The Wild History of the Texas Longhorn

Texas longhorn cattle
Texas longhorns are descended from ancient lineages of both Middle Eastern and Indian cattle. Jennifer Prince/Getty Images

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What a difference a century makes. Today Texas longhorns are celebrated as living flags, rugged icons of the American Southwest. But a little more than 100 years ago, the big beasts had an image problem.

During the era of open ranges and extended cattle drives, longhorns thrived. Yet as industrialization took hold, they fell out of favor. With extinction looming, the breed was saved at the eleventh hour by organized conservation efforts — and a burst of Old West nostalgia.

Colonial Cattle

A 2013 genetic analysis found that Texas longhorns are descended from ancient lineages of both Middle Eastern and Indian cattle. Those two groups eventually came into contact in north Africa, resulting in hybrids who made their way to southwestern Europe.

Enter Christopher Columbus. On his transatlantic journey in 1493, the explorer took along several mixed-lineage bulls and cows acquired from the Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco. With these animals, Columbus introduced domestic bovines to the Caribbean — and by extension, the New World.

Other Spanish travelers arrived in the region with cattle from the same general stock. In 1521, the beasts spread into mainland Mexico. And as Spaniards colonized present-day Colombia, Venezuela and Texas, their livestock tagged along.

It didn't take long for Texan cattle to start going native. The San Francisco de los Tejas Mission established one of the area's first domestic herds in 1690. By 1710, what we now know as eastern Texas — where the mission resided — was teeming with feral cattle.

Survival of the Fittest

Wild cows and bulls in those days would've faced many of the same challenges as their ranch-reared counterparts. The area that is now Texas was full of predators, droughts were common and some native plants were poor in nutrients. Natural selection favored long-horned animals (of both sexes) because they had an easier time fending off wolves and coyotes. Likewise, lean cattle with a tolerance for extreme temperatures were more likely to survive in this harsh environment.

Early in the 19th century, a fresh wave of immigrants diversified the gene pool. At the invitation of Spain and Mexico, thousands of Anglo-American settlers came to the area. The transplants were accompanied by herds of cattle descended from northern European breeds.

As these bovine latecomers mingled with the wilderness-hardened natives, an all-new breed emerged. Originally called the "Spanish cattle," "mustang cattle," or simply the "wild cattle," it came to be known as the "Texas longhorn" after the American Civil War.

No matter what you call them, full-grown Texas longhorns are intimidating animals. On neutered bulls, or "steers," the eponymous horns often measure 7 feet (2.1 meters) across from tip to tip. The Guinness World Record-holder is a steer named Pancho Via who currently resides in Alabama. From end to end, his super-sized horns are a jaw-dropping 10 feet, 7.4 inches (3.2 meters) across!

Oklahoma's Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge
Since 1937, longhorn cattle have grazed freely as part of a protected herd in Oklahoma's Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.
Wikimedia Commons

Changing Priorities

Such weaponry presents logistical challenges. Jean Norman, the owner of Our Heritage Guest Ranch in Sioux County, Nebraska is an experienced rancher. She and her family have kept longhorns for many years. Norman recalls that one heifer her late father purchased was quite the escape artist.

"Her horns arched and curled forward," she says in an email. Using these, the animal plucked staples from a number of fenceposts, "thus freeing the barbed wire." Occasionally, the offending cow would join forces with other longhorns to create sizable holes in the fencing.

Barbed wire fences almost doomed the breed. There was huge demand for western cattle after the Civil War. Back then, most ranchers west of the Mississippi allowed their animals to graze freely instead of fencing them in.

Self-reliant Texas longhorns didn't need much supervision and they could subsist on all kinds of wild plants. So the breed was a good fit for this "open range" approach to ranching. Furthermore, lengthy cattle drives over vast distances became a common sight by the 1850s. Longhorns had the physical stamina to survive the treks.

But the spread of railroads made prolonged cattle drives obsolete. At the same time, the popularization of barbed wire fences in the 1880s basically killed the open range era. Cowmen were now expected to confine their animals with sturdy fencing.

Texas longhorns had a reputation for being standoffish. It was an attitude that served them well out in the wilderness, but enclosed ranches created a demand for more docile breeds — and fattier ones to boot. Another strike against the longhorn was a national panic about Texas Fever, a historic disease linked to cattle from the Lone Star State.

longhorn cattle at Johnson Space Center
Longhorn cattle stand in front of the Saturn V Rocket in Rocket Park at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
Rodney Grubbs/NASA

An American Comeback Story

At the dawn of the 20th century, it looked like the breed's days were numbered. And then a funny thing happened. With the longhorn population plummeting, romantics started to eulogize the animals. They were compared to the American bison, another victim of modernization and railroad expansion. Songs like "The Last Longhorn" used the beasts to remind listeners of a — supposedly — simpler time when the West was considered wild.

The University of Texas further mythologized the breed in 1906, when the school's athletic teams became officially known as "the Longhorns." The current live mascot goes by the name Bevo XV.

Twenty-one years later, U.S. Forest Service Rangers scored federal funding to raise a (real) longhorn herd in Oklahoma's Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Combing the Southwest, the activists assembled 37 cattle. By 1929, the protected herd had expanded to 54 animals. Other herds were soon established in Texas state parks while private ranchers organized an ambitious breeding program.

By 1988, there were 125,000 registered Texas longhorns. Since then, this figure has risen to more than a quarter-million individuals. One thing that helped the breed stage its comeback was an emerging health food market; in the 1980s, weight-conscious consumers developed an appetite for lean, low-fat meats — and longhorn beef fit the bill.

Even NASA got in on the action. Visit the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas and you'll find some magnificent steers grazing within a few hundred yards of a Saturn V Rocket. Launched in 1996, the Johnson Space Center Longhorn Project has set aside 60 acres (24 hectares) of grassy land for dozens of the iconic cattle. Here, grade school students lend a hand in both raising top-quality animals and showcasing them at livestock conventions.

Rocketry and longhorns. It doesn't get more Texas than that.