Joseph G. McCoy - The Real McCoy

Posted by John Brand on

Ever wondered where the phrase "The Real McCoy" came from? Joseph G. McCoy, cattle baron, cowboy and business man was the inspiration for that phrase.

Joseph Geiting McCoy - Cattle Baron

Born on a farm in Sangamon county, Illinois, on December 21, 1837. McCoy is often cited as the inspiration for the phrase "The Real McCoy" because of his reputation and reliability and because he referred to himself by that phrase. He was educated in local schools and spent a year in the academy of Knox College in Galesburg. After his marriage to Sarah Epler in 1861, he entered the mule and cattle raising business. At the close of the Civil War, McCoy expanded his enterprise by buying animals in large quantities and shipping them to major livestock centers. In 1867 he joined a firm that shipped as many as a thousand cattle a week.

McCoy viewed the livestock industry from a national perspective and recognized the need for better contacts between southwestern ranchers, midwestern feeders, and meat-packers. He resolved to build a stock depot west of farming sections on the Great Plains to which cowboys from Texas could drive Longhorn herds.

Joseph McCoy made good on his pledge to Texas ranchers that if they would drive their Longhorn cattle from Texas to Kansas that he would have them shipped by rail to other markets and that the ranchers would receive a good price for their stock.

In the 1860s, cattle ranchers in Texas faced difficulties getting their longhorn cattle to market. Kansas homesteaders objected to the cattle crossing their land because the cattle might carry ticks which could spread a disease called Texas Fever fatal to some types of cattle. The disease could make a Longhorn sick, but they were hardier stock than the northern cattle and Longhorns seldom died from the disease.

McCoy himself said of the disease:
"In 1868 a great number of cattle arrived in Kansas and the mid-west from Texas; approximately 40,000. With them came a tick born disease called “Spanish Fever”. The local shorthorn breeds were seriously affected and in some towns the loss of the cattle was almost 100%. The result was a great prejudice against Texas cattle in Eastern Kansas and Missouri."

McCoy expected that the railroads companies were interested in expanding their freight operations and he saw this as a good business opportunity. He succeeded in obtaining cooperation from the Kansas Pacific Railway provided he assumed all the financial risks. The cattle would be shipped from his proposed stockyards to Kansas City. He then made an agreement with the Hannibal and St. Joseph line, which provided a route to Quincy, Ill.; from there the cattle could be sent to Chicago.

McCoy purchased a 250-acre tract at the edge of a frontier village along the Union Pacific. There he built a pen to handle a thousand head of cattle, a hotel known as the Drover's Cottage, a bank, office, and livery stable This village became known as Abilene, Kansas - one of the first cow towns. McCoy's plan was for cattle to be driven to Abilene from Texas and taken from there by rail to bigger cities in The Midwest and The East.

Abilene sat near the end of the Chisholm Trail (named after Jesse Chisholm) established during the American Civil War for supplying the Confederate army. This trail ran to the west of the settled portion of Kansas, making it possible to use the trail without creating hostility from the Kansas homesteaders.

McCoy advertised extensively throughout Texas to encourage cattle owners to drive their cattle to market in Abilene. The first herds arrived in August 1867; an initial shipment to Chicago left Abilene in September. By the end of the year 35,000 head had been driven over the Chisholm Trail to Abilene, and in 1868 the number rose to 75,000 head; by 1870 the number doubled. By 1871 as many as 5,000 cowboys were being paid off during a single day, and Abilene became known as a rough town in the Old West. Due to their long legs and hard hoofs, Longhorns were ideal trail cattle, even gaining weight on their way to market.

One story says that McCoy bragged before leaving Chicago that he would bring 200,000 head in 10 years and actually brought two million head in 4 years, leading to the phrase "It's the Real McCoy"

As Abilene's leading citizen, McCoy was elected mayor and served until 1873.

Rival railroad terminal towns, farther west and south, soon diverted trade from Abilene, and McCoy moved to the new cow towns. In 1872 he went to Wichita, Kans., where he became a promotion agent for American and Texas Refrigerator Car. By 1880 he was a commission dealer in livestock in Kansas City and had been employed by the U.S. Census Bureau to report on the livestock industry for the eleventh census. For a time he lived in Oklahoma and served as agent for the Cherokee Nation in collecting land revenues. In 1890 he was an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for the U.S. Congress.

Joseph G McCoy died in Kansas City, Missouri on Oct. 19, 1915.

The Abilene Trail:

In 1867 Joseph G. McCoy, of Illinois, settled at Abilene to engage in the cattle trade, and he developed the Abilene Trail which connected with the already established north end of the Chisholm Trail near Wichita, Kansas. The path then ran northward to Abilene, Kansas, which was situated along the line of the Union Pacific Railroad, where the cattle could be shipped back east in a more expeditious manner.

The road from the mouth of the Little Arkansas River to Abilene was not direct but circuitous. In order to straighten up this trail, bring the cattle more directly to Abilene and shorten the distance, as well as counteracting would-be competing points for the cattle trade, an engineer corps was sent out under the charge of Civil Engineer T. F. Hersey.

He, with compass, flag men and numerous laborers began to survey the route. The laborers utilized spades and shovels for throwing up mounds of dirt to mark the road located by the engineers.

The trail ran almost due south from Abilene to the crossing of the Arkansas River and connected with the old Chisholm Trail. All along the way the new route provided for good water, abundant grass and suitable camping points.

The exact combined route of the Chisholm and Abilene Trails had a number of offshoots from Texas to Kansas, so providing an exact location is nearly impossible. However, it crossed the Red River a little east of Henrietta, Texas, before continuing north across Indian Territory to Caldwell, Kansas, past Wichita and Newton, Kansas before it arrived in Abilene.

The first herd to follow the route belonged to O. W. Wheeler and his partners, who in 1867 bought 2,400 steers in San Antonio. At first the route was merely referred to as the Trail, the Kansas Trail, the Abilene Trail, or McCoy's Trail. In the end; however, the entire route from the Rio Grande River to Abilene would be referred to by most cowboys as the Chisholm Trail.

In 1867 about 35,000 head of cattle were driven from Texas to Abilene over this trail; in 1868 about 75,000; in 1870 about 300,000; and in 1871 about 700,000, being the largest number ever received from Texas in any one year. However, by 1872 the area around Abilene was quickly being settled, grazing lands were getting scarcer, and the area residents began to object to the pasturing of great herds of cattle in the vicinity. Due to these reasons as well as the fear of "tick fever" and the unruly conduct of the cowboys, the city of Abilene officially told the Texas cattleman they were no longer welcome in their town. The shipping points then moved to Wichita and Ellsworth.

From 1867 to 1871 about 10,000 cars of live stock were shipped out of Abilene, and in 1872 about 80,000 head of cattle were shipped from Wichita. The settlement of the Arkansas and the Ninnescah River Valleys rendered it impractical to reach Wichita shipping yards after 1873, and the loading of cattle was transferred to points on the railroad farther west, halting finally at Dodge City, where 1887 saw the end of the use of the famous Abilene Cattle Trail.

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