Texas Longhorn Legacy

Updated: December 16, 2013

Few things are as symbolic of the Lone Star State as the Texas Longhorn. Their enormously powerful yet graceful horns aptly represent Texas, and their legacy is revered across the country.

The Texas Historical Commission (THC) is proud to protect these state icons. The agency preserves a genetically authentic group of Texas Longhorns near Albany at Fort Griffin State Historic Site, where the Official State of Texas Longhorn Herd is headquartered.

This breed is distinguished by its size, lean build, wide range of colors and markings and especially its curved horns, which can extend 120 inches tip-to-tip and are often used to protect its offspring.

The Texas Longhorn is hardy, with a strong immune system and stomach. It can eat a variety of plants other cattle find inedible and requires less water to survive than other breeds.

The Texas Longhorn breed has been part of Texas history for centuries — even before the state won its independence from Mexico. In 1969, the 61st Texas Legislature designated the Texas Longhorns at Fort Griffin State Historic Site as the official herd.

Texas Longhorns descended from cattle brought by Spanish explorers and settlers. The first significant numbers arrived in the late 1600s. As settlements grew and more cattle arrived, the number of cattle that escaped into the wild also increased. It is from these animals that the Texas Longhorn began its colorful history.

Accounts from travelers crossing Texas in the early 1700s include stories of the presence of many wild cattle, often misidentified as native species. These animals were considered game and were hunted for their meat and hides — much like deer and buffalo — but were regarded as very wild. Initially referred to as “Texas cattle” and later Texas Longhorns, the animals reportedly populated a widespread area in 1836 when Texas won its independence from Mexico.

These early Texas Longhorns continued to roam the state, almost completely without interference from humans, until the end of the Civil War. This likely strengthened their wild habits and instincts. After the war, many were rounded up and driven along various trails to Kansas City to be placed on rail cars and shipped east to slaughter.

“Income from Texas Longhorn meat and hides helped Texas recover from the Civil War.”

Skilled individuals were needed to gather and move herds of Texas Longhorns to the shipping pens. Cowboys became prevalent in Texas culture as they corralled and drove cattle across the state, forging famous cattle trails such as the Western, Chisholm, and Goodnight-Loving. A large cattle drive, containing several herds, could include as many as 15,000 animals and 200 cowboys.

It is estimated that between 1867 and 1880, nearly 10 million cattle were driven north along the trails to market. This provided Texas with a large source of income in an otherwise poor post-war economy. It also supplied large parts of the U.S. and Europe with beef and hides and helped Texas recover from the Civil War. Texas Longhorn cattle were known to endure the drives well and even gain weight on the long trip north if the grass was plentiful.

By 1895, the great northern trails began closing, effectively ending the era of long cattle drives. Ranchers began using other types of cattle, particularly Herefords — a more popular beef cattle. The result was a rapid decline in the number of purebred Texas Longhorns.

Western writer J. Frank Dobie recognized the decline of Texas Longhorns in the early 1920s and felt it was important to preserve the breed that held such a significant place in Texas history. With assistance from businessman Sid Richardson and rancher Graves Peeler, Dobie helped gather a herd of typical Texas Longhorns for state parks.

The animals were donated to the Texas Parks Board in 1941 as the state herd and were kept at Lake Corpus Christi State Park near Mathis. Since they were becoming scarce, the search for additional Texas Longhorns continued. In 1942 another herd was assembled at Lake Brownwood State Park in Brown County.

Due to challenges at these locations, the Texas Parks Board began looking for a permanent home for the cattle. Fort Griffin State Park — now the THC’s Fort Griffin State Historic Site — was selected as the permanent home in 1948.

The Official State of Texas Longhorn Herd, about 250 head, primarily resides at Fort Griffin, with a few head also at San Angelo, Copper Breaks, and Palo Duro Canyon state parks. They are also featured at the annual “Fort Griffin Fandangle,” an outdoor musical based on the pioneer chronicles of West Texas, held in Albany the last 2 weekends in June. The THC and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department jointly manage the herd.

The Texas Longhorn breed has increased in recognition and numbers in recent years due to many desirable traits, including longevity, calving ease, resistance to disease and parasites, foraging adaptability, climate adaptability, mothering ability, leaner beef, less dependence on humans and excellent fertility. Many of these traits may be due to the number of years the cattle survived in Texas without influence from humans, allowing the breed to form its characteristics through natural selection.

The official Texas Longhorn herd is maintained so residents and visitors can see these rugged animals similar to those that lived in the state more than a century ago. Herd managers continue to raise the cattle from calves in the image of the animals that are so important and integral to telling the real stories of our state’s history. Much like its namesake residents, the Texas Longhorn is a true Texan with roots in many places, but forever changed and refined by its experience in the Lone Star State. – By Will Cradduck, herd manager, Texas Historical Commission