Opelousas Trail
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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 pointed north.

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 soft mud.

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 Crescent City.

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.

Copyright 1998-2016 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
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