Relevancy and Engagement

The Cattle Drive and Westward Expansion

Grade Level

9 - 12


Students will gain a greater understanding of the historical context and purpose of the cattle drives that took place in the mid 1880s. Students will be able to explain the cause and effect relationships of life on the frontier including, population growth, and later the invention and use of barbed wire, refrigeration, and railroads. Grades 9-12

Estimated Time

90 minutes

Materials Needed


Supporting Question 1: What was it like to work on a cattle drive?

  • Help Wanted signs (Printed or projected on board)
  • Cattle Drive Positions (Printed or projected on board)
  • Computer with internet access and a projector to show video clips

Supporting Question 2: What events and inventions changed ranching on the frontier?

  • Paint a Picture..., 1 copy per class
    • Before class, cut both pages of the printout into strips as noted by the dashed lines. Have one pile for the cattle ranch on the frontier (numbered 1-8) and one pile for the modern-day cattle ranch (lettered A-I)

cattle drive: the process of moving cattle from one location to another, usually to a new grazing location, or in a historical context to market

Did You Know?
  • Calves raised on beef ranches are typically born in the late winter and early spring.
  • Beef cattle are raised in all 50 states. 
  • The primary product produced by beef cattle is meat such as ground beef, steak, and roast. Beef provides zinc, iron, and protein (ZIP) to our diets.
  • Besides meat, beef cattle also produce other by-products such as leather, pharmaceuticals (such as insulin), sutures, glue, animal feeds, and much more. 
  • Beef cattle are classified as ruminants because they have a stomach with 4 chambers. This allows them to digest and break down the cellulose in grass and other plant material.
Background Agricultural Connections
C3 Framework

The Cattle Drive and Westward Expansion uses the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework's Inquiry Arc as a blueprint to lead students through an investigation of cattle drives during the 1880s. The Inquiry Arc consists of four dimensions of informed inquiry in social studies:

  1. Developing questions and planning inquiries;
  2. Applying disciplinary concepts and tools;
  3. Evaluating sources and using evidence;
  4. Communicating conclusions and taking informed action.

The four dimensions of the C3 Framework center on the use of questions to spark curiosity, guide instruction, deepen investigations, acquire rigorous content, and apply knowledge and ideas in real world settings to become active and engaged citizens in the 21st century.For more information about the C3 Framework, visit

C3 Table- Cattle Drive and Westward Expansion

Historical Context of the Cattle Drive
Cattle are not native to the United States. They were introduced by early explorers and settlers from Spain and England. Some cattle were introduced directly to the United States, but others came indirectly by way of Mexico. In 1690, the first herd of 200 longhorns were driven North from Mexico to a mission along the Sabine River, an area which is now part of Texas. Texas became independent in 1836 and the Mexicans moved South, leaving their cattle behind. Texas farmers began raising the Mexican cattle for their hides and tallow. Tallow was made from rendered animal fat and was used to make candles, soap, and other products. Although beef was consumed in the 1800s, the lack of refrigeration and preservation methods limited its consumption. Today, cattle are primarily raised for their beef.

Cattle roundup near Great Falls Montana, circa 1890. Source:

The first cattle drives headed West from Texas to San Francisco to the area where gold miners could be found (1849). Cattle ranchers could sell their cattle for 5-20 times the amount they could in Texas. The cattle market in California dropped along with gold mining. When the Civil War erupted (1861), many cattle herds were left behind on the open range. Cattle ranching halted for a time; however, the longhorn population grew as they continued to graze and reproduce on the prairie. After the war (1865), large cattle herds and consumer demand in cities resulted in cattle drives to locations where the railroad had a railhead. These towns were called "cow towns." When the animals arrived they would be sold and sorted for distribution to cities for slaughter and market.

Cattle Drive Map. Source: National Agriculture in the Classroom

Cattle drives continued for about 20 years (through the late 1880s) until the railroads grew and ranchers had closer access to railheads. Rail transport not only changed the speed of delivery, but as tracks were laid and refrigerated rail cars were developed, trains could go to where the cattle were located. This reduced rangeland degradation on the way to market and kept weight on the animals leading up to harvest because they no longer needed to walk 500-1000 miles to reach the market.

Butcher shop, circa 1890. Nebraska State Historical Society. Source:

Life on the Trail:
A typical cattle drive pooled together cattle from several ranches. Most drives consisted of a total of 1000-3000 head of cattle.  The historical era of the cattle drives took place before the wide-spread use of fencing. Cattle roamed free and owners used brands and earmarks to identify the cattle they owned. Cattle brands were registered and could only be used by the owner. When a cattle drive was organized, the trail boss kept record of the brands and earmarks in the trail herd. After accounting for each ranches herd, the cattle were branded for identification with a single trail brand for the drive.

A 12-person crew could manage most cattle drives. While most of the crews were composed of men, there were some women who drove cattle to the railhead. As discussed in the book "Texas Women on the Cattle Trails" by Sara R. Massey, like men "some [women] took to the trails by choice; others, out of necessity. Some went along to look at the stars; others, to work the cattle. Some made money and built ranching empires, but others went broke and lived hard, even desperate lives." Men, and some women, then had their own responsibilities and typically held positions that included the following:

  • Trail Boss: The trail boss was the leader of the cattle drive.  He was in charge of all the men and equipment. An average trail boss would have earned around $125 per month.  The trail boss rode at the head of the herd. He collected the money when the cattle were sold and was responsible for paying the crew.
  • Cook: The cook was the second most important position on the cattle drive. He traveled about a mile ahead of the cattle and crew.  He rode on the "chuckwagon" which carried the food, water, and provisions for the crew. The cook prepared each meal, found campsites nightly, and filled in for other odd jobs as needed. Cooks earned about $60 per month.
  • Cowboy: Cowboys worked the cattle and were paid $20-$40 per month.  The most experienced cowboy was known as the "Segundo" and rode evenly with the trail boss.  On each side of the herd were the "Swings" followed by the "Flanks" and finally the "Drag" riders.  The drag riders had the worst position as they were behind the herd.  Not only were they stuck riding in the dust, but they were responsible for pushing the lazy and slow cattle to keep them with the herd.
  • Wrangler: The Wrangler was usually the youngest in the crew.  His job was to care for the horses.  Each cowboy on the drive had three or four horses.  The wrangler fed, saddled, and cared for the entire herd of horses and was responsible to drive the horses that weren't being ridden.

There were numerous trails used.  Noted trails include the Chisolm Trail, which led from Texas to Kansas. It was named for the Indian trader Jesse Chisholm. The original trail expanded as time passed due to cattle herds making new trails.  The Chisholm Trail became obsolete in the mid-1870s after an interstate railroad came to Texas. The Goodnight-Loving Trail crossed West Texas. It was established by Charles Goodnight and later Oliver Loving.  The route was longer, but generally safer.

There were many dangers on the trail. Indian attacks were a threat in some areas along a cattle drive. Flooded rivers caused delays and drought often made it difficult to keep the cattle watered. Stampedes were a real danger. The herd could be spooked by a variety of sights, smells, and noises, but lightning was the most common. To stop a stampede the cowboys would run on horseback to the head of the herd and turn them to the right, directing the stampede into a circle. In time the cowboys made the circle smaller and smaller allowing the cattle time to calm down and stop running.

Life on the trail was long and lonely. Most drives lasted 3-5 months depending on the distance they needed to travel and delays they experienced along the way. A typical drive could cover 15-25 miles per day. Although it was important to arrive at their destination on time, the cattle needed time to rest and graze. Otherwise they would be very thin when they arrived at the markets, which decreased their value.

The End of Cattle Drives:
The historical era of the cattle drive lasted about 20 years. It began shortly after the Civil War and ended once the railroads reached Texas. This transportation system provided a route for beef to travel safely from the farms and ranches where it was produced to the markets where it was sold. This 20 year stretch of time left imprints on western culture and hobbies that have lived on. Chaps, cowboy hats, boots, old western songs, rodeos, and of course the cowboy all have roots stretching to this era in history. 

  1. Play an old cowboy song for your students. Instruct them to listen to the words of the song and imagine what life was like for the people depicted by the song.  "The Old Chisholm Trail" or "Whoopee Ti-Yi-Yo" both describe the life of frontier cowboys.
  2. After listening to the song(s), ask the students the following questions:
    • What animals did the cowboys work with? (horses and cattle)
    • What tools did they use to do their work? (ropes and saddle)
    • What do you think the environment was like? (hot, dusty, occasional rain)
    • What did they eat? Where did they cook? (beans, bacon, biscuits, they cooked over the campfire)
    • What kind of clothing do you think they wore? (cowboy hat, chaps, boots, spurs) 
    • Do any of the cultures and traditions of the "Old West" still live on today? (Rodeos, cowboys, raising cattle, horseback riding, etc)
  3. On a whiteboard or chart paper display the question, " How did the cattle drive era influence the westward expansion of the United States after the Civil War?"
Explore and Explain

Supporting Question 1: What was a typical day's work like on a frontier cattle drive?

  1. Explain to your students that after the end of the Civil War there was a high demand for meat in the cities where large populations of people lived. However, most cattle ranches were hundreds or thousands of miles from the cities. This began the great era of the cattle drive. At this time in history, Texas had the largest herds of cattle. Without refrigeration, semi-trucks, interstates, or railways extending far beyond the Mississippi river; the only way to transport cattle was to have them walk to the railheads that would take them to the slaughter houses and markets. Keep in mind that home based refrigerators and freezers had not been invented yet. Many people had "iceboxes" something we currently use for camping and picnicking today, but this would not keep meat from spoiling for long. People had created other ways to preserve their meat (drying, curing, canning) and often times kept meat at the local butcher store in a larger refrigerator. Pose the question, "What was a typical day's work like on a frontier cattle drive?"
  2. Show portions of the video clip, "Chisolm Trail Cattle Drive" outlined in minutes below:
    • 1:47-4:01 will help set the stage for the historical setting of the cattle drives. This section of video describes the cattle market at the time. There was an over-abundance of cattle in Texas and a shortage of cattle in the East. Students will also be able to see the modern day Texas Longhorn. 
    • 5:41-7:45 explains the job of the cowboys or "drovers," how horses were used on the drive, the typical age of cattle drive workers and risks on the drive. It also introduces the Texas Fever, an illness that was transmitted by ticks on Texas cattle.
    • 8:00-9:25 describes the long working hours of cattle drivers.
  3. Display the Help Wanted signs by printing them and placing them on the board or projecting them on a screen.
  4. Ask your students to imagine themselves in their early 20s in the year 1870. They have recently moved West, along with thousands of others in hopes of a new start and new opportunities. They are looking for work and see these signs advertising cattle trail crew jobs. While men were usually selected as crew, remind your students that some women were part of the cattle drives as discussed in the background.
  5. Allow students a little time to look at each position on the cattle drive. Ask for a raise of hands, Who would like to apply to be the Trail Boss? Choose 1 student to "interview" for the position of Trail Boss. Use a mock interview to familiarize your students with each trail position and what life was like on a cattle drive. Use the sample questions and dialogue below as a guide. As the teacher, you will be the rancher conducting the interview.  A student volunteer will be the interviewee.  Use the information found in the "Background Agricultural Connections" section of the lesson plan to expound on details of the cattle drive as you go through each position.
  6. Repeat the "interview" process for each of the four trail positions. Ask students to play along in their answers.
    • Trail Boss:
      • What experience do you have driving cattle?
      • What kind of cowboy skills do you have? Can you ride a horse at top speeds? Can you rope and doctor cattle?
      • Are you physically healthy and capable of working from before the sun rises until after it sets?
      • What are your leadership skills? Can you work with a crew and provide them appropriate assignments to accomplish the task of moving cattle? How would you help solve disagreements among your trail crew?
      • Are you aware of the dangers on the trail? Can you explain how to gain control of a stampede?
      • Ultimately the Trail Boss makes the final decision for the entire crew, do you have the experience and skills to be the best Trail Boss?
        • Use the graphic, "Cattle Drive Positions" to help students visualize the role of each worker. A cattle drive of 1000+ cattle would likely stretch for more than a mile
    • Cook:
      • The cook, commonly known as the "cookie" is responsible for the chuck wagon, do you have experience driving a team of horses pulling a heavy load?
      • The cook rides out ahead of the cattle, which means you will need to identify the best campsites. What skills do you have related to trail riding?
      • If we run into any trouble with Indians or cattle rustlers, you will likely come across them first. How will you prepare for this type of event?
      • The cook will have around 12 hungry people to feed. They expect three hot meals served each day. You will likely be the first to rise and the last to retire to bed. Do you have any problem meeting this expectation?
      • Beans, biscuits, and coffee are the main course for each meal. Do you have experience cooking over a fire? On rare occasions you might serve meat, but only if an animal becomes injured.  There may also be a rare occasion to trade with a local farmer along the way for some fresh fruit or vegetables. Do you have skills to prepare fruits and vegetables?
        • To help students learn more about the cook and the chuck wagon, watch the first 2 minutes of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum's video clip, The Chuck Wagon
    • Cowboy:
      • What experience do you have in driving cattle?
      • What kind of cowboy skills do you have? Can you ride a horse at top speeds? Can you rope and doctor cattle?
      • Are you physically healthy and capable of working from before the sun rises until after it sets? You will also take turns on the night shift to watch the cattle. This is important to watch for predator-type animals, cattle rustlers (thieves), and to keep the animals calm.
      • Do you know how to gain control of a herd of stampeding cattle?
        • Share the background with students concerning cattle stampedes reminding them that a lightning storm, cattle rustlers (who intentionally spooked the cattle), or excessive thirst between watering locations were common causes of a stampede. To gain control of the herd, the cowboys would race to the front of the stampede and try to push the cattle to the right. As the cattle changed directions and turned into a circle they would calm down as the herd turned into a tighter and tighter circle allowing the cowboys to gain full control of the herd.
    • Wrangler:
      • What experience do you have with horses? You will be responsible for saddling all of the horses for the cowboys each day. What are your strengths when handling trail horses?
      • Can you keep a herd of horses contained at night? 
      • Many of the horses only have a small amount of training. Are you experienced in horse training?
      • Some horses will experience injuries while out on the trail. Are you capable of making a diagnosis and applying treatment? What are your limitations?
  7. Revisit the question, "What was a typical day's work like on a frontier cattle drive?" (Cattle drive workers had specific responsibilities and worked from sunrise until sunset and had rotating night watch. They worked in all types of weather, rode horses, moved cattle, cooked meals, and were paid when the cattle reached their destination.)

Supporting Question 2: What events and inventions changed ranching on the frontier?

  1. Ask students why we don't use cattle drives as a means for moving cattle from the ranch to the processing plants. As students offer ideas, explain that you will be exploring the question, "What events and inventions changed ranching on the frontier?"
  2. To understand how ranching and typical life on the frontier changed, your students must first understand what it was like initially. Explain to your students that you are going to work together to "paint a picture" of cattle ranching on the American West in the mid 1800s.
  3. Draw a line down the center of your board, splitting it in half. The left side of the board will represent cattle ranches on the frontier in the 1800s. The right side of the board will represent modern day cattle ranches. 
  4. Randomly pass out each slip of paper to a student from the attached Painting a Picture... printout. One by one, beginning with #1, ask the student to read the paper to the class and then draw a sketch on the board to represent their portion of the picture. For example, the student who chooses, "fences," can draw an open prairie with grass, trees, and a stream running through it to help students visualize that cattle were not raised inside of fences.  The student with the "Cattle Breeds" paper can draw a few longhorns grazing. The student with "Brands" can draw a brand on the cattle in the field.  One, single picture will be drawn step-by-step as each slip of paper is discussed. Keep the drawing on the left side of your board.
  5. Repeat this process with the strips of paper labeled with letters A-I. Have students place this drawing on the opposite side of the board.
  6. Once the pictures are complete, ask your students, What were the significant changes? What caused the changes to occur in cattle ranching? How did technology affect cattle ranching and the lifestyle of ranchers? What are your predictions for future changes in the industry of cattle ranching?
  7. Explain the following inventions and or changes that contributed to the changes of cattle ranching and the American West.
    • Barbed Wire: Prior to the invention of barbed wire, the only method of fencing animals in was wood. This was expensive, time consuming, and wood was not available in abundance on the open prairie. It was not a feasible option for large cattle herds requiring miles and miles of fencing, so they were managed on the open prairies or rangeland. The invention of barbed wire allowed fences to be built.  As land owners began fencing in their properties, it became more and more difficult to drive cattle.  Show the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum's video clip, Barbed Wire
    • Railroad: When railroads reached Texas, ranchers were able to transport their cattle to the market by railroad. This mode of transportation was safer and more efficient. As refrigeration became common place, cattle were slaughtered at the railhead town and then moved to cities for distribution.
    • Beef Cattle Markets: The era of the cattle drive began due to the high demand and high price of cattle. Like every market, cattle prices rise and fall. The last years of the cattle drive brought low prices for cattle ranchers. Low prices led to little or no profit and contributed to the end of the cattle driving era.
    • Texas Fever: Another contribution to the demise of the cattle drive was the outbreak of what was then called, "Texas Fever." Texas Fever was a deadly disease for cattle. It acquired its name because cattle from the East or origins other than Texas contracted the disease after mixing with cattle from Texas. At first, the disease was especially difficult to understand because cattle from Texas never contracted the disease, only cattle from other parts of the United States. Later it was discovered that the disease was caused by a protozoa that was transmitted by ticks. The ticks would be transported to holding facilities or pastures on Texas cattle. Then, the ticks would drop off the cattle and lay eggs.  The new ticks would carry the disease and infect the cattle with the disease that the hardy Texas longhorns were immune to. Texas Fever caused quarantines against Texas cattle making it difficult for ranchers to continue trailing their cattle to the markets.
  8. Revisit the question, "What events and inventions changed ranching on the frontier?" (The invention of barbed wire and expansion of the railroad contributed to the redundancy of cattle drives. Events such as the Texas Fever and low demand and market prices also contributed.)

Summative Performance Task

Using evidence from historical sources, construct an argument (e.g., essay, project, video production, portfolio, detailed outline, poster) that addresses the compelling question, "How did the cattle drive era influence the westward expansion of the United States after the Civil War?

Review and summarize the following key concepts:

  • The historical era of the cattle drives significantly impacted society in the growth and expansion of the U.S. as the population moved West after the Civil War.
  • The invention of barbed wire, the expansion of railroads, and eventually the use of refrigerated box cars were significant factors in changing cattle ranching to the way it is typically done today.

  • Taking Informed Action

    • Understand: Explore modern cattle ranching and create a Venn Diagram of the similarities and differences between historic cattle drives and modern-day cattle ranching.
    • Assess: Examine the farm-to-fork path for beef today. Determine where beef cattle ranches are and research how climate and geography impact the location of ranches.
    • Act: Beef is the primary product for raising cattle. Research the by-products we get from cattle and write a persuasive essay describing what cattle provide our society in addition to beef.
  • Watch "Cattle Drives."  This documentary discusses cattle ranching on a modern day cattle ranch.  

  • Watch the video segment, "The King of Ranches" produced by America's Heartland.  This segment tells the story of the King Ranch located in Southern Texas.  This ranch began in 1853 and continues today as the largest cattle ranch in the United States. 

  • Discuss the importance and influence of horses in the settlement of the West. Show the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum's video, The Cowboy's Horse for more information. 

  • Watch the 8-minute video clip, The American West- The Cattle Trail from Timelines TV

  • Visit the Interactive Map Project website and compare the Beef Cow Inventory and Acres of Pastureland maps. As a class discuss the correlations they see between cattle produced and the amount of land available for grazing. Ask students to consider other factors such as climate and the size of the state. Many cattle are grazed on open rangelands for several months out of the year. Beef cattle often spend 3-4 months in what is called a feedlot. Beef cattle in feedlots are fed diets high in energy and protein which will add flavor and tenderness to the beef they produce. Corn and other grains are a large portion of their diets at this time.  Compare the maps showing Corn Production and Beef Cow Inventory.  Can your students see any correlation to the high corn producing and beef producing states? Identify where your state ranks for their production of beef cattle.

  • Use the book, "Cowboys: Voices in the Western Wind" written by David L Harrison and illustrated by Dan Burr for further illustrations of cowboy life. The book is a collection of poems which depict all aspects of a cattle drive including branding, cattle drive positions, and the dangers of the trail as well as the day-to-day life of a cowboy swapping stories around the campfire. 

  • Cattle brands were, and continue to be a symbol that represents a specific ranch.  It is the mark of legal ownership for the cattle. In western, ranching cultures brands are a source of pride. They often represent the ranch as well as a family, their heritage, and values. Have your students design a brand to represent themselves and/or their family. They can use a combination of symbols, letters, or numbers. You can also show the video clip produced by the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, History of Branding: Irons in the Fire


Andrea Gardner


National Agriculture in the Classroom

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