The Last Cattle Drive to New Orleans

Army beef swimming the Occoquan River, Virginia / sketched by Mr. A.R. Waud. Library of Congress Online Catalog (634,618) Prints and Photographs Division (815,639)

Army beef swimming the Occoquan River, Virginia / sketched by Mr. A.R. Waud. Library of Congress Online Catalog (634,618)  Prints and Photographs Division (815,639)

I took a long weekend recently to spend in one of my favorite cities, New Orleans. Yes, I enjoyed the delicious food, the weather was perfect, and flowers were already blooming. But my mission was indoors at the Williams Research Center on Chartres Street. It’s one of my favorite places because it is the home of the Historic New Orleans Collection. There, I needed to learn how a herd of cattle leaving Matagorda Island in Texas wend its way into New Orleans.

If you fly or drive from Northeast Texas, you will see lots of swamps about an hour out of Shreveport. Cows don’t swim well so how did they get to the city in 1861?

When I went into the Research Center the attendant asked me how she could assist me. I really think she thought I was kidding when I told her I wanted to see maps showing how cattle and horses might arrive in the Crescent City. Then I told her I would really like to find a good social history of south Louisiana before Admiral Farragut arrived with the Union navy. But the lady was as cool as could be, brought me three wonderful atlases, a journal the mayor kept that spring and summer, and numerous photographic histories, memoirs, etc. I spent two days there taking notes, looking carefully at maps and charts, and having a great time.

Why was I doing all this? Who cares about such things? A large group of south Texas ranchers and historians, that’s who. I will present a paper I call “The Last Cattle Drive to New Orleans” on April 28 at the Central Texas Historical Conference in Brenham, Texas.

I wrote the paper about seven or eight years ago. I had no trouble getting those steers to Beaumont and crossing the Sabine River. Leaving Matagorda they headed to Richmond where they took the El Camino Real or Old Spanish Road created in the 1700s or earlier. But I wasn’t really clear about the way to New Orleans and the trials and tribulations facing the drovers over there.

As I read over the paper I wrote I quickly decided it needed a drastic revision. I have made the trip down there several times in the last few years and knew my paper was weak on that leg of the trip. I have less than four weeks to read and rewrite. There are so many important viewpoints that I neglected the first time. It will be fun putting together a better paper, I hope.

Not only is the Research Center a great place for historians and genealogists, but also not far away is an almost ideal bookstore, the Faulkner House. William Faulkner actually lived in the home while working in New Orleans. Every time I make a trip down there I find my way to Pirates’ Alley and Faulkner House.

This time I bought Gerstäcker’s Louisiana, translated from German by Irene S. DiMaio. I found lots of fodder for my paper. As I read, I remembered that Frederick Von Ende arrived in Greenville in 1857 after a series of adventures very similar to Herr Gerstäcker’s.

There is a saying among Texas historians that only criminals, debtors, and persons running from bad marriages came to early Texas. If so, most crossed through Louisiana, particularly New Orleans and Shreveport, where they honed their traits.

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