structure aside from wooden stalls extended from its brick core. As one writer would describe it later in 1877, the structure was not "worthy of the extent of business done or deserving of praise on economic or sanitarian grounds." Yet inside hung "avenues with crimson drapery — the best of beef in prodigious quarters," all made possible by cattle dealers like McCoy.

While William McCoy might have smelled the money, he also contributed to one of the rankest urban environments in North America. For most New Yorkers the streets did an excellent job of covering the scent of the money. The city thoroughfares stank and posed dangers to anyone near or on them. No one had to remind residents of that fact in 1866. The odors of horse, sheep, and hog dung filled the nostrils of pedestrians, coach passengers, and teamsters alike. Hogs ran free, feeding on whatever garbage residents threw onto the streets. Pedestrians often forgot that under the tons of manure deposited on the streets each day, the streets were paved with cobblestones.

Travel by any means had become increasingly difficult anywhere in the city. New York's population had swollen beyond the capacity of its streets, and its downtown areas groaned under the daily additions of people. Overcrowded "street railways" failed to transport their customers comfortably. In 1866, the legislature, in an attempt to relieve the congestion, approved funding for a subway system.

The butchering and consumption of meat in these crowded, smelly urban confines only compounded pollution and street-congestion problems. Swine provided a ready source of meat for their owners who often butchered their animals at home. The poor often dined on captured "wild" hogs found running at large. Each week butchers slaughtered thousands of sheep and prepared cuts for sale in 180 shops located in the heart of downtown Manhattan. Then the butchers discarded the offal in back alleys, where hogs fed on it.

While hogs and sheep provided most of the meat eaten in the city, New York consumers also developed a healthy taste for beef. Between 1855 and 1865, the annual consumption of pork grew from over 250,000 to over 650,000 animals, and during the same period, mutton consumption increased from over 550,000 to over 1,000,000 animals. Beef consumption also rose dramatically, increasing from nearly 160,000 animals in 1855 to over 270,000 in 1865.

Eating certain cuts of beef became a symbol of class status. In 1830, John and Peter Delmonico opened one of the first restaurants in the city, and soon competitors followed. The brothers dominated the business by specializing in a menu offering French-styled cuisine. In 1837, they opened a distinctly upscale, opulent restaurant at the intersection of Beaver and William Streets that catered explicitly to the elites of the world. In 1850, the chefs added to the menu the "Delmonico steak," a twenty-ounce cut of sirloin, a favorite of Abraham Lincoln. In 1862, Charles Delmonico opened an exclusive restaurant next to Union Square on 14th Street and 5th Avenue, and hired Charles Ranhofer, one of the earliest examples of a celebrity chef. On August 29, 1866, his banquet menu for the dinner given to President Andrew Johnson included as part of one course a tenderloin called Filet de boeuf à la Pocahontas.

By 1866, meeting the demand for beef in the rapidly growing city approaching one million people required the massive importation of animals. During one week in March 1866, for example, 4,100 steers still fell short of supplying consumer demand in the city. Buying cuts of meat and other foodstuffs created a daily rush to Washington Market, where during the forenoon it became "almost impossible for merchants to deliver their goods to the various forwarding lines in the vicinity, and pedestrians experience[d] great difficulty in passing through the crowd of wagons and carts in that section of the city." By the end of 1868, the entire cattle market for New York and its vicinity consumed 7,000 beeves weekly, or more than 350,000 animals served on dinner plates for the year, and amounted to over $35 million in total annual sales.

The sheer volume of animals slaughtered exacerbated the pollution problem from butcher shops and spurred public health concerns. While Mayor John Hoffman thought the city Board of Commissioners of Health possessed adequate authority to regulate the butcher shops, Governor Reuben Fenton, responding to public outcries from New Yorkers, differed decidedly with the mayor. Fenton preferred an independent professional board, one with authority vested in it by the state and free from city control. The governor's goal, as reported in Harper's Weekly, was a board free of "politicians or speculators" and served by "men of the highest practical science." Initially created to contain cholera, this state-sanctioned board also possessed the authority to regulate the cattle trade and butcher shops in the city.

By early March 1866, the governor had appointed Jackson Schultz the president of the health board. No stranger to the city's cattle trade, the fifty- one-year-old Schultz owned and operated the nation's largest leather-working business. A reformer at heart, he dearly wanted to see a healthier, cleaner environment in the city. He found complete and professional support from the three physicians whom he had appointed to the sanitary committee.

Under Schultz's energetic leadership, the board took immediate action to abate the horrid conditions of the slaughterhouses in the heart of the city. The butchers found themselves summoned to report to the board to answer a series of questions. On Monday, March 12, at 3 P.M., when the butchers arrived at the trial room in the Metropolitan Police Building, they had to address the question first and foremost in the minds of the board members: Was there any justification for operating their establishments among the tenements and commercial buildings? Second, if the butchers kept doing their work in Lower Manhattan, how could they protect the public from the thousands of cattle daily driven along the main streets of the city, "maddened by fever, hunger, thirst and fright?" And how would nearby residents or passersby be shielded from "fat-trying, bone-boiling and hog-feeding on the offal of slaughtered beasts?"

The butchers gathered as a group determined to show themselves as an aggrieved profession. Prior to their meeting with the board, they had convened at the Butchers' Hide and Melting Association's offices at Fifth Street and First Avenue to agree on their rationale for retaining their locations. The butchers elected George Starr to chair their meeting and to represent them along with a committee of five other butchers. At the end of the session, after the airing of differing points of view, all that Starr promised the butchers was that he would do his best to protect them "from unlawful abuse." The meeting adjourned, and all headed to the Metropolitan Police Building for the three o'clock meeting.

Once the health board and butchers had assembled, health board president Jackson Schultz made one thing perfectly clear to all attendees. "It is useless," he pointedly warned the butchers, "to disguise the fact that very soon your occupation must leave the populous part of the city." He further informed them that although the public demanded their removal, he preferred that the butchers themselves take the lead in relocating. The ultimate goal, Schultz said, was to have a publicly owned and managed "abattoir," located well to the north of the city, where the slaughtering would be conducted, and then the quarter sections could be transported to the city's butcher shops.

The butchers came prepared with a number of arguments to counter Schultz's relocation plan. Identifying themselves as skilled members of a profession, they recoiled at having their shops declared both unhealthy and offensive. Mr. Lalor, one of the butchers present, asked why blacksmith shops or tenement houses were not to be banished. He further asserted that the squalor of the tenement houses created a worse nuisance than either butcher or blacksmith shops. Christopher Wier, another member of the association, alleged that slaughterhouses were less grievous than either coal yards or private stables. One butcher identified as Captain Phillips conceded that some slaughterhouses were so "utterly filthy that it is impossible for a man to pass them some mornings without the loss of his breakfast." Despite this, he also made the fantastic claim that slaughterhouses possessed a peculiar health benefit. "I have had sick persons often come into the slaughter house and sit over the beef while it was drawn that they might inhale the steam and so be cured."

Although this steam treatment might seem an unusual treatment today, it was apparently a common practice at the time. A few years later, Thomas F. De Voe, the superintendent of the Washington Market and a butcher by trade, besides being a member of the New York Historical Society, also described the healing effects of a slaughterhouse. De Voe recalled that, as a child, he had suffered from "weak and shriveled" lower limbs. Three times a week, his mother had taken him to a slaughterhouse for physical therapy. The treatment followed a peculiar procedure: "As the warm entrails were taken from the animals and placed in a tub, the mother thrust [De Voe's] puny legs into them, and had the satisfaction of seeing vitality imparted to the limbs." In following similar curative regimens, others reported the return of strength to a formerly paralyzed individual and how, in a separate case, a "confirmed invalid" became "an active, muscular man."

Other butchers tried to make a case for the healthful nature of their business by pointing to their "own portly bodies." However, not everyone agreed with the butchers' self-analysis of their trade. A reporter covering the meeting for the New York Times took great exception to the butchers' claims. He allowed that perhaps the butchers' trade might be "imminently health-giving, but their bodies" (emphasis included) did not prove it. The reporter also pointed out that the butchers and their families did not live near their establishments, while the poor living in tenements did, and that the health of those dwelling in the area suffered. The reporter went on to castigate the butchers for "parading" cattle down Fifth Avenue while the people using the streets encountered the drives as "abominations and nuisances, intolerable to any other people under the sun."

This cattle parade on the streets of New York began as a number of railroad companies delivered cattle straight to the Jersey City and Hoboken stockyards lining the docks along the North River shoreline directly across from Lower Manhattan. At the piers, workers reloaded the animals onto the ferryboats that transported the cattle to the holding pens in the Third, Fifth, and Ninth Wards of New York City. From there, drovers headed the cattle along the downtown streets to the various butcher shops. Often this work was done in the evening to avoid the greater congestion of the streets during the daytime. As George Starr, the spokesman for the butchers, judged the practice, driving cattle through the streets caused fewer accidents than "horses and cars."

The reality, however, was that cattle driving made the streets a hazardous place for people. At the same time that Starr pleaded his case, not more than a mile away, eight-year-old Matilda Kregan and eleven-year-old Matthew Meyer were playing in the vicinity of Avenue B between Third and Fourth Streets. Along Avenue B, drovers were also driving a herd of cattle toward downtown slaughterhouses. Suddenly, one of the steers broke loose and made a "furious rush down the avenue." In its flight, the steer knocked Matilda and Matthew down, "severely bruising both children." Police from the Seventeenth Precinct were called. After a "long and exciting chase," the police captured the steer and led it to Elias Kutz's slaughterhouse at 55 First Avenue, who promptly butchered the animal. Abraham Loch, who operated a butcher shop in the third block of East Tenth Street, had actually bought the animal and had a claim to it. When he found out the location of the carcass, he quickly rushed to Kutz's shop and retrieved it. Meanwhile, as the parents of Matilda and Matthew found out, the downtown streets were not safe from panicked cattle, as Mr. Starr averred.

Besides addressing concerns over the safety of street traffic, the sanitary committee had identified nearly twenty-five streets in "filthy condition" and classified five "fat and offal-boiling" facilities as nuisances, which resulted in suspending their businesses. The employees of the department had cleaned nearly 200 water closets, removed over 960 cartloads of "night soil," (each cart with a capacity of about one square yard), removed over 80 dead horses from the streets, and removed an additional 360 dead calves along with more than 1,700 barrels of offal from the butcher shops located in the city. As the public outcry mounted over the poor sanitary condition of the city, Jackson Schultz and the Metropolitan Board of Health saw a remediation plan coming into view.

The Samuel Allerton Prototype

Potential profit and improved public safety were to be gained by opening a new kind of trail for cattle into New York City. By the end of 1866, Samuel Allerton, steeped in his family's long-standing leading role in supplying New York City with cattle, had exerted control over vast segments of the cattle business. In the 1850s, he traveled between New York City and the Illinois farms where cattle herds flourished. The ever-increasing demand for beef in the city had outstripped the ability of upstate cattlemen to supply it, so Allerton ventured even farther westward to seek access to abundant supplies of cattle. By the outbreak of the Civil War, rail connections linked Chicago, New York City, and Philadelphia, and Allerton took up residence in Chicago where he could direct the flow of cattle from the fields of central Illinois to the butcher shops of New York City.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations,
Foreword, by James P. Ronda,
Preface: Putting Your String on Her,
Introduction: Joseph McCoy's Great Gamble,
1. The Smell of Money: Texas Cattle down Fifth Avenue, New York City, in 1866,
2. Trails' Ends,
3. Why Abilene, Kansas?,
4. A Trail Is Formed,
5. The Seasonal Round,
6. Tick, Tick, Tick,
7. Confronting Fire and Ice,
8. Indian Cattle Travails,
9. The End of the Trail,
Conclusion: Shifting Trails,
Appendix: Explanation of Weather Statistics,
Selected Sources,

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