THE 'OPELOUSAS TRAIL:'
BELLOWING COWS MARKED FIRST TRAIL TO NEW ORLEANS
By W. T. Block
Reprinted from Beaumont Enterprise, about 1975, exact date unknown
also in Block, Frontier Tales of The Texas-Louisiana Borderlands, MSS, pp. 153-158,
in Lamar and Tyrrell libraries.
For decades now the writers of pulp Western Americana have ground out
countless tales of the old Chisholm and Goodnight Trails to Kansas and Wyoming. For some
reason unknown to the writer, the story of the dusty, old 'Opelousas Trail,' from Texas to
New Orleans and pockmarked as it was with the decades' accumulation of cattle tracks, has
remained largely muted and unsung around the camp fires.
Undoubtedly, even many Beaumonters are unaware that Texas' oldest and
longest-surviving cattle trail passed through their city. In Civil War days, most
Beaumonters greeted the dawn with the bellowing of cattle, bound for the river crossing as
Tevis' Ferry. The Opelousas Trail, which retraced or ran parallel to the Old Spanish
Trail, was 102 years old when the first rail bridge over the Sabine River at Orange was
completed, and through rail service linked Houston with New Orleans for the first time. In
1881, the need for the long, overland cattle drives effectively ceased when the first cars
of bellowing cows crossed that river en route to the Crescent City.
As late as 1879, according to the Galveston "News," perhaps
the largest herd of record, 23,000 head, crossed the Neches River at Collier's Ferry in a
single day. Mr. C. T. Cade had just made one of his annual cattle drives from High Island,
Texas, to his ranch at Iberville Parish, Louisiana.
The Chisholm Trail to Kansas lasted a bare ten years, but saw cattle
herds totaling more than 400,000 heads annually at its peak around 1873. The trail to New
Orleans never witnessed more than 75,000 at its peak, but its history spanned more than a
century of time. Yet the writer knows of no volumes of history or fiction, nor scores of
sheet music, nor pages of pulp Western magazines that owe their origins to the Opelousas
Trail. Thus, it appears that whenever the cattle drovers strummed out "Get Along,
Little Dogie" around the camp fires at twilight, the hands on their compasses always
Before 1778, no commerce of any kind, except smuggling, existed between
the provinces of Texas and Louisiana, although as of that year, both belonged to Spain.
Before that year, there were instances when Texas Indians stole Spanish mission cattle and
drove them to the French Acadian regions of Louisiana. When the viceroy lifted the trade
embargo in 1778, Francisco Garcia left San Antonio in 1779 with 2,000 steers, bound for
beef-hungry New Orleans. Except for the mission cattle stolen and driven to Louisiana by
Indians, Garcia's drive was the first herd to travel the route once marked so well by
cattle hoofs and known to the present day as the "Old Spanish Trail."
Although no known records survive that chronicle the century's
aggregate of cattle, a probable two million steers had made the long trek to the Crescent
City before 1881, the year of the first New Orleans-bound train. During the 1850s, the
number of cattle being driven along the trail was nearer to 50,000 heads, but by then a
figure between 10,000 and 20,000 steers each year were being moved to New Orleans by
steamboat from the Texas ports of Sabine Pass, Galveston, and Indianola.
The first Anglo cattleman of note in Southeast Texas was James Taylor
White, who settled on Turtle Bayou near Anahuac in 1818. He began his first drives to New
Orleans during the early 1820s, but he was soon joined by other ranchers, most of them
from around Velasco in Stephen F. Austin's colony on the Brazos River. By 1830, White's
herd numbered 3,000 heads and by 1840 had grown to 10,000 domestic cattle. At that time,
however, there were great herds of wild Spanish cattle all along the Texas coast, and
whenever White could get his brand on a wild one, the steer was included in his trail
drives. In 1773, the Spanish abandoned their missions at Presidio LaBahia and El
Orcoquisac (Wallisville), along with 40,000 branded and unmarked cattle at the former site
(Goliad) and 3,000 more at Wallisville.
Before the Texas Revolution, one of the Louisiana cattle buyers who
often visited White's Ranch to buy cattle was Captain Arsene LeBleu de Comarsac, of
Calcasieu River in Louisiana, who had been one of Lafitte's pirates in 1820. When the
Runaway Scrape was in progress in April, 1836, Taylor White had just crossed Jefferson
County and was New Orleans-bound in the vicinity of LeBleu's home with a trail herd of
1,000 steers. Gradually, the size of his trail herd increased to around 2,500 each year,
for which he was paid upon delivery at the rate of $10-$12 each in gold. When White died
in 1851, a part of the inventory of his estate included $150,000 banked in New Orleans,
the proceeds of his cattle drives of many years.
As early as 1840, the drowning of livestock in the Neches River was
sufficient to cause Beaumont's first Board of Aldermen its greatest concern. The council
enacted an ordinance requiring each drover to put up a $50 bond before crossing his herd
and to pay into the city's treasury $6 for each dead animal that had to be removed from
the river. On August 10, 1840, the aldermen passed the famed "Ordinance to Prevent
Nuisances by Swimming Cattle," and one of its provisions required the constable to be
present at each crossing to collect the $50 bond, or a $50 fine in lieu of it. Another
provision required the $6 removal fee only if paid in "treasury notes." If paid
in "current money," only $1 per head was collected.
Nevertheless, one of the first industries at Beaumont was the
slaughtering of cattle, principally the wild and unclaimed Spanish cattle, for their hides
only, worth $1.50 each. Carcasses were thrown into the river for the huge catfish and
alligator garfish to feast upon.
The importance of cattle crossing in early Jefferson County can also be
noted in the earliest "Minutes of the County Court." In 1837, the commissioners,
upon licensing Ballew's Ferry, on the Sabine River north of Orange, Texas, ordered the
ferryman to provide stock pens in which trail herds could be kept overnight,
accommodations and meals for drovers, and "three hands for crossing cattle." In
return, the ferryman was allowed to collect 2 cents for each steer or horse crossed, and
he was licensed to dispense whiskey to drovers and passengers. (Richard Ballew had also
been one of Lafitte's pirates.)
There were three ferries at early day Beaumont, Tevis Ferry at the
townsite of Beaumont, William Ashworth's ferry at Santa Ana, about three miles to the
south, and Pine Bluff Ferry (later Collier's), five miles to the north. The latter was the
preferable crossing point because of the high land there on both sides of the river. In
1842, Pine Bluff was allowed 3 cents each for swimming cattle, horses, mules, or hogs.
Between 1846 and 1848, the crossing fee was still 3 cents per head at Nancy Tevis
Hutchinson's ferry at Beaumont and at John Sparks' ferry over Taylor's Bayou. However, the
crossing fee at Amos Thames' ferry over Pine Island Bayou in 1846 was only 2 cents a head.
The swimming of cattle was a dangerous occupation for the 'cattle
crossers,' one of whom was a pioneer settler named Sterling Spell of Beaumont. A biography
of Spell in the Beaumont Journal of April 11, 1908, described the brute strength he
expended in that effort, as follows:
"Sterling Spell was an extraordinary man in some respects. He was
six feet and six inches in his bare feet, and his usual weight was 256 pounds. . . .The
stock raisers here would employ him when driving beeves to the New Orleans market to
assist them, and it was related to this writer by an eye witness that when the drove
arrived at the Neches River, Spell would take off his outer clothing and go in among the
cattle and seize a big 1,000 pound, four-year-old steer by the horns, back him into the
river, turn him around, hold to the horns by his left hand, and swim across the river with
him. The other steers of the drove would follow. No other man was ever known to have
attempted that feat of strength."
Some of Taylor White's contemporaries and companions on many of his
long drives were William and Aaron Ashworth, David Burrell, John McGaffey, and Christian
Hillebrandt, the latter's Mexican land grant being on the Jefferson County bayou of the
same name. In 1856, a traveler named Frederick Olmsted, who later published Journey
Through Texas, encountered Hillebrandt while he was swimming his herd at Hutchinson's
Ferry, into the inundated Orange County marshes beyond. Olmsted described "Old Dutch
Chris" Hillebrandt as being a huge man, similar to Spell, who barked out his orders
to his drovers and who sometimes had to abandon steers who were sunk to the hips in the
Perhaps Jefferson County's foremost rancher of his day, Hillebrandt
told the census enumerator in 1850 that he owned only 2,000 heads, but probably that
figure was notoriously understated. As any early-day rancher could affirm, the census
taker, Worthy Patridge, had a "double interest" in the count, for Patridge was
also the county's tax assessor-collector. When Hillebrandt died in 1858, the inventory of
his estate indicated that he owned 9,000 cattle and 1,000 horses, which roamed over parts
of Liberty, Jefferson, and Orange Counties.
Arsene LeBleu's log cabin at Calcasieu River was one of the cattle
"stands" along the route to New Orleans. At all other points along the trail,
cattle "stands' were operated in Louisiana, giving the drovers access to cattle pens,
lodging at night, and warm food. The stand owners made their living from the Texas
herdsmen moving along the trail.
By 1855, cattle movements along the Opelousas Trail approached 50,000
heads annually. In two months time, October-November, 1856, 15,000 steers swam the Neches
River at Beaumont. On November 5, 1856, an early Beaumont school teacher, Henry R. Green,
recounted in one of his articles to the Galveston Weekly News, as follows:
"Three droves came in last night from Refugio County, which is
certainly a long way to drive beeves. These animals seem to lose nothing in the flesh and
are the finest specimens of cattle I have ever seen. The animals have been passing daily
for about five weeks, and still they come!"
Within two months of 1857, February and March, 109 droves of Texas
cattle, numbering 14,000, arrived at Lake Charles. In June, the Galveston News reported
that the number of cattle that already had reached Lake Charles would indicate that 1857
would be another banner year. A final tally of 50,000 heads was again predicted.
An alternate route by sea was inaugurated in mid-nineteenth century,
and this greatly reduced the number that otherwise would move over the Opelousas Trail.
Since these shipments of cattle originated and ended at the same place, they could also be
credited as moving over the trail if one so chose. In 1849, the first shipment of
Jefferson County cattle was sent from the Sabine River to New Orleans aboard the Brazos
River cotton steamer E. A. Ogden By 1855, the steamer Jasper was carrying 5,000 steers
annually from Sabine Pass to New Orleans in addition to 10,000 bales of cotton. The Jasper
belonged to an association of New Orleans butchers, who kept a cattle buyer permanently
domiciled in Sabine Pass. The writer estimates that from 15,000 to 20,000 steers annually
were shipped by water to New Orleans from Galveston and Indianola.
Certainly, the overland cattle drives to New Orleans reached their
zenith during the Reconstruction years between 1865 and 1876. One of the foremost Texas
cattleman-drovers of that period was the renowned "Shanghai" Pierce, about whom
one or two books have been written. In 1866, cattle could be bought most anywhere in West
Texas for $3 a head, whereas the U. S. Army in New Orleans was paying from $20-$30 a head.
Thus, the Army set the price for beef throughout the city.
A Beaumont newspaper reported a drive of 1879 which is the largest ever
located by the writer. For many years the herd's owner, C. T. Cade, had been the largest
cattleman and landholder at High Island and on Bolivar Peninsula as well as in Iberville
Parish, La., where he fattened his herds for the New Orleans market. In June 1879, the
Beaumont Lumberman, quoted by the Galveston News, recorded that:
"Mr. C. T. Cade of Oasis, Iberville Parish, La., who owns large
stock interests in this county, started a drive of 23,000 beeves last Saturday. They were
crossed over the Neches River at Collier's Ferry, four miles above this place. Five heads
were drowned and four escaped into the woods, making a total loss of nine, which is
considered a remarkably successful crossing for so large a herd."
Two years later, when the Louisiana and Western Railroad and the Texas
and New Orleans line linked up at Orange, Texas, to become the Southern Pacific system,
the large cattle treks across the Pelican State finally bowed to the progress of the iron
horse. The continuous pounding of the cattle hoofs through the dirt streets of Beaumont
would become only a memory among the old-timers. But the bellowing and lowing of the
steers continued as each freight train moved fleets of cattle cars over the rails to the
As of 1881, the Jefferson County cattle industry was still in its
ascendancy, although the actual number of small ranchers had decreased considerably. As
early as 1847, Jefferson County farmers wanted only to raise cattle and sweet potatoes,
not corn and cotton as many might think. And a district judge of that year chastised a
grand jury in Beaumont in an effort to alter that pattern of agriculture. By 1860, there
were 60,000 cattle on the tax rolls, although many cattle may never have been enumerated.
As of 1888, the Beaumont Pasture Company, composed of William and Perry
McFaddin, Valentine Wiess, and W. W. Kyle, owned the 60,000 acre "Mashed-O"
ranch south of Beaumont, so completely surrounded by water that only nine miles of fence
was needed to complete the enclosure. Within its confines were 10,000 heads of cattle. It
was the Pasture Company which also initiated the first program to upgrade the quality of
livestock in the county by the introduction of thoroughbred Brahman and Hereford bulls.
Perry McFaddin bought the first Brahman bull in the county from a traveling circus who had
the bull on exhibit.
It was also under McFaddin, however, that the county's first cattle
industry reached its peak after 1900. Even after the Pasture Company sold 60,000 acres of
its land to the Kansas City Southern Railroad in 1894, the sprawling, 100,000-acre
"Mashed-O" spread still stretched out along the upper 25 miles of the Texas
coast until the ranch began to disintegrate about 1930. Since 1900, there have been
numerous other ranchers in Jefferson County, among them Ben and Martin Hebert and Joe
Broussard, with herds exceeding 5,000 heads. On one occasion about 1914, Perry McFaddin
moved a single herd of 14,000 steers from his West Texas ranch in Greer County to the
"Mashed-O" spread in Jefferson County. Until around 1950, the stretch of coast
between Sabine Pass and High Island contained more cattle per square mile than any point
in West Texas. A sleet blizzard of Jan. 18-21, 1935, caused about 25,000 heads of cattle
to freeze to death in this county, and in Feb. 1899, the temperature dropped to 4 degrees
F. in Beaumont. Today, the county's cattle industry is grossly overshadowed by the
industrial smoke stacks and petroleum cracking units, but correlative with rice
production, cattle are still an important financial ingredient. In 1970, cattle sales
added $2.4 million to Jefferson's economy, and today's typical rancher is a rice farmer
who may run up to 200 steers on his fallow rice lands.
Beaumont for many years had possessed historical markers commemorating
about everything, including Spindletop, the founding settlers, the rice mills, lumber
industry, and many churches. Of no less historical worth would be a marker which
chronicled a century of cattle crossings over the Neches, a century filled with saddle
sores, loneliness, camp fires, stampedes, blizzards, monsoons, drownings, and all of the
frontier hazards to human life encountered daily by the tens of thousands of drovers who
traversed to and from New Orleans over the unsung Opelousas Trail. Their contribution to
history, punctuated by the bellowing of their herds and the pounding of hoofs, as well as
to the advance of civilization and the development of a nation, certainly deserves a place
in the compilation of Texas history that, heretofore, it has not been accorded.