The iconic cowboy was a product of the state’s ranching heritage, a legacy that traditionally associated with the brush country of Spanish/Mexican South Texas that moved into West Texas and onto the plains and interior Rockies.
FOR MANY the cowboy gives Texas its western flavor, a tradition of “gunsmoke and cattle,” trail drives, saloons, and in the words of the popular country song, “smoky old pool rooms, children and girls of the night.”
Such an image may have become the popular image of Texas, but its narrative too often deletes a significant region of the state—East Texas. The eastern region of the state usually is associated with Southern culture: cotton fields, plantations, rivermen, and yeoman farmers, all accurate representations, but one that omits the fact that East Texans were also cattlemen—in many ways some of the first “cowboys.”
The founder of Nacogdoches, Antonio Gil Ybarbo, was a stock-raiser who raised cattle and horses along the Attoyac. Vicente Micheli, an Italian immigrant who originally settled in the Natchitoches region, then migrated west after the United States acquired Louisiana and established several ranches in East Texas.
ANOTHER REFUGEE from the Louisiana Purchase was Jose de la Baume, a Frenchman who fought with Lafayette in the American Revolution and made his way to Louisiana after escaping the French Revolution. Like Micheli, he also migrated to East Texas and obtained a small rancho in the Moral-Loco Creek area below the El Camino Real.
Stock raising in East Texas did not end with the Spanish/Mexican period. Most of the Anglo Americans who made their way to East Texas engaged in farming activities, but some also established ranches. Most of these operators developed a local market, selling many of their cattle to settlements in the South.
By the 1830s, “drovers” from both Louisiana and East Texas began to buy cattle from ranches on the coastal plains and drove the stock to ports on the Red River and New Orleans. These early cattlemen made great profits through the enterprise, often as much as $7 a head.
Trailing cattle to markets in Louisiana became such a profitable venture that the first major “cattle trail” in Texas ran through the southern portion of East Texas.
THE ROUTE to Louisiana, most often referred to as the old Atascosita Road or the Opelousas Road, roughly followed the Trinity River before it veered eastward and crossed the Sabine just above present-day Orange, then continued to the Mississippi River.
Another drover’s trail, the Beef Trail, led northeast from Liberty and followed the Trinity into the forests and crossed into Louisiana near Belgrade.
The next time you attend a rodeo or watch a movie that celebrates the cowboy as a Western icon, remember that many of the first “cowboys” in Texas did not ply their trade on the dusty plains of West Texas or the scrubby brush of South Texas, but instead developed their skills deep in the Piney Woods of East Texas.
The East Texas Historical Association provides this column as a public service. Scott Sosebee is Executive Director of the Association and can be contacted at email@example.com.