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As I gaze out over the rolling Texas pastureland of Star Creek Ranch, 200 or so regal Texas Longhorn cattle gorge on lush spring grasses. With their flashy multihued hides, impressive headgear, and sturdy builds, they seem as intrinsic to the Texas landscape as does earth, sky, and water.
It nearly wasn’t so.
Christopher Columbus first brought native Iberian long-horned cattle to the Antilles Islands in 1493. When the settlers who accompanied him struck out for Mexico in the early 1500s in search of gold and other treasures, they brought some along. Iberian cattle—more akin to wildlife that domesticated cattle—were ideally suited to the harsh environments they encountered: able to thrive on available forage, walk long distances, and fend off predators with their hard hooves and lethal horns. Moreover, these hardy, fertile cattle could produce and raise a calf each year, for 20 years or more. The cows’ strong mothering instincts and ample udders meant they could successfully feed their young in a harsh land of generally poor forage, and the bulls’ tight sheaths helped them avoid injury in the rough thornscrub they inhabited, ensuring they could reproduce. Iberian cattle landings were primarily at Vera Cruz, and the hardy beasts fanned out across Mexico, typically roaming free over large ranchos and mission lands, with “survival of the fittest” holding sway.
In the early 1700s, the Spanish missionaries brought some of these long-horned cattle with them into then Mexican-ruled Texas—and to a lesser degree, the other border states—to sustain them on their journeys and as seed stock for settlers at the missions they sought to establish throughout the San Antonio River Valley. One after another, the missions fell to roving Comanche and Apache, and the Spanish missionaries fled, leaving their cattle behind to roam free.
The longhorns randomly bred with frontiersmen’s English cattle, culminating in wily, slab-sided, multicolored bovines swinging sets of horns that could measure 7 feet across. Native tribes gave them berth, preferring to hunt the tamer and easier-to-kill buffalo than this savvy and combative quarry.
Even wolves following migrating buffalo herds and preying on domestic cattle remained shy and wary of these fierce, formidable longhorns. As J. Frank Dobie noted in The Longhorns (Little Brown, 1941), describing Texas rancher Noah Smithwick’s recollections:
“When, about 1850, he located on Brushy Creek, east of the Colorado River, he found himself and his animals among “numerous descendants of the Spanish cattle brought to the Mission San Gabriel away back in the eighteenth century. Some were very handsome brutes, coal-black and clean-limbed, their white horns glistening as if polished.” Two of the bulls took up with Smithwick’s cattle and became “quite domesticated.” About the same time lobo wolves began to depredate. When the milch cows and other gentle stock were attacked, they would try to get to the house. The wild cattle, on the other hand, “would form a ring around their calves and, presenting a line of horns, fight the lobos off.”
Although the plentiful open range seemingly provided ample forage for all, the newly arrived long-horned cattle competed for resources in the same environmental niche as did American bison. Sadly, the bison would be decimated by mass slaughter in the 1800s, with their numbers plummeting from an estimated 30 to 60 million across North America to approximately 325 animals during the course of the 19th century. What was tragic for bison was good for longhorns, however: By 1860, the number of long-horned cattle had surged to 5 to 6 million head in Texas alone.
The future looked bright for these invincible, adaptable beasts. But the next decade would bring a nearly insurmountable “perfect storm.”
Decimation, Devastation, and Defamation
It’s a wonder that longhorns ever made it through the 1860s.
First came the Civil War, with increased demand for tallow for candles, soap, lubricants, and cooking and leather for saddles, harness, and boots, which continued well after the war ended. Meat was actually a byproduct of these “hide-and-tallow” processing plants, as, without refrigeration, it had little commercial value.
Next, Lucien B. Smith garnered the first patent for barbed wire in 1867, commencing the long, slow strangulation of the open range. Beef ranchers increasing preferred to fence their cattle, opting for the faster-growing, higher-fat British breeds that commanded a higher market price, than the arduous, expensive task of managing and driving wild herds through drought, snow, hardscrabble trails, and raging rivers. The longhorns fell out of favor with beef ranchers.
In 1868, William Davis of Detroit, Michigan, was awarded the first patent for a refrigerated boxcar. Now that chilled carcasses could be shipped by rail, Texas cattle no longer needed to be driven to markets in Kansas City and beyond. Along with famed cattle-trail cowboys such as Oliver Loving, Charles Goodnight, and Lizzie Johnson Williams—noted by historians as the first woman to accompany her own cattle up the Chisholm Trail—interest in longhorn cattle drives waned. The very traits that made longhorns so popular with cattlemen—their foraging abilities, stamina over arduous cattle drives, and tenacity in fighting off predators—now had little or no value.
Then came Tick Fever.
Also in 1868, the English journal Veterinarian reported that a “very subtle and terribly fatal” disease was felling cattle in Illinois. Midwestern farmers soon realized that their cattle sickened and died after herds of Texas longhorns had passed through on cattle drives. Alarmed states along the cattle trails scrambled to pass quarantine laws to protect their herds from coming in contact with longhorns. By 1885, Kansas—crucial because of its central location and rail links—outlawed Texas longhorns from even entering the state.
Turns out, the culprit was Babesia, a pathogen carried by cattle ticks. The longhorns, with their ironclad immune systems, could fight off the pathogen but remained a carrier, thus infecting other cows. Over the remainder of the 19th century, the longhorn became the pariah of the plains and by 1910, they were virtually extinct.
From Near Extinction to Distinction
To my mind, 1927 marks the year these remarkable cattle earned their long-overdue capital “L.” And if you think something like that would take an act of Congress, you’d be right.
Thank Will Croft Barnes: Barnes, who served in the Signal Corps at Fort Apache, Arizona, and had a long career as a successful cattle rancher, joined the infant U.S. Forest Service in 1907 to help promote conservation to cattle ranchers. As he crisscrossed the Southwest, he was stricken by the disappearance of the once-ubiquitous longhorns and determined to save this vanishing breed. In 1927, Barnes, with the assistance of Texas-born Senator John B. Kendrick, wangled $3,000 from the U.S. Congress to establish a longhorn herd at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Cache, Oklahoma.
Barnes—by then 69 years old—saddled up with another Forest Service employee, John H. Halton, and together they rode almost 5,000 miles through mesquite thickets, along the Rio Grande’s dry resacas, and across vast grasslands in South Texas and Mexico searching for longhorns. Barnes and Halton also searched through the thousands of cattle held on vast ranches, in round-ups, and in stockyards—ultimately inspecting more than 30,000 head of cattle—to identify 23 animals that they deemed worthy of being classed as true types of historic longhorns. After a “merry time” of dipping these wild cattle to eradicate ticks, the foundation stock was shipped by rail to the refuge to become the legendary WR Longhorn Herd, jump-starting the Texas Longhorn breed we know today … with its well-earned capital “L.”
Interest in these historic cattle soared, encouraged by the availability of purebred animals at the WR auctions and through others working to preserve this breed (see sidebar, “The Seven Families of Texas Longhorns). Ranchers formed the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America in 1964 to establish Texas Longhorn standards and to facilitate communication among owners. TLBAA also hosts sales, shows, and horn-measuring contests, such as the Horn Showcase.
Other registries include the International Texas Longhorn Association and the Cattlemen’s Texas Longhorn Registry. Today, Texas Longhorns can be found coast to coast and in numerous other countries.
Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch
Darlene Aldridge, a twinkle-eyed, auburn-tressed woman of a certain age, opens the pasture gate and springs back in her maroon F350 King Ranch dually to ease us through. “The rest of the herd should be coming through the woods,” she says, gesturing ahead. “I keep the pregnant cows and those with young calves closer to the barn, to better watch over them.”
Sure enough, conditioned to the purr of Aldridge’s engine and its association with range cubes, here they come—a cinematic-worthy vision of the Old West. Their colors are a kaleidoscopic range of speckled, spotted, and solid earth tones including black-and-white, mulberry, ring-streaked blue, brindle, dun, gold, and various shades of red from new copper penny to deep sienna—with no two being alike. A pure white calf, already sporting teensy horns, rollicks alongside her mother.
Aldridge, retired from her public veterinary practice, retains her D.V.M. currency as she has a couple hundred Texas Longhorn “patients” right here at her Star Creek Ranch. She’s devoted her life to them, and not only knows each one by name, she’s handled most of them since their birth.
“I’ve always loved Longhorns,” she says, “and started my herd about 24 years ago. This property was formerly a rock quarry, which I bought after drilling fell off, carving my pastures out of the heavily wooded land.”
She’s intent on producing the finest Longhorns she can, many from her lead sire Starbase Commander, who consistently throws progeny with 100 or more inches of horn—the most highly prized trait of modern Longhorns.
Horns are measured four ways, she explains: tip to tip, total horn (the measurement from the tip, down the back of the horn, across the head, and then up the other side to the tip), by the circumference of both bases, and a composite score (the total of tip to tip, base circumferences, and total horn). Her cow Kinetic Motion of Stars, a daughter of Starbase Commander out of Sequential Stars, has been named TLBA Breeder’s Choice Ultimate Cow for the past three years.
“All Longhorns born on my ranch have ‘Star’ in their names,” she tells me. “I do introduce some other bloodlines, such as my bull Temper Tantrum that currently measures 86.75” tip to tip and is the son of the great bull Tempter whose horns also measure in the upper 80s.”
Aldridge puts her veterinary skills to work daily: She monitors when each cow comes into heat and when each cow is naturally bred. She also does her own embryo transfers, as well as monitoring the overall health of every bull, cow, and calf on Star Creek Ranch.
Through embryo transfers, Aldridge can flush fertilized eggs from one of her top cows (or perform in vitro fertilization by aspirating eggs and fertilizing them with stored semen) and implant them into donor cows. “This way, I can get five or six calves per year from my top cows, instead of just one,” she says.
Although today’s Texas Longhorns are primarily bred for horns and to preserve their great legacy, they’re also instrumental in adding hybrid vigor to other cattle breeds due to their easy calving abilities and hardiness. Longhorn beef is experiencing a surge in popularity as it’s leaner and lower in cholesterol than Angus and other beef cattle, and the spectacularly hued hides are a coveted resource in Western home décor. Their value as show cattle, as beef cattle, as hair-on-hide leather products, as living history, and simply for their breathtaking beauty as “ranch ornaments” ensures their continuing appeal.
After making the rounds on the ranch, I accompany Aldridge into her barn, where she’s preparing to ultrasound two cows. Each of the cows has a calf by her side, which is kept in the holding pen as the mama cow delicately maneuvers her ginormous headgear and then her body through the narrow barn door and into the squeeze chute. These cows, still nursing calves, are 30 days pregnant, she tells me.
Aldridge has her gloved arm holding the ultrasound device deep into the cow’s backside, and I lean over her shoulder, enraptured, watching the sonography monitor.
“See this?” she exclaims, eyes sparkling.
I do: Signaling the next generation at Star Creek Ranch and the continuation of an American treasure once so nearly lost forever, a heartbeat pulses on the screen in an explosion of tiny stars.
The Seven Families of Texas Longhorns
The distinctive Longhorn cattle thrive today because of the efforts of the federal government and of six other visionaries who established “The Seven Families of Texas Longhorns.”
Wildlife Refuge Longhorns: Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge (WR) Longhorns, because of their historic significance, pure lineage, and distinctive conformation, remain highly prized—both by current visitors to the refuge and those who purchase WR Longhorns at the Refuge’s annual sale. Don Quixote, the all-time leading sire of the WR line, sired more progeny with horns measuring 50 inches or greater than any other WR bull. Nearly all pure black Texas Longhorns today trace their lineage back to Don Quixote.
Butler Longhorns: In 1923, Milby Butler separated his Longhorns from his other cattle at his ranch south of Houston, selecting cows and bulls that would produce big-framed cattle with corkscrew horns of impressive length and base width—with many colorations including dun, grulla, and speckled. “Breed for horns and you’ll get color,” Milby claimed. Lines from Butler bulls Classic and Monarch are among the most prized, as well as are the Butler sub-families of Bevo, Bold Ruler, Holman, Lepper, and Partlow.
Phillips Longhorns: This line traces to the late 1920s when Jack Phillips gathered free-roaming wild cattle in Brazoria County, Texas, and began breeding for long-legged, long-bodied, and sturdy-boned Longhorns. Phillips’ Texas Ranger JP, a red-and-white speckled bull reigns as the all-time leading sire and was the first Longhorn sire certified for artificial insemination. Texas Ranger bloodlines produce adult bulls weighing up to 2,100 pounds with horns in excess of 55 inches, tip to tip.
Graves Peeler Longhorns: Graves Peeler served as a Texas Ranger with Frank Hamer (who later would kill Bonnie and Clyde) before going to work for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raiser’s Association to apprehend cattle thieves across Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. In the late 1920s, Peeler assisted with the gathering of the WR Herd, keeping 10 cows and a bull to begin his own herd south of San Antonio. He preferred hardy, rugged cattle with spirit and feistiness—much like himself.
M.P. Wright Longhorns: When Wright saw that other cattlemen were opting for the faster-gaining British breeds in the 1920s, he determined to preserve the bloodlines of Longhorn cattle, which he admired for their survival instincts, hardiness, fertility, and longevity. Since he operated a slaughterhouse, he would single out and save the Longhorns, thus accumulating 100 Longhorns to build his South Texas herd. Traits of Wright Longhorns are wide color variations, solid frames, and large horns—some with tip-to-tip spans of 72 inches or more.
Yates Longhorns: Around 1915, Cap Yates started gathering Longhorns in far West Texas and northern Mexico, which by virtue of geographic origin, were closely related to the WR Longhorns. Yates selected for muscular, smaller, desert-savvy cows with high, upward-twisting horns and avoided any additions to his herd that might dilute these traits, believing that any other blood was inferior to the small, Iberian-type rugged Longhorn. At the time of his passing on 1968, his herd numbered 1,500.
Marks Longhorns: Emil Marks, born in 1881 and orphaned by the age of 10, inherited a portion of his family’s land in what is now Houston. Realizing that Longhorns could be forever lost as ranchers increasingly favored the short, stock, British-bred cattle, he determined to keep breeding purebred Longhorns. By the late 1920s, his 33,000-acre Marks LH7 Ranch was a showcase for purebred Longhorns. Tragically, most Marks cattle perished in the 1960s from Bang’s disease, and the pure Marks bloodline is nearly extinct. ~SLE