From Cattle Drive to Train: A Historical Perspective on the Meat Industry

Apr 25, 2016


In the 1490s, Columbus brought cattle with him on his second trip to the West Indies. Soon after that, cattle were brought by ship to Florida and Texas. It was natural for these cattle, being from Spanish stock, to become acclimated to these dry, hot regions. Decedents of these early cattle evolved into the famous Texas Longhorns. Longhorns lived off the range and needed little care. The cattle business was on its way to becoming an important part of the American Economy.

One of the reasons cattle thrived in Texas and other parts of the West was that the animals grew rapidly on forage as diverse as mesquite beans, prickly pear, weeds, shrubs and buffalo grass. Buffalo grass did not wither in hot weather or during drought periods. In winter, the grass stood straight and tall after drying, and if the stalks were covered by snow, the animals could feed on the grass, wild sage brush and other shrubs. Pork was the most common meat in the country from the early 1500s to the early 1800s but the desire for beef steadily increased during that time. By the mid-1800s the desire for beef was so great that cattle raised on family farms no longer me the demand, which resulted in cattle drives.

Before the expansion of the railroads, the only wat to get beef to consumers was to drive the cattle to packaging plants located near population centers. Probably the most spectacular drive was made by a man named Tom Ponting. He formed a herd of Texas Longhorns, trailed it to Illinois, fattened it on grass throughout the winter of 1853-1854, and then pushed on to market in New York City.

The westward development of the railroad system shortened cattle drives. The first rail-transported cattle were shipped from Abilene, Kansas in 1867. Other rail centers were soon established. Thereafter, thousands of animals were moved along the various cattle trails which led to these shipping points. The famous Chisolm trail led from South Texas north to Abilene, Kansas or Ogallala, Nebraska. The Shawnee Trail went from Fort Worth, Texas to Sedalia, Missouri; the Bozeman Trail from northeastern Colorado to Virginia City, Montana; and the hazardous Goodnight-Loving Trail from west Texas to Denver Colorado and Cheyenne Wyoming. As many as 2,500 cattle in a drive would spend two to four months traveling to their destination. This was possible because the animals grazed upon the open land along the trail.

The open range, so vital to the 19th century livestock industry, began to disappear rapidly with the singing of the Homestead Act in 1862. With the increase in the number of farms which resulted from its enactment, along with the expansion of the population westward after the Civil War, the unobstructed cattle drives were no longer possible. However, by then the railroads had expanded closer to the farms and ranches, thus eliminating the need for long cattle drives.


Hogs were easily transported to the New World, and they thrived in their new environment. They were first brought to Florida by the Spanish explorers in 1539. The British shipped hots to the colonies as early as 1639; settlers of Virginia were supplying ham and bacon to England. In colonial days, pork was packed in barrels for shipment, giving rise to the term “meat paking.” During the War of 1812, the United States government got its nickname, “Uncle Sam,” from pork shipped to American soldiers in barrels stamped with the letters “US” and the name of the meat packer, Sam Wilson. The soldiers referred to the meat as Uncle Sam’s meat.


Columbus brought sheep on his second voyage to the New World in 1493. Spanish stock breeders subsequently established breeding centers in the Caribbean islands, then in Mexico and in the Isthmus of Panama. In 1565 an expedition of men and livestock, including sheep and lambs, settled in St. Augustine, Florida.

The Spanish, wanting to bridge their settlements in Florida and Mexico, established mission in Texas, Arizona and California. Thus, sheep raising spread throughout the Southwest because the animals provided both food and wool and were easily cared for. Sheep raising was not as easily established in the British Colonies along the Eastern coast. The first sheep imported were consumed for food during the hard winter that followed. Then, as the British colonists’ woolens began to wear thin, they were forced to send more sheep to satisfy their need for wool clothing. By the mid-1700s, sheep were flourishing in the New England states.

  In an attempt to maintain control of the wool trade, the British restricted the export of sheep to America and forbade the import of woolens from the colonies. Therefore, the Colonists passed laws forbidding the use of sheep for food in order to preserve the flocks for wool. As a result, a strong woolen industry developed after the Revolutionary War.

Packing and Processing Industry

The expanding rail system and development of refrigerated rail cars marked the beginning of a new era. Cattlemen began to breed animals for the quality of meat, rather than for their stamina to survive the long drives. In fact,by 1880, the United States was exporting beef to England, which had long claimed to have the best beef in the world.

The first successful refrigerated rail car service was established by the Chicago meat packer., Gustavus Swift. Not far behind in utilizing this new form of distribution was another Chicago meat packer, Philip Armour. The ingenuity of Swift and Armour also turned meat processing into a mechanized industry. The Union Stockyards became the nation’s major livestock marketing facility, earning Chicago the reputation (described by Carl Sandburg) of “hog butcher for the world.”

By the beginning of the 20th century, meat packing was by far the nation’s largest industry. Its one billion dollar sales exceeded the total yearly budge of the United States government. Responding to growing demand, methods for processing huge quantities of meat evolved rapidly, creating major safety and sanitation concerns. In 1906, Upton Sinclair’s book, The Jungle, dramatized these problems, aroused the public and caused meat sales to drop significantly. A campaign to correct the purported abuses resulted in the passage of the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 and inspired the formation of the American Meat Packers Association (1906), now known as the American Meat Institute, the main trade organization for the meat packing industry.

Initially, the meat packing industry was extremely wary of federal interference in its operations, but soon accepted the government’s role in assuring that all federally inspected meat was wholesome and unadulterated. When the 1906 Meat Inspection Act was updated and modified by the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967, the meat industry was one of its main supporters.


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