Northeastern Oklahoma owes a great deal to the ancestors of Bevo, the longhorn steer and mascot for the University of Texas.
Their hooves formed sections of the Texas Road that became as solid as concrete. When the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad was constructed, track was laid directly on portions of the ground they had trampled.
They also proved to be an economic boon for some settlers. As more and more farms and ranches were developed, many obtained a substantial income by charging cattlemen for crossing their land.
Longhorn cattle are the descendants of the first cattle brought to the New World by the Spanish between 1493 and 1512. Some escaped and over generations evolved hardy characteristics that included the ability to survive by eating just about anything.
The fact that longhorns were so durable and plentiful didn’t escape Edward Piper’s attention and in 1846 this Texas entrepreneur and his associates set precedent by rounding up and driving an estimated one thousand head from southern Texas across Northeastern Oklahoma all the way to Cincinnati, Ohio. The route was long and arduous but Piper was well rewarded, selling his herd for over $100 a head.
Piper’s accomplishment did not go unnoticed and soon there was a new industry in Texas, some cowhands rounding up longhorns and selling them locally for five or ten dollars a head, others, more adventuresome, buying them and driving them north selling the longhorns for ten times as much.
Edward Piper initiated his venture by using the Texas Road, a highway of sorts that had been created years earlier as the result of a land venture promoted by Moses Austin and later, his son Steven.
By 1824 Steven had convinced the Mexican government, then proprietors of Texas, to populate a region between the San Antonio and Brazos Rivers with American settlers. As an incentive, each married settler could obtain an unbelievable 4,428 acres for $30 dollars payable in six years!
Needless to say the land rush was on and the Texas Road was created by pioneers from eastern states. It has been estimated that by the 1840s over a thousand wagons a month were crossing Northeastern Oklahoma into Texas.
For reasons not clearly defined the Texas Road, as it was called by pioneers traveling south, became known as the “Shawnee Trail” by cow hands headed north.
One popular explanation that has endured claims there was a Shawnee Indian village near the Red River on the Texas side. But, in any event, the Texas Road or Shawnee Trail was one and the same at least as it funneled through the Jack Fork Mountains and land part way to the Arkansas River further north.
Passage through this area undoubtedly created one of the largest traffic jams in early American history with a steady stream of wagons headed south, cows headed north. Imagine encountering again and again what must have been at least a mile long trail of longhorns if there were roughly a thousand in each herd.
However, relief occurred when the topography changed somewhere south of the Arkansas River and the more open plains permitted a certain degree of separation of the two after that.
Swimming their cattle across the Arkansas, cattlemen were able to take advantage of prairies geologists call the Ozark Plateau, and stay west of both the Texas Road and the Military Trail, which was completed in 1843. Trail hands then herded their cattle the rest of the way north on a more clearly identifiable Shawnee Trail.
That trail generally following today’s highway 69 past Wagoner, Pryor, Adair and Vinita before dividing and crossing into Kansas either near Chetopa or Baxter Springs.
Between the time Piper initiated the first drive in 1846 until the Civil War it has been estimated over a million longhorns passed our way. But shortly after the war, even though cattle drives resumed, circumstances changed.
Northeastern Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation, was becoming much more populated with farms that impeded the cattle drives. Then there was the “Texas Fever.” Local farmers soon became aware that ticks carried by longhorns were infecting and killing their domestic cattle.
The resulting “range war” soon found cattlemen seeking different routes further west where they could meet newly constructed rail terminals in Kansas. The end result was that by the late 1860s the “Bevo Bonanza” was over in our region.
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.