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Tom Dillard: Arkansans hit the jackpot taking cattle west to gold fields

by Tom Dillard | June 28, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.

Last week I told you about the role Arkansans played in the California gold rush of 1848-55 and how the state missed out on an opportunity to become a major jumping-off point to the West. This week I want to share the amazing story of how a number of Arkansans drove cattle herds all the way to the California goldfield, sometimes more than once.

One might ask why this was such a big deal, as cattle drives are a well-known part of the history of the West. There is a huge difference, however, between the well-known cattle drives after the Civil War and those of the gold rush era.

Everyone knows about the cattle drives from Texas and elsewhere in the southern plains northward to railroad shipping centers in Kansas City or Sedalia, Mo. These drives, which began not long after the Civil War and continued until 1890 or so, have been the subject of movies and television programs. Clint Eastwood got his big break playing a drover in the television series "Rawhide."

The California cattle drives, however, are remarkable for their audacity. The distances alone are huge -- all the way from Fort Smith to interior California. In between Arkansas and California lay the Rocky Mountains, innumerable rivers, great stretches of deserts and hostile Indians. The drive usually took about five months.

The idea to drive cattle to California apparently occurred to a variety of Arkansans who arrived at the diggings during the early phase of the rush when beef was virtually unattainable. Cattle that could be had in Arkansas for $10 per head were fetching five times that amount in the muddy mining camps.

An early Arkansas miner-turned-drover was 26-year-old James Miles Moose of Conway County. During his brief and unproductive career as a miner, Moose noticed that beef was exceedingly expensive in the mining camps. He returned to Arkansas and assembled a large herd, realizing that the potential for profit was enormous.

His 1851 drive to California was a huge success, each cow bringing a substantial profit. Returning to Arkansas, Moose bought property near where the present city of Morrilton stands, and the family is still prominent.

Another successful drover from central Arkansas was John Kirkbride Potts, who moved to Pope County in the 1820s, settling first at an early port on the Arkansas River called Galla Rock. When word arrived of the gold strike, Potts joined a number of local men in heading to the diggings. His luck with a pick and shovel is unknown, but he did not stay long in California before returning to Arkansas, where he assembled a herd of cattle and headed back west.

Potts made a big profit on his first drive, but on his second in 1856 he found the market depressed by "the quantity of Mexican cattle pushed into market." Drawing upon his previous experience, Potts decided to stay through the summer, fatten his stock, and wait for better prices.

Today Potts is best known as the namesake of Pottsville, the Pope County town on Interstate 40 just east of Russellville. His home, known as Potts Inn Museum, is today an imposing museum, but for much of the 19th century it was home to the large Potts family and a stop on the stage route from Little Rock to Fort Smith.

Like many prospectors and immigrants before them, the Arkansas cattle drovers tended to depart from Fort Smith. Not long after heading west into Indian Territory, the drovers had to choose between two primary routes to California. The northern trail followed the Arkansas River into Colorado, across northern Utah, and then along the Humboldt River through Nevada and into north-central California. The southern trail followed the Butterfield Stage route through Texas and along the southern edge of what is today New Mexico and Arizona and then northward to San Francisco.

The northern trail seems to have been more popular, despite the greater length, the high mountains and the presence of buffalo. Many Arkansas drovers were at first fascinated by the huge herds of shaggy bison, often writing home to report on a successful hunt. Before long, however, the drovers were complaining that the cattle herds were difficult to control when buffalo were present.

Even the horses and mules seemed to want to join the free-ranging buffalo. One young drover recalled later in life that on one occasion he witnessed his boss dismount from "his fine mule which he had purchased at a high price to ride across the plains, when it broke loose from him and ran away with the bridle and saddle, and the last we saw of the mule he was tearing across the prairie with a heard [sic] of buffaloes."

Lightning could cause whole herds to stampede. Dover resident Thomas Jefferson Linton had his herd of 600 cows scattered by a lightning storm in June 1857. "We could not see a cow -- only when it would lighten. It was early in the night and some of the boys followed the bell until day[light] and next morning we come up short 150 head. We hunted that day and got all but two."

Cattle were lost to river crossings, thefts by Indians and the occasional grizzly bear. Lack of water and forage killed cows, especially in the unpredictable crossing of Nevada. One U.S. Army officer wrote that while traveling the Humboldt route through Nevada, "I seldom found myself out of sight of dead cattle for 500 miles along the road."

Above all, the Arkansas drovers recalled the long days in the saddle, the hot sun, lightning storms and exhaustion. In September 1852, drover John Riley Woods wrote his wife back in Arkansas that his trip had consumed "five months to a day." He concluded, "I have been for 5 months astraddle of a horse or mule and I feel like a forked log."

Tom Dillard was the founding director of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock. He lives in retirement at Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected] An earlier version of this column was published July 1, 2007.


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