The Blue River Cattle Trail: from Abilene into Nebraska

By Breanna Fanta, Editorial Assistant

Waves of Texas longhorns were driven to northern beef markets in Nebraska and Kansas in the latter nineteenth century. Following the Big Blue and Little Blue rivers, cowboys drove the herds to northern railheads to be sold or transported. For some cattlemen it led to big profits; for others it was a gamble from which they’d never recover. Gary and Margaret Kraisinger and Dwaine Fosler detail the history and struggles of the cattle drivers in their article, “The Blue River Cattle Trail: Two Extensions of the Cattle Trail in Kansas North from Abilene into Nebraska, 1868 – 1871,” in the Winter 2020 issue of Nebraska History Magazine.

The United States looked forward to economic recovery at the end of the Civil War. Cut off from outside markets by the war, Texans had an overabundance of cattle. Demand for beef was strong in northern states, but the nearest railroads were far from Texas. The nearest railheads were in Kansas and Nebraska. Hoping for large profits, Texas cattlemen took the risk of trailing their herds of longhorns north in great cattle drives.

During the early drives, it was discovered that the Texas cattle, though healthy, were spreading a disease fatal to local domestic cattle. Ranchers and farmers lost large portions of their herds to “Texas Fever.” After declaring statehood in 1861, Kansas drew a quarantine zone from which Texas cattle were excluded. Texas drovers were unaware of this and were surprised to be confronted by border patrols. Trespassers faced “hefty fines” or jail time, and some patrols beat or killed drovers and stampeded the herds.

Nebraska experienced its own phase of the Texas Fever in 1867 and implemented a quarantine law in May of that year. While quarantine zones impeded routes north, new western settlers also posed a threat. Lacking sufficient fencing to keep cattle off their fields (barbed wire didn’t yet exist) many settlers enforced boundaries by arming themselves. These obstacles made it difficult for drovers to find an efficient trail north to market and railway destinations.

To resolve this, a young Joseph G. McCoy founded the small town of Abilene along the Kansas Pacific Railroad beyond the western border of the Kansas quarantine zone. It was a “safe and convenient rail terminal” that included the Great Western Stock Yards, but competition appeared when a new branch of the Union Pacific advanced 100 miles farther west. William Osburn, chief engineer of the railroad, established Waterville, Kansas, which sat in “bluegrass stem country” and provided lower freight rates. The anxiously awaited spring drive of 1868 proved Waterville to be the preferred destination amongst the drovers, but the town’s success was short-lived.

That summer Texas Fever struck again. Recognizing its prevalence during the summer months, Nebraska and Kansas implemented quarantine laws during July and August. Texas cattleman grazed their cattle in nearby counties outside the quarantine zone until September.

But eventually the cattlemen were driven away by westward settlers, and Waterville ceased to be a major rail terminal for cattle drives.

Abilene prospered, but soon faced a different problem. The Kansas Pacific Railroad charged astronomical prices to ship cattle from Abilene to Chicago and provided poor service. Unsatisfied, cattle shippers reached a local judge, William N. Fant, to represent them in negotiations with the Kansas Pacific in hopes of receiving “relief in rail prices and to negotiate fewer delays over the route.” When the Kansas Pacific refused, Fant began negotiating with the Union Pacific in Omaha.

The Union Pacific provided this relief in 1870. With the idea that as many as 100,000 head of cattle would enter Nebraska, the railway charged a per-car rate that was 25 percent less than Kansas Pacific’s. Schuyler, Nebrsaka, was chosen as the railroad’s “Bull Head” and became a destination for cattle drives. Business boomed during the town’s first year in service. While it was a farther drive up the Blue River, Schuyler’s high sale prices and improved service made the extra travel worthwhile.

Unfortunately for Schuyler, the following year was less profitable. The railroad “rate war” of 1870 ended and railroads increased their rates. Everything that boosted business in the previous year came crashing down: sale prices declined, people were unable to sell their low-grade cattle, new settlers closed in on the trail, and severe weather hurt the business. Heavy rainstorms spoiled the prairie grasses and thunderstorms created stampedes that made cattle lose valuable market weight. The final straw for many of the Texas hopefuls was the severe winter conditions.

With hopes of the following spring resulting in better sales, many cattlemen attempted to keep their herds in the area during the winter. As the bitter weather rolled in, it became clear how unaccustomed they were to the conditions. Cattle died by the thousands. Many cattleman lost almost all of their investment and headed home empty handed. Others either sold what could and didn’t return or managed enough to recover from their losses.

Despite the tragedy, Schuyler grew in size, but this too was a problem for drovers. Since the population grew so large, a new law was instituted allowing stray cattle to be confiscated and fines to be imposed on trail bosses. When locals began taking violent measures to enforce this, cattlemen decided Schuyler was too dangerous. After two driving seasons, the town met the end of its cattle business.

Drives continued advancing farther west (North Platte became a major cattle-drive town for a few years, and then Ogallala for several more), but for towns like Abilene, Waterville, and Schuyler, the Texas cattle business ceased when the trails became too challenging to travel. As for the Texas cowboys, some returned home, but others stayed to work on newly established ranches in Nebraska, where a homegrown cattle industry was beginning to emerge.



The entire article can be found in the Winter 2020 edition of the Nebraska History Magazine. Members receive four issues per year. 

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Longhorns, Cattle Drives, Cowboys, Railroads

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