Herd of cows?

I remember the first time I saw longhorn cattle at the north unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I was flummoxed, then, and for a long time after.

A short history of Longhorns on the Long X trail ends here at the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Longhorn Cattle move out to the Little Missouri River from the North Unit if the TRNP where 140 years ago, the Long X Ranch ran as many as 11,000 Longhorns.

“What’s a bunch of cows doing here?” I asked. It seemed like a North Dakota thing to do. Certainly an oddity.

The other guy said, “herd of cows.”

“Yes, I’ve heard of cows,” I said.  “But what’s a herd of a bunch of cows doing here?”

He rolled his eyes. Then he explained why cows are an attraction of a national park, and that’s how I learned what I’m writing here.

I can understand why bison are at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. But cows?


He explained — kinda like this

Once upon a time, millions of bison roamed the western 2/3 of America.  Between the Missouri River and the Rockies, bison were so thick they blocked steamboats heading north to Fort Union and Fort Benton. Some steamboats had to wait three days for a herd to get out of their way. (Click here for the beginning of Longhorns.)

Wasteful hunting wiped out bison numbers. Hunters didn’t realize their hunts in Montana were matched by hunts from Iowa, to Oklahoma or other bison states.  No one kept count until, suddenly, they realized, “oh oh, where did they go?” 


Why longhorn cattle?

Longhorns apparently grazed on the North American Continent since the 1600’s when Spaniards introduced them to Mexico.  Over time, they became the hardiest breed to make thrive in the varied hot/dry or warm/cold environments of the west.  Then came the Civil War.

When it wrapped up, soldier-ranchers from Texas, New Mexico, and neighboring states came home from the Civil War to find their cattle herds had scattered to the Texas sage.  For the next several years, they scoured the rough country of Texas to find their cattle. If they found one without a brand, they gave the maverick their own brand. So, they built up their herds.


5 pounds of hamburger on longhorn cattle

a short history of the Longhorns on the Long X trail begins here with cowboys in Texas

From the DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University is this 1900 photo of Texas cowboys tending a herd of longhorns to move them north.

Longhorns most likely provided at least one annual calf. Mothers are good at calving, and getting their youngsters off to a healthy start.  As a whole, they are fairly disease resistant, more so than later breeds that came to the west.

They were cantankerous – nothing as domesticated as today’s beef cattle. With a long offense and defense weapon, 6-foot horns, they kept away predators. Without predators, they thrived.  They were not as meaty as bison, so, as long as bison were around, hunters didn’t pay much attention to wild longhorns.

But the reality was, they weren’t very beefy. Cattlemen said longhorns were useless; 5 pounds of hamburger on 500 pounds of meanness.


Cowboys are created

Now, lets see. Where were we in the history lesson the other guy told me?


Cowboys round up longhorns.
National Park Service from Oregon Trail Museum.

Oh, yeah. After the Civil War, ranchers paid unemployed horseback riders to round up cattle hiding in the brush along and either side of the Mexican/American border.  Those cows were longhorns. The riders became what we know to day as “cowboys.”

As part of punishment (in textbooks, they call it “reconstruction”) the North set up a blockade and trade restrictions to clamp down on and control the southern economy; that meant controlling southern agriculture – including beef production. 


Cattle Drives became necessary

It became apparent that the way around the Union blockade was to follow the spring greening of grass as it oozed north beyond Kansas to North Dakota and Montana.  There were no fences, no modern metropolitan areas or highways to limit herd movement.  All herds needed was water and food. So, they followed rivers such as the Little Missouri River that cuts through the North Dakota Badlands.  Following the green rangeland and rivers, cattle herds moved north to rail lines in Nebraska, North Dakota and Montana. (Click here to read about longhorns, North Dakota and the Civil War.)

Then began the Black Hills Gold Rush, and miners like beef. Guess what kind of beef that were served. You guessed it, longhorns. 

Legends of America has includes an excellent overview of longhorn cattle drives.


But why?

Okay, cool. So I ask: “But why is there a herd of a bunch of cows at the north unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.”longhorns and bison

The answer comes back: “That’s easy. The Theodore Roosevelt National Park maintains a longhorn cattle herd in honor of the tough livestock that made the journey. Because without them, this part of the continent wouldn’t be what it is today.”


North Dakota’s Famous Long X Trail

The north unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park sits on the terminus of one of the longest cattle trails in the 1800 west. The Long X Trail is where the Reynolds Brothers ranch sat 150 years ago. 

In 1861, the Dakota Territory was established by Congress and that gave the North Dakota Badlands a name and a marked destination.

The Long X trail is one of the many trails cowboys and cattle herds traveled up from central and western Texas.  It’s one of the longest because most trails stopped at Kansas or Nebraska. Some branched off to the west. It let cattle graze fresh green grass as spring crept north, all the way to the Dakota Territory and Montana. For about 20 years after the Civil War and before railroads crossed the nation, cattle were grazed on the open range toward North Dakota. (Click here to read about the Long X Trail, longhorns and the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.)


Open range ranching in North Dakota initially developed in earnest around 1883 in the area west of the Missouri River. Large cattle companies occupied the range quickly, with herds of from 10,000 to 25,000 head of cattle. Within the next three years, numerous smaller outfits with 300 to 1,000 head of stock joined them.

The largest to operate entirely or in large part in present North Dakota were the following:
~ Pierre Wibaux, W Bar Ranch
~ Reynolds Brothers, Long X Ranch
~ Berry-Boice Cattle Company, 777 Ranch
~ Tower & Gudgell, OX Ranch
~ A. C. Huidekoper, HT Ranch
~ Theodore Roosevelt, Maltese Cross and Elk Hom Ranches
~ Thomas & Arnett, AHA Ranch
~ Crosby Cattle Company, Diamond C Ranch
~ IE. Phelan, 75 Ranch
~ Hughes & Simpson, Hashknife Ranch60

Texans/southwesterners, Europeans, and easterners were represented in the elite ten. Reynolds Brothers, Berry-Boice, Tower & Gudgell, Hughes & Simpson, and Crosby were from Texas or New Mexico. Wibaux was French. Huidekoper and Roosevelt were wealthy easterners. Despite the size of his operation, lE. Phelan had no ranch headquarters, preferring to lease out his cattle with other outfits.

— From Open Range Ranching in North Dakota 1870s to 1920s, a National Park Service resource.

red long horn green grass

One of my favorite images I’ve taken of a longhorn in the Badlands. The red steer and the green grass with the badlands stripes behind make this a very good image.

They made North Dakota

So, it took a bit of local history for me to understand why there is a herd of longhorn cattle at the National Park.  It is because of their ancestors that towns sprang up along the trail, and at rail heads from Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana and North Dakota. Towns such as Killdeer and Dickinson were major cattle shipping points.  

Those longhorn cattle trails are still there, and today truckers and tourists follow at least one cattle trail. Highway 85 is on top of, alongside of or near transcontinental the cattle trail.

Generations of ranch families are in the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana because their forefathers herded longhorns this direction.

Okay, it makes sense now

Those awkward looking cattle may look out of place at a National Park, because they are an oddity. Still, they were instrumental in developing the west until they were replaced by better beef cows – oddly enough called “shorthorns” beginning in about 1884, about the same time Theodore Roosevelt took up ranching in the North Dakota Badlands.  That’s another reason for longhorns in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Now, when I get a chance to see the little herd of longhorns at the park, I stop to watch them and imagine what it was like to move a herd of 5,000 or 10,000 across the United States from March to September every year.

Good-lookin’ Meanness

I think they are visually appealing.  If “pretty” works for longhorns, then I guess that word applies, too. They are majestic, and their long sweeping horns are deadly.

So when I see the herd of longhorn cattle at the National Park, I give them a wave or a symbolic tip of the hat.  I watch then and admire them.  It is because of them, modern cowboys live and have their being in the west.

Longhorns badlands sage brudh

Along the bottoms of the north unit of the TRNP longhorns like to graze and nap until evening when they go to the river to drink.


Check these out!

Here’s where we got some of our information for this story — and the other stories on longhorn cattle and the Long X Trail.

The West That Was, from Texas to Montana by John Leaky (Highly recommended, very authentic)

Open Range Ranching in North Dakota 1870s to 1920s, a National Park Service resource. By Barbara Beving Long. Published in 1996 by Rivercrest Associates, Inc of Lakeland Minn.

We Pointed Them North, Recollections of a Cowpuncher, b E.D. Abbot (“Teddy Blue”) and Helena Huntington Smith.

The Log of a Cowboy, A Narrative of the Old Trail Days, Andy Adams



What you get when you subscribe to Beautiful Badlands ND:

  • History,
  • Events,
  • Points of Interest,
  • Hiking and camping ideas.


Or follow on Facebook where we keep up a running replay of all things North Dakota Badlands


What are longhorn cattle? 

Longhorn cattle are the closest relative to the cattle Spaniards brought to Mexico in the 1600s. Ranchers in Mexico and then in the southwestern US. raised them up until about 1885.

How long are the horns of longhorn cattle?

Generally they average about a 6-foot span, but some have been measured as long as 11 feet from tip to tip.

Where can I see longhorn cattle?

Private herds are scattered across Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado.  The Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota maintains a herd of longhorn cattle.

Do cowboys still raise longhorn cattle?

No as a beef source. They are not good beef cattle, but they are good mothers and herd protectors. Their long horns keep predators away.