The way north was an old trace that lay along the great wrinkle in the earth that separated the Blackland Prairie to the east from the Southern Plains to the west. The trail ran from Southwest Texas north to present day St. Louis, Missouri, and for centuries it served as a conduit for trade and war and migration by peoples ancient and modern. It went by many names. Most referred to it as the Shawnee Trail, for the ancient Indian village of Shawneetown near present day Denison. The military route built by the Texas army in 1843 was called the Preston Road. It ran south from Coffee’s Trading Post in the Washita Bend of the Red River to Cedar Springs hard by the Trinity in what is now Dallas. For settlers heading to the Promised Land south of the Red it was The Texas Road, and for the drovers who pushed the cattle herds north it was the Sedalia Trail, the Kansas Trail, or just, the trail.
Close downstream from the confluence of the Washita and Red Rivers, near Preston Bend, was a ford called Rock Bluff. The ground on the Texas side of the river sloped to the water’s edge like a giant funnel and made an excellent place for crossing stock.
In their 1936 book, A History of Grayson County Texas, Mattie Davis Lucas and Mita Holsapple Hall, cite an account by John Malcom, a ferryman who worked at the crossing in 1870.
“There was a large lot fenced with logs and trees cut down, making a good place to hold the cattle should they not take to the water, and at the lower end there was a large rock jutted into the river making practically a chute for the cattle to go into swimming water at the first jump. I would take the skiff and keep the cattle straightened out across the river while the other men would keep them crowded up. Sometimes they would get to milling, that is going round in a circle, and then we had to break the mill, sometimes with me in the skiff and sometimes by swimming to punch a leader.”
There is a plausible argument that because Grayson County lay athwart the most practical way to the cattle markets in the north following the Civil War, the locus of the industry that produced the popular idea and image of Texas is here. This is where the West, at least the West of the world’s imagination, really began.
In a large county with limited transportation, most agriculture was local, but with the coming of the railroads in the 1840s and ‘50s, markets for products from afar started to grow. Texas stockmen drove herds of longhorns to Shreveport and New Orleans in 1842, and as the California Gold Rush took off, W.D. Snyder trailed a herd from Texas to San Francisco. The trip took two years.
In 1852, two men from Illinois named Ponting and Malone came to Fannin County with gold to buy beef. They stayed with Mrs. Permelia Jackson Clutter at her home on the headwaters of the Sulphur River near the present day community of Gober. While the buyers scoured Fannin and Grayson Counties for stock, Mrs. Clutter guarded their hoard of gold at her inn.
Helping the men round up a herd was Jesse Chisholm, who had a ranch in the Choctaw Bottoms southeast of Sherman. Chisholm was a Tennessee born rancher, Indian trader, interpreter, and guide who grew up around Fort Gibson in Indian Territory of eastern Oklahoma. In 1865, he led a train of freight wagons from near present-day Oklahoma City into Kansas. The route became known as the Chisholm Trail.
With Chisholm’s help, Ponting and Malone put together a herd of six hundred head, and pushed them across the river—there is no record of where—and up to Boggy Depot, where they acquired another one hundred cattle. They headed up the Shawnee Trail to St. Louis, crossed the Mississippi River on ferries and continued to their home in Christian County, Illinois, arriving in the summer of 1853. The next spring, they selected 150 head and drove them to Muncie, Indiana, where the cattle were loaded on rail cars and shipped to Bergen Hill, New Jersey, ferried across the Hudson River and delivered to the Hundred Street Market in Manhattan.
The New York Tribune made note of the arrival of the Texas longhorns. “The cattle are rather short-legged, though finehorned, with long tapering horns, and something of a wild look…. The expense from Texas to Illinois was about $2.00 per head, the owners camping all the way. From Illinois to New York, the expense was $17.00 a head.”
The success of Ponting and Malone motivated other cattlemen to seek the northern markets, but instead of far away New York, they set their sights on Sedalia, Missouri, Baxter Springs, Kansas, and other towns along the southern part of the Missouri, Kansas border. By 1854, the Texas State Gazette estimated that fifty thousand head had made the drive from Texas.
With the increased traffic came problems from an unexpected source. In the summer of 1853, a herd of three thousand head was blocked in western Missouri and forced to turn back by armed and angry local farmers afraid of deadly Texas fever. The longhorns carried ticks and the ticks carried the fever. The Texas cattle were immune to the disease, but not the local livestock. By the end of 1855, Missouri had passed a law banning diseased cattle from coming into the state. The new regulations did little good as the longhorns themselves were not sick, and in both Missouri and Kansas, the efforts to stop the Texas herds grew more violent. There were attacks on herds and drovers by armed vigilantes. Longhorns were slaughtered and cowboys murdered. Stiffer laws came from the legislatures in both states, and the march of Texas beef to northern markets slowed to a crawl.
The problem was not solved, but it was rendered all but irrelevant by the onset of the Civil War. With the secession of Texas in 1861, the drives up the Shawnee Trail ended, and back home, with thousands of men in the Confederate Army, the cattle business lost whatever fledgling organization it had developed before the war.
Where the West Began
The last official battle of the Civil War took place on May 13, 1865, when three hundred Texas cavalrymen led by Colonel John Salmon (Rip) Ford, whipped five hundred bluecoats under Colonel Theodore Barrett at Palmito Ranch near Brownsville. Only a determined stand by 140 soldiers of the 62nd U.S. Colored Infantry saved the Federals from a complete rout.
While Texas had been spared the physical destruction that had left much of the South in ruins, the state’s economy was in shambles. But there was one local commodity that was abundant in its supply and potentially of great value—beef. The North wanted beef and Texas had it. Left on their own for four years, Texas herds had multiplied, and thousands upon thousands roamed free on the open ranges of South and Central Texas. By the spring of 1866, more than a quarter of a million longhorns had been rounded up and pointed north, up the Shawnee Trail to the Rock Bluff crossing of the Red River.
There were herds large and herds small, and often on arriving in Grayson County, trail bosses would pasture their animals in the flat, grassy prairie west of Sherman to rest and join with other herds. There was safety in numbers on the often-dangerous trek across the Nations of the Indian Territory.
There was a railroad at Sedalia now, with connections to the markets in Chicago and St. Louis, so most of the drives headed up the familiar route along the eastern edge of the Indian Territory. There was still opposition from Missouri and Kansas farmers, but the huge numbers of cattle on the trail made their efforts to disrupt things difficult.
The typical herd numbered around three thousand animals. There would be a dozen or so hands, many still teenagers, with the drive. The men in charge, the trail boss and the ramrod, were often only in their twenties. It was a young man’s occupation. Two-thirds of the drovers were white, the other third a mix of African-Americans, Hispanics and Indians. The newcomers, called “waddies,” drew $25 to $40 a month, the more experienced wranglers upwards of $50, and a good cook or ramrod might make $75. The trail boss earned around $100 and might be in for a cut of the profits if the cattle brought good money at the market.
On the trail, the drive’s chuck wagon and equipment wagon led the way, headed toward the spot selected by the trail boss for the herd to bed down for the night. Close behind were the spare mounts of the remuda and the wranglers who watched over them. A drive with fifteen mounted men might have close to one hundred horses in their remuda.
The cattle followed behind, formed into an elongated teardrop shape, with a specially chosen lead cow up front. The lead animal was often a veteran of other drives, with experience and trail savvy. One longhorn, called “The Old Champion,” made numerous jaunts north with herds over the years.
A couple of cowboys took the point, more were strung out on both flanks of the herd, and the newest of the waddies rode drag and ate dust. When the drive stopped for the day, the cattle would be turned into a more compact circle, and “nighthawks,” cowboys delegated to ride night guard, would circulate slowly through the herd, keeping a watchful eye for predators and problems. And yes, cowboys really did sing to their charges while on night guard. A soft song calmed the beeves when strange noises interrupted the silent night.
Historians say that 260,000 cattle made the crossing of the Red at Rock Bluff in 1866. It was the beginning of the age of the great cattle drives, but it was the beginning of the end of Grayson County’s starring role in the parade. The opposition to the Texas herds and the tick fever they brought was still very much alive and growing stronger, so the Texas cattlemen were looking for other ways to get their product to market, and Joseph G. McCoy found a solution.
McCoy was an Illinois cattle buyer who determined to build a market destination far away from populated regions. He picked Abilene, Kansas, as the most likely spot for his venture and persuaded the Kansas Pacific Railroad to build a line to the town in the middle of nothing but grass. The railroad built sidings and other facilities to handle expected business and promised to pay McCoy a commission on each carload of cattle shipped east.
In Topeka, McCoy persuaded state officials not to enforce the state’s quarantine laws against Texas herds and then set out to advertise the benefits of Abilene to drovers and Texas cattlemen. In 1867, Abilene saw 37,000 head from Texas driven into its pens. By 1873, when a new state quarantine on southern stock closed the market, 1.5 million Texas cows had been driven along the Chisholm Trail to Abilene. The Chisholm crossing of the Red was at Red River Station in Montague County some seventy-five miles west of Sherman.
In Kansas, Abilene’s ascendency in the scheme of things was almost as short lived as Sherman’s. As the railroad pushed west, other towns sprang up to lure the herds and the cowboys. Wichita and Ellsworth earned their reputations and a place in history and then faded into the background as Dodge City and Hays rose in importance. Drives to those destinations crossed the Red even farther west, at Doan’s Store in Wilbarger County. But their heyday was short too.
The cattle business was changing, and so was the way north. Texas was connected to the north by rail in 1872 when the Katy came to Denison, and soon other Texas towns had railroads and stockyards. In 1875, Henry Sanborn came to Grayson County to sell Joseph Glidden’s barbed wire by teaching cattlemen how to raise more beef more efficiently though carefully managed animal husbandry. The coming of the wire brought the end of the open range, and it brought a new place for Grayson County in the scheme of things.
Goodbye to the Longhorns
The hide and horn that built the early Texas cattle industry was the wily longhorn. These descendants of the first cattle brought to the New World by the Spanish had developed in the wild and were well suited to the harsh conditions of the plains. They were smart, tough, and ornery, and their long, sharp-tipped horns could cause predators to think twice before attacking a herd.
For all their rugged qualities, the longhorns were not particularly good meat producers, and early on, cattlemen sought ways to improve the economic side of the breed. Thomas Jefferson Shannon, who had donated the land for the town of Sherman, was the first rancher in Texas to import purebred Shorthorns from Europe. In 1848, he purchased two Durham cows and a bull from Queen Victoria’s own herd and had them shipped to New Orleans, then brought by wagon to Grayson County, where he crossed the cattle with native longhorns.
By the end of the Civil War, there were at least a dozen ranches in the county with substantial herds of crossbred cattle. From these herds would come the seed stock that built the great cattle operations of West Texas in the late 1870s and 1880s. Two of the most important players in this saga were Jot Gunter and William B. Munson.
Gunter was from North Carolina. He had come to Texas with his family and settled in Upshur County. He joined the Confederate army in 1861 and served with Dick Dowling at Sabine Pass. After the war, he moved to Sherman, read law with a local attorney and was admitted to the bar.
Munson was from Illinois. He was educated, having been the first graduate of the mechanical and agricultural school of the University of Kentucky. He came to Sherman with the M-K-T railroad, and when the city declined an opportunity to become the Katy’s Texas hub, Munson led in the founding of a new town, Denison, ten miles to the north. Somewhere in all this activity, Munson found time to read law with Jot Gunter, and when Munson became a lawyer in 1873, the two men became partners. Their shingle told it all. “Gunter & Munson: Attorneys at Law and Dealers in Real Estate: Lands Listed, Patents Secured, Titles Investigated, and Taxes Paid.”
Over the next ten years, Gunter and Munson, whose families lived next door to each other on Rusk Street, bought large tracts in Grayson County, establishing ranches north of Denison and southwest of Sherman near present day Gunter. The firm also became the principal surveyors of the vast tracts of West Texas. If you wanted to establish title to land to the west, you came to Gunter and Munson.
In 1878, Gunter, Munson, and a new partner in the land business, John S. Summerfield bought the claim to the TAnchor Ranch in Randall County, and in 1880, they hired Jud Campbell to trail 3,500 head of cattle to the ranch. The next year Campbell drove another herd west. By then, T-Anchor had fenced 240,000 acres, but the cattle and another 3,500 head that arrived from Grayson County in 1882 were scattered all over the range.
On August 24 of that year, T-Anchor cowboys started rounding up the beeves to push them to the ranch headquarters. The assembled herd numbered 10,652 head. There were sixteen cowboys and 125 horses in the remuda. It was the largest cattle drive in history. How do we know the numbers? Vas Stickley and Jule Gunter counted them over the half a day it took to run the herd through the fence line gate.
Gunter and Munson dissolved their partnership in 1883, but remained friends for the rest of their lives. With the split, Gunter took the Grayson County spread and Munson the West Texas property.
A map of early Grayson County ranches carries names still known today, Lazurus, Goode, Vaden, Stedman, and Hudgins. Of them all, perhaps the most prominent was Pete Hudgins.
Harry Middleton Hudgins was born in 1893 at 421 W. Houston Street in Sherman. His parents, Tom and Addie were in the livestock business as had been his grandparents.Young Hudgins, who was always Pete, got into the cattle business at the age of ten, by trading fresh milk cows to city residents for their older stock and selling the dry cows to local butchers. In short order, the boy earned a reputation for fair and honest dealing, which stayed with him all of his life.
In 1914, Ben Munson decided to fence the acreage of his ranch north of Denison. Wild cattle that “had outlawed,” in the parlance of the day, populated the range, and Munson offered the animals for sale cheap, provided the buyer could move them off the property. Hudgins, who was twenty-one, took on the job. With five friends, good cowboys all, Hudgins rounded up the outlaws and trailed them to the stock pens along the railroad. Animals deep in the brush, who were too dangerous to deal with, were shot, butchered on the ground and hauled to Denison in a wagon.
For the rest of his life, Pete Hudgins worked to improve the breed, early on importing top quality Shorthorns and then Herefords to the area. He bought high-grade bulls and often lent them to his neighbors to improve their herds and brought in Jersey bulls by the carload to help the milk producers in the county increase production. His operations were conducted out of the family home where he was born.
In the early days, there were pens, mostly for horses, where Piner School now stands. In 1925, the pens were moved to the corner of Washington and Ricketts, but Sherman kept right on building in their direction. In 1950, the operation moved farther out West Washington to thirty acres in the 1600 block. By 1975, the Hudgins’ operation, by then under the eye of Pete’s son Lee Hudgins, was located at the old Meadowlake Farm south of U.S. 82.
Pete Hudgins died in 1986. He was the last of the county’s old-time cowmen, but his legacy lived on in the person of his oldest son, Lee, who came back from service in World War II and joined his father in the family business. Lee Hudgins died in 2009, and now his oldest son, another Pete, runs the operation.
A Note from Edward Southerland
Some years back, when a study sought to find out what people from other parts of Texas associated with Grayson County the answer was both surprising and at the same time logical. Folks thought of history.
That is surprising, as even the people who live here have largely forgotten so much of what has happened here over the past 200 years. The Shawnee Trail, Rock Bluff crossing, the coming of the Katy, the story of Jot Gunter, Ben Munson and the founding of the great cattle spreads of the Panhandle have been consigned to a paragraph or two in an old book.
On the other hand, perhaps the legacy of it all, the image of the American cowboy, the longhorn, and all they have come to represent to Texas and the world, are too well ingrained to fade away. After all, this is where the West, the West of our imagination, all began.
Material for this article came from various sources, including:
Black Land, Red River: A Pictorial History of Grayson County, Texas
by Sherrie S. McLeRoy
A History of Grayson County, Texas
by Mattie Davis Lucus and Mita Holsapple Hall
Grayson County, Where the West Began
by Neilson Rogers
The Handbook of Texas Online