the late 1860s into the 1870s,
in effect, divided into two armed camps. The divisions weren't
Yankees against Southerners, Indians against Whites, Mexicans
against Anglos, or even loyalists against scalawags. The
division was Texans against Texans--and the dividing line was the
36th parallel of latitude, running east to west roughly through
Waco. The battlers were south Texas cattlemen who
needed to drive their cattle north to the railheads in Kansas,
Nebraska, and Missouri--and north Texas cattlemen, joined
by cattle raisers in the Indian Nations, Kansas, and Nebraska,
who stood ready, with rifles if necessary, to stop the drives.
The argument wasn't economic in the sense that there wasn't
enough market to go around, for there certainly was. Meatpacker
buyers at the railheads were clamoring for cattle and they
didn't care where they came from as long as they could be
shipped to Chicago and slaughtered to feed the ever-increasing
Eastern demand for beef and leather. The dispute was economic in
another sense. South Texas cattle brought death to northern
cattle didn't die of the disease. They didn't even show signs of
it. Within weeks after south Texas herds passed northern herds
sickened, began to pass red urine, and then--in 95 cases out of
100--died. It was called Redwater Fever from the red
urine, or simply Texas Fever. Nobody knew what caused it, but
everybody knew what it did. It spelled ruin for cattlemen within
10 miles or so either side of the passage of a south Texas herd.
There was a preventative, but it wasn't one south Texas
cattlemen felt they could live with. If a south Texas herd
was taken north in the fall and wintered over in an isolated
pasture north of the quarantine line--that magic line passing
through Waco--then driven north the following spring, no
animals in its vicinity developed the fever.
South Texas cattlemen had several objections to this. First,
there weren't that many isolated pastures where they could
winter their stock. Second, the procedure required
establishing what was, in essence, a second ranch
headquarters north of the line with a full complement of
cowboys to hold the cattle all winter. Third, those northern
winters were hard on south Texas cattle. A lot of them would
be lost to weather. Fourth, a lot of cattle would be lost to
thieves. Fifth, the arrangement would force many south Texas
cattlemen to miss a year's drive to the railheads, which
would put them in bankruptcy since they'd be unable to meet
their financial obligations.
A second solution was proposed, this time by south Texas
cattlemen. A national cattle trail should be declared,
surveyed, and fenced--a strip 20 miles wide, with good grass
and water, going as straight north as possible from the
south Texas cattle ranges to the railheads. To this the
north Texas cattlemen objected. Such a strip would cut their
own country in half, cut off access to much water, and cut
up many ranches. Besides, who would pay for establishing and
maintaining it--south Texas cattlemen?
No satisfactory solution seemed to be forthcoming. South
Texas cattlemen said "We're going to drive." North Texas,
Indian Territory, Kansas, and Nebraska cattlemen said "We're
going to stop you." Everybody figured there was going to be
blood on the ground before it was all over. In fact, there
was blood on the ground--some of it cattle blood as northern
cattlemen tried to stop the southern herds by shooting the
cattle, and some of it human as the Southerners tried to
protect their herds. Still, while everybody knew what the
problem was--Texas Fever--nobody knew what caused it.
Hundreds of suggestions were offered, some of them fantastic
and some fairly practical. One such idea was that Texas
Fever was caused by
the feces of south Texas cattle. The suggestion was that
each south Texas herd should include a wagon filled with
coal oil. Every cow pie dropped by south Texas herds should
be soaked with coal oil and burned--all the way from Live Oak
County in deep south Texas to the railheads.
Into the fray stepped the budding science of biology.
Microscopic examination of the blood of infected northern
cattle revealed tiny creatures--microbes, as such critters
were called in those days. All Texas-Fever-infected northern
cattle showed an infestation of the microbe. Uninfected
northern cattle showed no such infestation. Healthy south
Texas cattle, when tested, always showed infestations of the
microbe in like quantities to those which were killing the
northern cattle. The south Texas cattle, however, showed no
symptoms of Texas Fever at all. South Texas cattle, when
injected with the blood of infected north Texas cattle,
showed no reaction--but when uninfected north Texas cattle
were injected with the microbe-laden blood of south Texas
cattle, they immediately developed Texas Fever and, in 95
cases out of 100, died.
Obviously, then, this tiny germ was what caused Texas Fever
and, over the years, south Texas cattle developed a natural
immunity to the disease it carried. Northern cattle, having
no such immunity, died when infected with the microbe. But
how did the microbe get from one animal to another? South
Texas cattle, wintered over north of the line, still had
bloodstreams full of the microbe, but they could graze side
by side with northern cattle and the northern cattle showed
no signs of the infection, nor did their blood show any
trace of the microbe.
Obviously, then, something--a third factor--was transmitting
the microbe from the infected cattle to the uninfected ones.
What was it? The recognition that a third factor was
involved--today called a vector--was a first in the
history of medical science. Never before had medical science
realized that an infection could be carried from an infected
creature to an uninfected one by a third agency which,
itself, was not part of the disease cycle.
The culprit turned out to be a bug no larger than the nail
on your little finger. It was a tick--the Texas Fever tick.
The discovery that a tick was the vector for Texas Fever was
arguably the single most important medical discovery of the
19th century, comparable to the discovery in 1929 of the
first antibiotic, penicillin. With the realization that
vectors could be involved in the spread of disease,
pioneered by Texas Fever research, Col. Leonard Wood
identified the anopheles mosquito as the vector for malaria.
Within a few short years insect vectors were identified for
most of the great 'plague' diseases, including yellow fever
and that most dreaded of all scourges, bubonic plague--the
Identifying the cause and vector of a disease is one thing.
Doing something about the disease is something else
entirely. The Texas Fever tick was endemic to south
Texas--and to much of Mexico and the American south as well.
Modern insecticides simply did not exist. Most insecticides
were either petroleum based or arsenic based. Petroleum
based insecticides--which included kerosene and naptha
(modern cigarette-lighter fluid) killed not only insects but
vegetation and small animals as well, and were a fire hazard
to boot. Arsenic based insecticides also killed much
vegetation and small animals, and occasionally killed cattle
when they ate grass on which the insecticide was spread.
What were south Texas cattlemen supposed to do--go around
with a brick in each hand, catching the bugs and smashing
them one by one?
developed an arsenic based insecticide that would kill the ticks
without killing plants unless the plants were saturated with it.
The formula was stated as "To 500 gallons of water, add eight
pounds of powdered white arsenic, 24 pounds of carbonate of
soda, and one gallon of pine tar." As soon as a rancher could do
so, his herd was divided in half and his pasture into thirds.
One third of the pasture was then sprayed with the arsenic
solution and no cattle were pastured there for six weeks. One
half the cattle were sprayed with or dipped in the solution
(typically dipped by running the cattle neck-deep through
concrete-lined trenches called 'dipping vats.) The dipped cattle
were then turned loose on the sprayed pasture. The area on which
they had been held was sprayed. Six weeks later the rest of the
herd was dipped and turned loose on the second sprayed pasture.
The remaining pasture was sprayed. From then on the cattle had
to be rotated every four or five months and re-dipped about as
This didn't set well with the south Texas cattlemen. They
weren't having any problem with cattle dying. All this nonsense
about li'l bitty bugs in a cow's blood an' ticks carryin' them
from one cow to 't'other'n was just that--nonsense. Nobody'd ever
heard of such trash afore. 'Sides, all this dipping and spraying
was expensive. Who was going to pay for it? If the northern
cattlemen wanted the cows dipped and the pastures sprayed, let
them pay for all that arsenic and carbonate of soda and such
truck, and pay to build the dipping vats and the men to run 'em,
and pay the costs of having steam-powered spraying machines
mounted on wagons to cover 40 or 50 thousand acres three times a
The practical financial arguments were not the only ones
advanced against dipping and spraying. As in every case in which
a new advance is made, there are those demagogues who raise
prophesies of doom. "This," it was alleged, "is nothing but a
Yankee plot. Arsenic's a poison. You use it to kill weeds and
wolves. You pour that stuff in a creek, it'll kill every fish,
turtle, and lizard in it. If birds eat the dead, it'll kill
them, too. If we spray our pastures it'll kill the grass and
it'll take three or four years for the pastures to recover. In
the meantime, if the dipping doesn't kill the cattle outright,
it'll poison the meat, just like it poisons the meat of the
fish. The Yankees are trying to get us to poison our land and
our livestock so we'll go broke and get out of the cattle
business so they can hog the market, and the Texas cattlemen
north of Waco are going along with it."
Such arguments were very effective. South Texas cattlemen rose
in resistance against the dipping of their cattle. Lawmen who
came to urge dipping were fired on. Dipping vats were dynamited.
Spray rigs were set afire or blown up with dynamite. And, of
course, to the north cattlemen loaded their Winchesters in
determination to stop any un-dipped cattle from crossing the
Brazos at Waco.
Not only did the Texas cattlemen north of Waco prepare to stop
un-dipped cattle, the state of Kansas passed a law that every
Texas herd, regardless of its geographic origin, had to be
certified disease-free to enter Kansas. Shortly Oklahoma
Territory and Indian Territory followed suit. The Texas cattle
industry was on the verge of total collapse if the Texas Fever
problem was not dealt with quickly.
The Texas Legislature passed, and the governor signed, a law
requiring all cattle in the state to be tested for the Texas
Fever microbe and all infected cattle to be dipped. No cattle
could be driven or shipped without being certified disease-free.
The cost of testing and dipping was to be paid by the owner of
the cattle. Special inspectors, most of them more or less
scientific types, were hired to insure the law was obeyed.
These inspectors were not lawmen and had no real enforcement
powers beyond saying 'you can't move these cattle.' To that a
cocked sixshooter or Winchester and the reply "You wanta live,
you'll get outa the way while I move 'em " was an effective
counter. Something, obviously, had to be done to bring the south
Texas cattlemen into compliance.
Into the fray stepped a number of hard-eyed, grim looking
gentlemen who wore their hardware like men who knew how to use
it. They were Texas Rangers, and their orders were "Get
the cows dipped and the pastures sprayed, and if anybody gives
you any lip about it, use whatever means you have at hand to put
a stop to it." Rangers had--and still have--a reputation for being
able to put a stop to lip--and much else. Slowly, then in
increasing numbers, south Texas cattle began to be dipped and
south Texas pastures began to be sprayed.
The eradication of Texas Fever and its host and vector, the
Texas Fever tick, was a long and involved process. From the time
the vector was first identified in the latter quarter of the
19th Century until the 1950s, dipping vats and cattle dipping
were part and parcel of south Texas ranching. Over the years the
insecticides that could be sprayed on the pastures improved--but
the constant spraying had a secondary effect. Literally dozens
of species of birds and animals that had once been common in
south Texas all but disappeared. Among those was a small black
and white eagle known as the Crested Caracara, which is
presently making a comeback in south Texas. Another was the
water turkey or Cahinga, a cormorant-like bird that swims
with only its neck out of the water. A third was the
chicken-sized Chacalaca, which today is reentering its
old homeland through the Rio Grande valley. In addition,
spraying may have been instrumental in driving out the south
Texas population of jaguars and jaguarundis,
beautiful spotted cats once fairly plentiful south of San
Antonio. How many other creatures were wiped out completely by
the spraying and dipping, which continued in Texas into the
mid-1950s, no one really knows.
In spite of ecological damage a major threat to livestock--and to
people, since Texas Fever has been known to infect humans--was
wiped out in Texas by the mid-1950s. There remained, however, a
threat from across the border. Mexico still harbored Texas Fever
ticks and Mexican livestock still carried the disease across the
Rio Grande. A massive US government organized and financed
fever-tick eradication program in the 1940s and 1950s
substantially reduced, though did not eliminate entirely, the
Texas Fever threat from Mexico.
Much may be said--and no doubt will be said--about the ecological
damage done to south Texas by Texas Fever eradication. Those of
us who know our history realized that, for well over a century,
New England apple growers regularly dusted their trees with
white arsenic to keep worms out of the fruit. Every buffalo hide
pulled on the plains during the great buffalo slaughter of the
1870s--upwards of 50,000,000 of them by some estimates--was dusted
with five pounds of powdered white arsenic to keep bugs off,
much of which ended up on the ground. Every cotton and tobacco
field in the south was dusted several times during the growing
season with Paris Green, an arsenic-based insecticide, to keep
the boll weevil and tobacco horn-worm away. Every 500 gallons of
Texas Fever dip for the approximately 75 years a billion head of
cattle per year were dipped contained eight pounds of powdered
white arsenic, not to mention all the arsenic-containing
insecticides that were sprayed on the pastures. The fact that
the research methods used to control Texas Fever led to the
control of malaria, yellow fever, bubonic plague, and many other
diseases would tend to excuse any errors made in ecological