The Texas Longhorn, one of the state's most iconic symbols, has been hoofing through Texas history for centuries. This distinctive breed of cattle played a vital role in Texas' heritage, and the state maintains a herd of traditional longhorn, allowing residents and visitors to experience these graceful animals first-hand.
Fort Griffin State Historic Site near Albany was named the permanent home for the herd more than 60 years ago, and the Texas Historical Commission (THC) was recently brought into the fold with its acquisition of Fort Griffin and 17 other historic sites. Since the 61st Texas Legislature officially recognized the State of Texas Longhorn Herd in 1969, it has managed to keep the cattle as historically correct as possible, and the selection of breeding animals has followed this ideal.
The dynamic history of the longhorn breed represents the state's equally captivating past. Texas longhorns descended from cattle brought by Spanish explorers and settlers, and the first significant numbers of these animals likely arrived in the late 1600s. As settlements grew and more cattle arrived, the number of escaped cattle 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, much like deer and buffalo, but were regarded as very wild and more difficult to hunt. Initially referred to as "Texas cattle" and later Texas longhorns, the animals reportedly populated a widespread area by the time Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836--from the Red River to the Rio Grande, east to the Louisiana line and west to the upper breaks of the Brazos River. These early longhorns continued to roam Texas, almost completely wild and without the assistance of humans, until the end of the Civil War. They were often hunted for meat and hides, which likely strengthened their wild habit and instinct.
After the Civil War, many longhorns were rounded up and driven up various trails from Texas to Kansas City to be placed on rail cars and shipped east to slaughter. The longhorn was an impressive animal, well adapted to its environment and requiring skilled individuals to gather, handle, and manage the herds to the shipping pens with minimal losses. This gave rise to another Texas breed--the Texas cowboy. It has been 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, supplied large parts of the United States and Europe with beef and hides, and helped Texas recover from the Civil War. Longhorn cattle were known to endure the drives well, and even gain weight on the long trip north if the grass was plentiful.
By the early 1900s, the longhorn was regarded as a less desirable breed of cattle. Rail access improved, barbed wire closed the open range, trail drives become memories, and beef cattle were no longer being transported to faraway markets. European breeds that yielded more beef per animal became more popular, and the number of longhorns decreased.
Western writer Frank Dobie recognized the decline of the longhorn 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 organize a herd of typical longhorns. 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 more scarce, the search continued for longhorns, and in 1942 a herd was compiled and kept at Lake Brownwood State Park in Brown County.
Due to challenges at these locations, the Texas Parks Board began looking for a more permanent home for the herd. Fort Griffin State Park (now the THC's Fort Griffin State Historic Site) was selected as the permanent home in 1948, and the official herd has been based there ever since, with some parts of the herd at other state parks. The Official State of Texas Longhorn Herd is now jointly managed by the THC and Texas Parks and Wildlife.
The 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 in the harsh Texas climate.
The Official State of Texas Longhorn Herd, now numbering approximately 250 cattle, resides primarily at the Fort Griffin State Historic Site and San Angelo State Park, with a few head also residing at Copper Breaks State Park, Abilene State Park, and Palo Duro Canyon State Park. The herd is also featured at the annual Fort Griffin Fandangle, an outdoor musical based on the pioneer chronicles of West Texas, held in Albany the last two weekends in June.
This longhorn herd is maintained so residents and visitors can see and experience animals similar to those that were in Texas more than a century ago. Herd managers will 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 the residents of this state, the longhorn is a true Texan with roots in many places, but forever changed and refined by its time in the Lone Star State.
For more information on The Official State of Texas Longhorn Herd, longhorn programs, and tours, please contact the herd manager at 325-762-2356.