“Large parties of California bound cattle drivers have been leaving our vicinity during the past week. We learn that large droves are also being sent from other frontier counties and the Cherokee Nation.”
Van Buren Arkansas Intelligence, May 8, 1854
Pioneers arriving in California weren’t the only hopefuls mining for gold. It soon became apparent that the hordes of meat hungry miners also provided a “golden” opportunity for ranchers in the middle of the country to profit. Texan Edward Piper had shown in 1845 that long horn cattle could survive over extended distances by living off the land, when he drove a herd all the way to Cincinnati, Ohio. So, why not California? The venture could be very profitable. Trail hands earned $165 a year and longhorns cost five to ten dollars. The estimated travel time was 10 to 15 miles a day and a drive could last for five to six months, but at a cost of only one dollar per head, regardless of the distance. Still, managing any herd was difficult, mostly depending on the number of steers where the number could vary from one to three thousand. The herd might stretch as long as two miles, the dust was suffocating and weather conditions could add to the misery. But the time and profit were worth it. Those arriving with the first herds found the prices to be unbelievable. A single longhorn could be sold in California for $60 in the rural areas or as much as $150 in San Francisco. By 1852 the Los Angeles Star reported 90,000 head had arrived in Los Angeles and were now selling from $75 to $200.
The Cherokee Trail that originated in Salina and was first blazed in 1849, remained a highway to the west through the 1880s, so it was also the obvious route for cattlemen in Indian Territory. Their journey would take them across the plains of Kansas, north along the front range of the Rocky Mountains for about 200 miles, then through Wyoming. Ample food and water were the major problems up till then, but Wyoming Territory was hostile Indian country. Delays or theft by Indians or gangs of white outlaws could prove costly.
Crossing the territory to Granger Station near Wyoming’s western border, the cattle herd would follow the Mormon Trail southwest to Salt Lake City. After reaching Salt Lake City, the trail boss was faced with a decision. One choice would be to lead the herd south between the Wasatch Range and the Great Salt Lake Desert to Los Angeles. The other, dependent on the time of year, was to turn west across the Great Salt Lake Desert to San Francisco. Although longhorns, descendants of cattle that arrived from Spain two centuries earlier and would eat almost anything that grew, had to have water. Even though it was shorter to San Francisco, the season dictated whether or not they would take the desert route.
“Greenbriar” Joe Martin, owner of the 100,000 acre ranch that extended from present day Ketchum to Spavinaw, then west past Strang to the Greenbriar Church is thought to have been involved in one, perhaps two ventures west during the peak years before the Civil War. An entrepreneur of his era, Martin’s home at Cabin Creek was a way-stop for pioneers on the Texas/Military Road. Martin traded and sold oxen and horses as well as offering services that included a trading post and a blacksmith shop. Periodically, he also rounded up stray Texas longhorns that were lost while crossing his property on the Shawnee Trail. When he accumulated enough longhorns, accompanied by a few of his 100 slaves, Martin drove longhorns to markets either in Kansas City and on occasion, probably California.
Justice on the Cherokee Road was swift and severe. Cattle herds were vulnerable to rustlers and delays cost money. While Indians were a threat in the early years, later it became organized gangs, and law enforcement officers dealt with them swiftly. Among the most notorious after the Civil War was a gang led by Lee H. Musgrove, better known as “LH.” Born in Mississippi, he joined the rush to California after gold was discovered. One evening he became involved in an argument, killed a man, and was forced to leave California. Soon after, he killed two more in Nevada and a third in Idaho. Now a hunted man, LH organized the Musgrove Gang, and began preying on outposts, rustling cattle and stealing horses in eastern Wyoming. By 1867 he had acquired a reputation that caught the attention of David Cook, Denver City Marshal. Usually careful to stay out of Colorado and Cook’s jurisdiction because of his reputation, LH made the mistake of agreeing to meet with a banker in Fort Collins. Cook managed to apprehend and jailed him in Denver. Unfortunately for him an impatient “jury of fifty of his peers,” broke into the jail, seized LH, took him to a nearby bridge over Cherry Creek and, after their own version of a trial, hung him. The popular conduit to “California Gold” was again open for business.
Author's Note: Pathfinders, 10th Century Pioneers of Cherokee Territory is now available on Amazon.com and BARNESAND NOBLE.com
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.