In the wake of the Civil War, Texas cattle—left to their own devices by absentee ranchersturned- soldiers—had multiplied; by 1865, an estimated 5 million Texas Longhorns ran semi-feral in the Lone Star State. Unfortunately, Texas ranchers were unable to sell their stock to markets back East for several reasons. Citing fears of Texas Fever—a tick-borne disease—locals in Missouri and other increasingly- populated states would stop passing herds, beat or kill the drovers, and steal the cattle.
Enter Joseph “Cowboy” McCoy (1837–1915). Illinois-born McCoy had already been part of the livestock shipping industry for a few years when he saw a lucrative opportunity within the Texas ranchers’ plight. With a surplus of cattle in Texas, beef was in high demand in the East. In cities like Chicago, a Longhorn could sell for $30 while fetching only $3 locally.
McCoy developed a plan to drive the cattle to a Kansas railhead— one outside of quarantine lines and far west of any significant civilization—then ship them by train to Eastern buyers. He scouted sites and settled upon a dusty village at end of the Chisholm Trail and alongside the Union Pacific railway: Abilene, Kansas.
McCoy built stockyard pens as well as a bank and a hotel (called the Drover’s Cottage, it became one of the finest hotels in the West) and sent riders south to advertise the new Abilene market in Texas. He also advertised to buyers back East by shipping cowboys and bison (in a railcar fitted with advertisements for Texas cattle) first to St. Louis and then to Chicago. There, the cowboys put on a show, displaying their roping and riding skills, selling both the Western life and its beef. The strategy was a success, and the demand for Longhorns in the East grew even more.
In 1867, the first year of business, 35,000 heads of cattle were shipped from Abilene to the East, and by 1871 that number rose beyond 600,000. McCoy left Abilene in 1872 to pursue other ventures as other railheads opened, and though his time at the helm of the cattle shipping industry was brief, his impact was unequivocal: he founded the Kansas cattle trade by giving the producer and the buyer a place to trade, and ensured that the beef industry was a lasting component of the West’s economy and history.