— CATTLE BARON OF ABILENE —
An oversupply of Longhorn cattle drove prices to rock bottom in the 1860s. But businessman Joseph McCoy figured a way to help Texas ranchers send their herds East to satisfy a big demand for beef.
Following the Civil War, cattle prices on the frontier dropped to between three- and four dollars a head. Chicago buyers, on the other hand, were paying $30 to $40 a head for the Longhorns.
But, Texas ranchers couldn’t get their cattle to market.
Homesteaders in Kansas outlawed Longhorns crossing their land because they feared the herds might carry ticks that could spread Texas Fever. Although the disease happened to be fatal to some types of cattle, Longhorns weren’t as susceptible.
In 1867, Kansas eased the law by allowing the Longhorns to travel routes west of the cities located in eastern Kansas.
McCoy realized the Chisholm Trail would serve as a perfect trade route because it lay to the west of the Kansas farms in question.
During the Civil War, Jesse Chisholm blazed the trail to accommodate the movement of supplies to the Confederate Army.
The entrepreneurial McCoy, however, went a step further.
Realizing the railroads were eager to expand their freight business, he bought a small village along the tracks of the Kansas/Pacific railway, built a hotel, stockyard, office and bank, in the rural community of Abilene.
McCoy, in his book Historic Sketches Cattle Trade of the West and Southwest, described Abilene as a “very small, dead place, consisting of about one dozen log huts low, small, rude affairs, four-fifths of which were covered with dirt for roofing; indeed, but one shingle roof could be seen in the whole city.”
Abilene, with a population of about 300, established itself as one of the first cow towns along the Union Pacific Railroad.
After Texans drove their herds to the tiny town, McCoy arranged to have them shipped by rail to cities in the Midwest and East.
In 1867, according to historian Jim Gray, McCoy’s Great Western Stockyards “welcomed (the Texans) with open arms.” Abilene, he wrote, “became the first of the ‘end of trail’ cattle towns in Kansas.”
McCoy invested about $5,000 in advertising in Texas to entice cattlemen to send their herds through Abilene. His promise of a good profit provided the real inducement for ranchers to ship their cattle through Abilene.
One cattleman, for example, reportedly paid $5,400 for 600 cows and sold them in Abilene for $16,800.
In the first year, 35,000 head of cattle were driven into Abilene and shipped north and east by the rail line.
The following year, the number rose to 75,000, and nearly doubled in 1870. Between 1867 and 1881, McCoy shipped more than two million cattle from Abilene to Chicago.
McCoy’s reputation for reliability is said to have given birth to a term still popular today: The Real McCoy. During an election for mayor, which he won, McCoy referred to himself by the same phrase.
The origin of the term, however, is often a matter of dispute.
Later, he worked for the US Census Bureau to report on the livestock industry. He also served as an agent for the Cherokee Nation, collecting land revenues. In 1890, McCoy ran as a Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress but lost. He died October 15, 1915, in Kansas City.