This month’s Hands On History program is all about cowboys — our latest activity packet is now available online at our website, www.GCHSweb.org. Click on “Education Program” to read all about our digital activities and browse past activity packets.
The 21-page Cowboys packet explores the history of the cowboy (a term that can be applied to all genders), from the time of the vaquero to the 21st century, when five people from Geary County were inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Cattle drives had quite an impact on the early days of Geary County, first known as Davis County.
After the Civil War, Texas cowboys (many descended from enslaved Americans and Native peoples) began driving cattle northward to railheads in Kansas where they could then be shipped by train to places like Chicago or New York, where meat factories paid top dollar. As railroads were built in Kansas, struggling frontier towns profited by providing supplies and entertainment to ranchers and cowboys.
Even though the Chisholm Trail was planned to end in Junction City, where cattle could be shipped east on the railroad, Junction City was not one of those “cow towns.” Local ranchers fought against the Chisholm Trail proposition and the trail ended in Abilene instead.
Why? Even though the cattle trade promised a lot of rewards, it also promised a lot of risk to local cattle. The Texas longhorns that were driven into Kansas carried a tick that spread a contagious disease among local cattle, called Texas cattle fever.
According to local newspapers, residents in the neighborhood of Humboldt, McDowell, and Clarke’s Creek lost $6,000 worth of cattle to the contagious disease — an enormous sum in 1867.
Local ranchers fought for quarantine laws to keep the Texas cattle out of the area and away from their own cattle. People were so against these cattle drives that meetings were held at local farms to discuss the problems. Locals decided if the legislature didn’t do something about the Texas cattle, they would—lawfully or unlawfully.
In Davis County, newspapers wrote, “It is proposed, if legal steps are of no avail in stopping such cattle beyond the State line, that the farmers turn out and drive them back. The people of these neighborhoods have suffered greatly and continuously, and with no hope of legal aid.”
In the early days of Kansas, frontier towns depended on characters like Wild Bill Hickok to protect their communities from violence and theft. That’s why one of the activities in our packet is a self-portrait — on a WANTED! poster!
Another tool against theft was the cattle brand. A cattle brand is used to create a permanent mark on livestock using a distinctive design. It’s like a tattoo for your livestock so that you and your neighbors know which cattle are yours. Today there are other ways to mark cattle, including ear tags and a painless method using intense cold to create the growth of white hair where the super-chilled brand was placed.
These cattle brands were very helpful in the 1800s when cattle grazed on public lands. When they were rounded up, ranchers could claim their branded cattle that had intermingled with other herds during grazing season.
With our activity packet, first, design your cattle brand and “register” it with the county. Then, get creative with tinfoil to craft a brand that’s unique to you and you alone.
Cowboys had to get creative, too, or face endless boredom on their long cattle drives. Storytelling and folk songs became part of the cowboy culture, and you can participate, by partnering with a friend to tell a Mad Libs-style story, or by singing a classic cowboy song, “Git Along, Little Dogies.”
This activity packet and several others are available online at www.gchsweb.org/p/activity-packets.html. We are also happy to email or provide a printed copy of any of our activity packets upon request.
To sign up for information about our Hands On History program, or for comments or questions, please contact GearyHistory@gmail.com, or call 785-238-1666. The museum is open to visitors Tuesday through Saturday, 1-4 p.m.