Cattle Trails

From Wyoming Tales and Trails

This Page: Australian Cattle Tracks, the Dawson Trail.

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Mustering Cattle in Australia, London Illustrated News, 1850

It would be neglectful not to note other famous trails and epic cattle drives. In Australia,"tracks" were established on which great herds were, as in the United States, driven to shipping points. In 1877, Nat "Old Bluey" Buchanan drove a "mob" of cattle from Camooweal to the Victoria River connecting to what was to become the infamous Murranji Track. The Murranji, as a result of the numbers of drovers killed along its route, was variously referred to as the "Death Track," the "Suicide Track or the "ghost road of the drovers." The last mob of cattle were taken along the Murranji Track in 1967. The track was noted for its aridness and passing through an impenetrable bullwaddy or scrub. And as the early Wyoming cowboys faced the peril of Indians, so too, the Australian drovers had the danger of unfriendly natives. Buchanan, a former California 49'er, is also noted from have driven a mob of 20,000 head from central Queensland to Glencoe south of Darwin in 1880, a distance of about 1000 miles. On a previous trip over the same route, his cook, while preparing "damper," bread baked over an open fire, was beheaded by natives.

"A Mob of Cattle," 1892

Perhaps the two most famous of the Australian tracks was the 1,113 mile long Canning Stock Route in Western Australia in use from 1911 to 1930 and the 500 km. long Birdsville Track running from Birdsville, Queensland south to Marree in South Australia. The Canning Route, although less in distance that the United States' Western Trail from South Texas to northern Montana, was far rougher and more difficult. The route was laid out by Alfred Canning between 1906 and 1910. Aborigines assisted Canning's survey parties in locating wells. Cooperation was obtained by placing chains about the Aborigines' necks, forcing them to eat salt until thirst forced the natives to lead the survey parties to native wells.

Tail-End of A Miserable Caravan, from Spinifex and Sand, 1898.

The same technique of obtaining the cooperation of natives was used by the Honorable David W Carnegie who explored the area in 1896. He kidnapped natives and in one instance had them drink a particularly briney broth. The area was so dry that even camels died of thirst and from eating poison plants. Carnegie was the fourth son of the ninth Earl of Southesk. Carnegie in his 1898 account of his adventures, Spinifex and Sand described the area, "What heart breaking country, monotonous, lifeless, without interest, without excitement, save when the stern necessity of finding water forced us to seek the natives in their primitive camps." Spinifex is the aptly named "porcupine grass" which Carnegie compared to thistle, "'He who sitteth on a thistle riseth up quickly.' But the thistle has one advantage, viz., that it does not leave its points in its victim's flesh." Carnegie was killed in Nigeria in 1900 by taking a native poison arrow in his thigh. All of the drovers on the first drive in 1911 were killed by the natives. Mobs were generally about 500 head, limited by the number that could be hand watered from water dipped from wells in canvas bags. Later, drovers would carry with them petrol powered pumps with the fuel and pumps carried on camels. For those who are daring or foolhardy, the Canning Stock Route may today be traced by four-wheel drive vehicle. Be forewarned, however, in its 1200 mile length there are no petrol stations. It is recommended that one take along four, forty-four gallon (Imperial measurement) drums of petrol. If carried all at once, the weight will bog one down in the sand ridges. Thus, the petrol should be cached along the route.

Following the arrival of the railroad in Marree in 1884, mobs of a 1000 head or more were driven south on the Birdsville Track by drovers. To the north on the track, camel trains carried the supplies required by large stations. Water along the track was provided by wells sunk by the South Australian government about every 50 kms. Along the route might be the occasional "sly-grog" house, more likely a tent, serving the thirst of the camel drivers and drovers. Sly-grog was booze sold in an unlicensed facility similar to an American blind pig. In many instances, the sly-grog was similar to American 40-rod, particularly vile. William Howitt, an English writer, author of the 1855 Land, Labor and Gold; or, Two Years in Victoria, described the sly-grog in one the diggings:

"Instead of the splendid home-brewed beer of England, there is rarely anything to be got but what they call grog generally a vile species of rum or arrack, vilely adulterated with oil of vitriol, and therefore the finest specific in the world for the production of dysentery.

Drovers in Austrailia, 1892.

The days of the drovers in Australia are perhaps remembered in the words of the old song:


Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong,
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled,
"Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?
Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda,
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?"
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled,
"Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?"

Down came a jumbuck to drink at the billabong:
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee.
And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker-bag,
"You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.
Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda,
You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me."
And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker-bag,
"You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me."

Up rode a squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred;
Down came the troopers, one, two, three:
"Who's that jolly jumbuck you've got in your tucker-bag?
You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me!
Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda,
You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.
Who's that jolly jumbuck you've got in your tucker-bag?
You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me!"

Up jumped the swagman and sprang into the billabong;
"You'll never catch me alive!" said he;
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong,
"You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me!
Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda,
You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me!"
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong,
"You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me!"

But if the cattle tracks of Australia were rough, rougher still were the short lived attempts at trailing cattle to hungry miners during Canada's Klondike Gold Rush. The most famous of the cattle trails was the 246 mile long Dalton Trail from the mouth of the Chilkat River, over the Chilkat Pass to Fort Selkirk. From there, cattle would be floated down the Yukon River on rafts to Dawson City.

Animals on rafts on the Yukon River.

The Trail was first opened by Jack Dalton in 1897 when 350 head of cattle and 1,550 sheep were brought into the Klondike.The Trail became a toll trail on which Dalton was authorized to charge tolls, $2.50 each for cattle, horses, mules, and burros and fifty cents each for goats, sheep and swine. The following year some 2,000 cattle made the trek. The most famous of the Klondike drovers was one who was unsuccessful. In 1898, British Columbia rancher Norman Lee attempted a 1500 miles drive to Dawson with 200 head of cattle. During the drive, Lee's horses died. He continued on foot until winter caught up with him 500 miles short of his goal. He butchered the half starved animals and continued on with the meat by scow. Unfortunately, all was lost in lake Teslin and Lee returned home with naught to show for his efforts.

In the summer of the same year, Siria M. "Si" Dawson, Augustus G. Dawson and Manley M. Dawson trailed 900 sheep into the Klondike. The route taken was laid out by Si in February when, to say the least, it is fairly cool in the Klondike. The three brothers were sons of New Mexico stockman, John Barkley Dawson (1830-1918). The father, himself, had a certain wanderlust, being born in Kentucky and in turn living in Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas. In 1855, he was trailing cattle into the mining camps of California. By the time of the Civil War, Dawson was back in Texas and joined the Texas Rangers. Following the war, he provided beef to the Army by trailing cattle from Texas to Colorado. Later he became a stockman raising both cattle and sheep in New Mexico. The ghost town of Dawson, New Mexico is named after him. In the early 1900's he estalished a stock growing operation in Routt County, Colorado. The operation was sold in 1915. Si became the superintendent of a ranch in Brazil where he died in 1919.

In the early spring some would trail their herds down the Yukon River on the ice. There was a danger, however, the spring ice break-up. In 1903, newlyweds Grace and Chris Bartsch trailed 500 sheep, 50 cattle and one goat to Dawson City and barely escaped the ice breakup. From the shore, they watched in horror as others went into the icy, raging waters. The Bartsch animals had to be transported the remainder of the distance on a scow.

Next Page, Cattle Ranches near Birney, The Three Circle.