Copyright, Dustin Payne Western Art
Lead steers were born with a certain bossy mentality. The most famous of these was Charles Goodnight’s Old Blue.
During the Civil War, the Texas cowboys had all but abandoned the longhorn cattle on their ranches and farms, while away from home fighting in the Confederate Army. The longhorn steers of Texas turned wild, and when the soldiers returned home, the land was filled with wild cattle. Being that the cattle were worth $40 a head in the markets of the north, and worth almost nothing in Texas, this became the era of the great cattle drives.
Through thousands of miles of treacherous trails, driving cattle north on the Chisholm Trail was tricky business, testing the will of the cowboy and the cow pony. Along the way, someone came up with the idea of using a lead steer, which would keep the herds headed in the right direction.
In a group of 5,000 steers, Charles Goodnight purchased Old Blue after showing signs of natural leadership. The longhorn led cattle on eight trips from the Palo Duro Canyon, where Goodnight’s famous JA Ranch was located, to Dodge City, Kansas. Old Blue had a quality to calm the flighty nature of the other cattle. After a while, the other cattle even grew accustomed to following the sound of the bell that Goodnight hung around Old Blue’s neck as he trotted along with his massive horns up the Great Western Cattle Trail.
Choosing not to bed down with the herds, legend has it that Old Blue would hang around the campfires at night and feast on cornbread, biscuits, and dried apples given to him by the appreciative cowboys. The value of a good, calm, and intelligent lead steer was great. For eight years, Old Blue led the cattle to market; an estimated 10,000 head, and after his final trip up the trail, he retired in comfort to a grassy pasture on the JA Ranch, where he lived to be 20.