After the Civil War, great cattle drives up the Chisholm trail came through Guadalupe County, many starting with roundup headquarters between Seguin and Lockhart to drive cattle to the Kansas railheads. The Chisholm Trail was used only from 1867 to 1884 and started the first year with 35,000 head of cattle being moved north. By 1871, more than 600,000 head had been driven up the trail. Eventually, more than 7 million cattle walked to market from Texas. During that era cattle was king.
Most of these cattle were raised on what was called open range, land owned by the state and grazed by large ranches. Open range ended when a man named Glidden patented barbed wire in 1874 and landowners began fencing their large ranches. This caused range wars when the owners began fencing water sources. This invention of barbed wire would inadvertently cause the death of hundreds of thousands of head of cattle in 1886-87 called the Big Die Up.
The summer of 1886 was extremely hot and dry as a long drought hit. Grass died and water sources dried up. In November, the snow began to fall. Snow fell, followed by warming weather which was followed by a deeper freeze and more snow, covering the ground with many layers of ice. The blowing snow soon filled the ravines to almost level, wiping out any shelter areas from the bitter cold.
During the days before the barbed wire, cattle drifted south, seeking shelter during the storms, sometimes for more than 200 miles. In 1882, the Panhandle Stock Association ranchers created what they called a drift fence across that part of the state from border to border.
It was in December 1885 when a series of blizzards came to Texas reaching all the way through Guadalupe County to the valley. The next winter of 1886 in Guadalupe County is still recorded as the coldest on record. Other locations in Texas recorded 40 degrees below zero. Rain fell, followed by freezing weather, sealing what little grass there was beneath a thick layer of solid ice. More than 500,000 head of cattle froze to death or starved to death. Many were caught up against the drift fences and couldn’t move. In one area, cowboys skinned 250 carcasses per mile for thirty-five miles along the drift fence. When spring brought warmer weather, it revealed thousands of dead cows, damming the rivers and streams and producing a stench that covered more than a thousand square miles.
The Big Die Up was followed by prolonged summer droughts, forcing many ranches into bankruptcy and out of business. The winter of 1886 also signaled the beginning of the end of the roving cowboy and the era movie producers called the westerns. Most of the cowboys were out of work and just rode from ranch to ranch, “riding the chuck-line” for meals. Some moved back east and some turned to rustling to make a living.
During the blizzard that year, ranchers dug their way out of their homes to check on their herds. Some became disoriented in the heavy falling snow, losing their way between their houses and barns. More than 100 people froze to death, many within yards of the front doors of their homes.
Historian Ray Billington, in his book “Land of Savagery,” wrote: “All over Texas, ranchers huddled by their stoves, not daring to think of what was happening out on the range, of helpless cattle pawing at frozen snow in search of a little food or fighting to strip bark from willows along frozen streams.” Herds were floundering in drifts, jammed together in ravines to escape the cold blast of the wind and dying by the thousands. The drought and freezing weather hit Guadalupe County hard, resulting in cattle starving and in some cases the smaller ranchers lost their entire herd. The loss of so many cattle actually ended the large trail drives and the drives never recovered.
The cattle industry slowly recovered from the bitterly cold winter and drought of 1886. However, with such great losses, it became apparent the cattle could not be left unattended. The dangers of overgrazing and the need for growing supplemental feed became evident. Cattlemen began to reduce the size of their herds, produce hay crops and build shelters. With the fencing of the ranges, the drift fences were taken down, although some sections of the fence were still standing as late as 1926.
Cattle ranching has been and continues to be one of the major industries of south central Texas and Guadalupe County..