The way north: From Fannin County to New York and the beginnings of the Texas cattle empire
By Edward Southerland
Feb 23, 2018
Print this page
Email this article

In 1852, two men from Illinois, Tom Candy Ponting and Washington Malone, came to Fannin County with money belts full of gold to buy beef. They boarded with Mrs. Permelia Jackson Clutter at her home on the headwaters of the Sulphur River near the present day community of Gober.

“The money we had been carrying was around was very heavy, so I took Mrs. Clutter aside and told her our business,” wrote Ponting later. “I asked her if she would take the money and put it under her mattress and not mention it to anyone, not even her husband.”

Mrs. Clutter agreed, and while the buyers scoured Fannin and Grayson Counties for stock, she 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 the Nations of eastern Oklahoma. In 1865, he would lead a train of freight wagons from near present-day Oklahoma City into Kansas along the route that came to bear his name. 

With Chisholm’s help, Ponting and Malone put together a herd of six hundred head, and pushed them across the Red River. Where is not recorded, but close downstream from the confluence of the Washita and Red, 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 making it an excellent place for crossing stock, so that would see a likely place.

From there it was up to Boggy Depot in the Nations where another eighty or so steers at $9 a head were added to the herd. At Fort Gibson, the men hired Cherokees to swim the cattle across the rain-swollen Arkansas River and built rafts to float the supply wagons over the stream. “I sat on my horse every night while we were crossing through Indian country. I was so afraid, I could not sleep in the tent; but we had no stampede,” recalled Ponting.

This 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 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, and 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 the way was The Texas Road, and for the drovers who pushed the cattle herds north a dozen years after Pointing and Malone it was the Sedalia Trail, the Kansas Trail, or just, the trail.

The drive crossed into Missouri just east of Baxter Springs, Kansas Territory and moved on to Springfield and then St. Louis.

“Sometimes while traveling we would forget what day it was and there would be days when we would see no man except those in our company,” Ponting wrote. “We would stop at farmhouses in Missouri and get butter, eggs, and bacon. The people did not want to charge us for them and said there was no market for them, and that we were perfectly welcome to them, but we always gave them something, especially if there were any children around.”

The drovers and cattle crossed the Mississippi River by ferry at St. Louis, and trailed into Illinois, arriving at the Colony house in Stonington in Christian County on July 26, 1853, where the great adventure had started. There they settled in to rest the herd and plan the next move. It came with the spring of 1854, when Ponting and Malone picked 150 of their best stock and drove them east to Muncie, Indiana.

 “When we got to Muncie, near the Ohio line, we found we could get [railroad] cars on to New York. We made arrangements and put the cattle on the cars. Up to this time there had been very little of this work done. We unloaded them at Cleveland, letting them jump out on the sand banks. We unloaded them next at Dunkirk, then at Harnsville, and then at Bergen Hill.”

From Bergen Hill in New Jersey, it was a ferry trip again; this time across the Hudson and then through the streets of Manhattan to the Hundred Street Market. On July 3, 1854, after two years and 2,100 miles—1,500 on the hoof and 600 by rail—Texas beef had arrived in New York City. The New York Tribune recorded the event:

“The top of the drove are good quality beef, and all are fair. A lot of twenty-one, short eight cwt., sold to Weeks at $80. These cattle are rather long-legged, though fine-boned, with long taper horns, and something of a wild look. The expense from Texas to Illinois was about $2 a head, the owners camping all the way. From Illinois to New York, the expense was $17 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 closer targets, 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, armed and angry local farmers in western Missouri, afraid of deadly Texas fever, blocked a herd of three thousand head and forced the drovers to turn back. 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. It would be five years before the herds were rounded up and set on the way north again.