Open-Range Cattle Ranching in the Southwest

Amon Carter Museum of American Art

In 2017 the Chisholm Trail turns 150 years old. Millions of cattle traveled it when migrating north. The trail was used from 1867 through 1884 and ran through Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. In this exhibition, the Amon Carter takes a closer look at open-range cattle ranching through the artist archives of photographer Erwin E. Smith (1886–1947).

Erwin E. Smith made a name for himself as one of the best photographers of cowboy life in the early 1900s. His photographs provide a snapshot of life on the open range.

Because of the invention of the railroad, large trail drives were obsolete by the time Smith started photographing. As a result, he focused his work with larger outfits in an attempt to capture a sense of what open-range cattle ranching once was.

As with all types of agriculture, open-range ranching was seasonal. There were four annual phases: the spring roundup, the trail drive, the fall roundup, and winter work.

When migrating, the herd needed to move slowly, allowing cattle to graze several hours each morning so they would not lose weight along the drive.

When herding the cattle, the cowboy’s rule was never to let the cattle take a step in any direction but north. In other words, keep moving forward.

One of the cowhand's jobs on a trail drive was to ride behind the herd of cattle and push the cattle dragging in back to move more quickly.

The herd moved from sunrise until late afternoon covering about fifteen miles a day. At night, the cattle would sleep while night herders rode around them singing to keep them calm.

When the herd was on the move, Smith frequently anticipated their progress and galloped ahead to choose a good vantage point from which to photograph.

Smith also documented the various positions the day herders took to guide the cattle along the trail.

Not all cattle made to it to the slaughterhouses; many met an early demise on the range. Out of necessity, cowboys would butcher cattle for their own sustenance.

The Chisolm Trail provided many cattle ranches with a sure route in the Southwest United States. Smith’s photographs capture many different aspects of open-range cattle ranching that occurred during and right after the time of the trail’s use.

Credits: Story

Produced by Peggy Sell, Interpretation Manager at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

All images from the collections of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas and Library of Congress, Washington D. C. on deposit at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. All images copyright Erwin E. Smith Foundation.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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