Portraits of the Past: The four animals that tamed the West

Karl Zinke
The Examiner
Oxen team

As the United States moved westward following the Louisiana Purchase, animals of various types played important roles in our move westward.

In addition to your typical barnyard animals, there were four animals in particular that opened the West; the saddle horse, of course, the mule, cattle and the oxen.

So, what’s the difference, you may ask, between the oxen and regular cattle. An ox is nothing more than a castrated bull of any cattle breed. Bull calves destined to become oxen are neutered at a very young age, no more than a few months old.

This makes them a very docile animal, which they will need to be to ensure safe passage across the western trails. Those calves will be called steers until they are four years old, then they will become oxen. Each pair will be harnessed together as a team from young calfhood onward. One young steer will always be harnessed on the right-hand side and the other will always be on the left. A wooden yoke is used to connect them and, as they grow, they will go through five different sizes of yokes.

Believe it or not, the training of an oxen team is fairly simple. They are required to learn only five commands: “Back,” which allows them to back up to the covered wagon – or whatever they will be pulling. A chain from the wagon will be hooked to an iron ring hanging down from the center of the yoke between the two oxen. “Get up” is the command to cause them to move forward. “Gee” turns them to the right and “Haw” turns them to the left. The most important command of all is “Whoa!’ – which means please stop immediately.

One of the biggest reasons for using oxen out across the western trails was the food. Horses and mules required grain, whereby oxen could exist totally on the wild grass along the way. Plus, they were generally healthier than horses and their endurance was amazing. The biggest drawback of the oxen, on one hand, was their slow pace, but on the other hand, their slow pace was very useful – the pace of a man’s walk was about the same as that of the oxen.

The Missouri Mule was the result of crossbreeding between a horse and a donkey. Mules were docile, intelligent and would be content to pull a wagon as slow as you wished. Generally, a donkey stallion was used to breed a female horse. The opposite sometimes occurred, and in that case, the offspring would be called a jennet or a jenny.

Returning wagon trains from Santa Fe herded hundreds and – over the years – even thousands of donkeys from down Mexico way to our neck of the woods, and crossbred them with local horses here to develop a world class mule. Between Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee, as many as 30,000 mules a year were sent westward.

Many westward bound settlers did take cattle along the trip with them for milk and meat to eat along the way, and to hopefully start a herd once they reached their destination. The Civil War pretty much destroyed the available cattle across much of the country. The soldiers dressed them all out for supper. The only cattle herds of any size were the longhorns in the Southwest. They were actually a wild animal that ran in herds like the buffalo. The original longhorns were brought to North America by the Spanish conquistadors. When they left, they left their cattle to fend for themselves. Somehow, they had to get those longhorns back East in time for supper, thus began the long cattle drives that cowboy folklore is built around and those saddle horses sure came in handy.

Reference: “Leavenworth, First City of Kansas” by Bob Spear. To reach Ted W. Stillwell send email to Ted@blueandgrey.com or call him at 816-896-3592.

Ted Stillwell