Traveling through the plains in Texas, you’re bound to see the unmistakable silhouette of the famed Texas Longhorn. As our state’s official large mammal, the mascot of our flagship university, and a surviving symbol of the old American West, the Longhorn is ingrained into our way of life as Texans.
This time of year in particular, we’re reminded of their storied history. Ranchers have just finished showcasing their best stock at the annual Texas State Fair’s Longhorn Show, and in the midst of football season, the orange Longhorn silhouettes seem to be everywhere.
But only 100 years ago, Texas Longhorns were nearly extinct.
When the first cattle set hoof in the New World more than 500 years ago, they surprised the Spanish settlers who brought them by overcoming the challenging terrain and thriving. The previously domesticated cattle from Europe became tough enough to survive droughts and floods, sweltering heat and bone-chilling cold, while grazing easily on whatever land they occupied. Amazingly, the first Longhorns were even resistant to diseases found in the New World. They lived longer and reproduced more quickly than other breeds; before long, there were millions of Longhorns roaming free, and feral herds quickly found a home in Texas.
As more European settlers made their way to Texas, Longhorns provided a stable source of meat and income no matter the conditions. A German traveler making his way through Texas in 1848 remarked, “In Texas, cattle live for the sake of man, but in all other countries man lives for the sake of his cattle.” Longhorns continued to thrive throughout the 19th Century and found themselves increasingly in demand. European investors offered ranchers gold to expand their Longhorn operations, and these ranchers were even exempt from the Confederate draft because of their important role in providing food for soldiers.
But not long after soldiers returned home from the war, Longhorns began to suffer. Once trade relationships were re-established between the former Union and Confederate states, mass disease wiped out herd after herd across New England farms – except the Longhorns. Northern farmers blamed the species and began slaughtering them in masses. Sadly, what they dubbed the ‘Texas Fever’ was actually a disease carried by ticks, not the Longhorns, who were simply immune.
Demand continued to plummet because Longhorn meat did not produce enough tallow, or animal fat, to be utilized in the manufacturing of increasingly popular items like candles and soap. Moreover, Longhorn meat was hard to keep fresh absent prolonged refrigeration, and as a result wasn’t viable as a commercial product in the 19th Century. As a result, by 1910, Texas Longhorns were almost nowhere to be found.
And if it weren’t for Will C. Barnes, a U.S. Army Signal Corps private turned cattle rancher, Longhorns may have continued down the path to complete extinction. After leaving the military, in 1887 Mr. Barnes led a team of U.S. Forest Service trailblazers across the west and managed to round up 27 surviving pure Texas Longhorns. In 1927, he created a protected home in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma, effectively saving the breed and enabling them to once again flourish.