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Monday, August 8, 2011

Navigating the Cattle Drive

Story by Roger Edison

Cattle drives were a major economic activity during the era of the American Western frontier. An estimated 20 million head of cattle were herded from Texas across the nation and the cattle trails spanned to places like the railheads of Kansas for shipments to stockyards in Chicago and points east. Other locations moved western, through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and even Montana which developed cowtowns along the way. Many trail bosses navigated these trails without maps as they scouted the best routes that provided easy passage, grass lands and water. Contrary to belief, navigation of these trails were frequently using a pocket watch to confirm the general direction an not relying on the stars.

The Cattle drives struck a balance between speed and the weight of the cattle. While cattle could be driven as far as 25 miles in a single day, they would lose too much weight that would result in a lower value per head at the end of the trail. To prevent such weight lose, the trail boss moved the cattle shorter distances each day. This allowed for the cattle to graze and rest, normally at midday and at night.  On an average, the herds move between 10 to 15 miles each day allowing to maintain a healthier weight that would resulted with better pricing once at market. Such a pace meant that the drives would last two or more months before reaching their final destination. 

Navigating the trails and wide-open plains was as easy as pointing their wagons every evening to the North Star is a mere half truth to navigation. The trail boss and cook navigated by day checking directions, staying the course.

The cattle rested at night and the chuck wagon cook place the tongue towards the north star before turning in each night. This aided the wranglers who would ride out at night to stand watch over the herd. Rotating members through the night allowed each to get some sleep before the next day. Although, it was during the day that the trail boss navigated and often without the use of a compass.  He used a pocket watch to check his course dividing the watch into 360 degrees or the points on a compass. The hour hand aimed at the sun, the trail boss could determine the line of direction from North to South.


The trail boss or cook would hold their pocket watch out in front like a compass. They would aim the watch hour hand (the shorter hand for those who use a digital watch to tell time) while splitting the distance between the hour hand and the 12 on the watch. As shown, 8:15AM the split would be near 10 which indicated the southern direction and north 180 compass degrees or the location of the number 4 on the face dial of the pocket watch. The direction will be correct if the watch is set for true local time, without adjustments for modern daylight savings time. Additionally, the further you are from the equator, the more accurate this method will be.  Today, if in daylight savings, the split is move up to the 1 vice the 12 and if in a survival situation south of the equator, then point the number 12 at the sun and NORTH will be half-way between the number 12 and the short hour-hand on the watch.  

Daytime navigation was essential and the cowboys learned many methods to check direction without the aid of a compass. However, the pocket watch was the most commonly used. Each morning, the cook verified the sunrise knowing the sun rises in the East and sets in the West.  The best time to determine east or west is in the early morning and late evening when the sun is near the horizon. The middle of the day it was more challenging to accurately determine east and west by simply looking at the sun.  

At night, the cowboys did use the stars to assist knowing direction commonly using the North Star since these cattle drives where conducted in the northern hemisphere. The easiest way to locate the North Star known as (POLARIS) was to know three constellations. Ursa Major also called (The Big Dipper), Ursa Minor also known as (The Little Dipper) and Cassiopeia.   

As the earth rotates, the Big Dipper may be found above, below, east or west of the little dipper. However, Polaris will be the first star on the handle of the Little Dipper and always half way between the constellations Ursa Major and Cassiopeia.  

The North Star

Additionally, viewing the Big Dipper, Polaris will be 5 times the distant of the two outer stars of the Big Dippers cup. Notice the line from the bottom of this cup to the upper star. If you follow this line out the distance between the distance of the two stars, this comes directly in path to Polaris.  The cowboys would daze upon the stars and watch them appear to be moving as the earth rotated. 

Although, stars were just another tool for navigation. They also use the moon. Except during a full moon, or the term new moon when it is not visible. An easy rule to remember is this old navigation trick, although it is not particularly accurate but would provide as a rough guide, and in many situations this is good enough.

If the moon is in a crescent stage, the cowboy could draw an imaginary line through the tips of its "horns" down to the horizon. The point where it touches is roughly South for the northern hemisphere and North for the southern hemisphere. Additionally, the bright side of the moon always pointed towards the sun. If the moon rises before the sun sets, the illuminated side will be facing west. However, if it rises after midnight, the illuminated side will be facing east as the moons illumination is the reflection of sun light.

The trail boss and cook kept good notes as they navigated. Over time, they mapped the best routes, locations of water and distance between rivers, creeks along with the various terrain. Some may not have been able to even read or write but they knew how to read the stars, they read the land and the hands on their watch that worked as aids to get the cattle to market along the trail drive only to use once more finding their way home.  

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