The "Stock Keepers"

When one thinks about ranching and cattle drives, Angelina County is not the first locale that comes to mind. Instead one thinks of giant ranches in South and West Texas, such as the King Ranch, and cattle drives along the Chisholm Trail to Kansas and beyond. The tangled woods of East Texas just don't seem conducive to the cattle industry. It would seem that cattle raising became possible only after the latter day practitioners took over the open ground of the abandoned farms that had been hacked from the dense forest in the late 19th Century.

Before Cotton and Timber

Nevertheless, before railroad and its economic progeny, the timber and cotton industries, cattle were the primary cash crop in Angelina County. The Handbook of Texas observes that

Before the war [Civil War], a principal source of wealth in Angelina County was the raising of livestock, since most of the early settlers were not slaveholding planters able to concentrate on agriculture.

Every farmer, of course, had at least a milk cow and perhaps a few beef cattle to supply their own needs. However, some practices a balance between farming and cattle raising that is farmer-stockman lifestyle. It can be traced back to the Atlantic Coast, especially South Carolina, and it spread across the South until it reached East Texas in the early 19th Century. A few, the "cattle keepers", concentrated primarily on cattle raising and driving them to market along early cattle trails through the East Texas woods.

The term "stock keeper" is unusual, and it seems to be the term the early cattlemen applied to themselves. The Angelina County Census of 1850 lists the occupation of several families in the southwest part of the county using that phrase.

According to Jordan the cattle culture of the South was concentrated in the longleaf pine band that extended from the Carolinas to the Piney Woods of East Texas. The tall, straight longleafs grew relatively far apart permitting tall, lush grasses to grow beneath them and providing plenty of space to herd the cattle. The cattlemen continued the practice developed by the Indians of burning the grass each winter to fertilize a new crop of grass the following spring. The pines due to the height of their canopy were resistant to most grass fires.

Angelina County geography made an ideal place to raise cattle in the early days. Before the invention of barbed wire, cattle were allow to run on the "open range". They were simply turned loose in the woods and permitted to fend for themselves and wander wherever their grazing took them. Farmers were required by law to fence in their crops to keep the cattle out. It was not uncommon for cattle and hogs to wander into nearby towns. The open range continued in some counties in southeast Texas until the 1950s when the practice was outlawed by state law. The author recalls driving through parts of Polk County where motorists were warned of the cattle by road signs.

The longleaf pine savannah centered in Pine Valley provided plenty of summer grass, and the canebreaks and palmetto fields in the swamps north of river provided winter forage. The Neches River provided a barrier to the south while the thick loblolly and hardwood forests in the northern part of the county provided a northern barrier. The river and the nearby sloughs, swamps and oxbow lakes provided water, which provided further reason not to wander too far to the north. All these factors together created a southeast-northwest corridor for cattle migration and cattle drives.

Twice a year the cattle owners would go on "cow hunts" to find their herds and brand the new calves and castrate the yearlings (or "fix" them as the author's father politely referred to it). In the Deep South they had done this on foot, but in Texas the cattlemen had adapted to the Spanish custom of herding cattle from horseback. However, they still used their cow dogs and bull whips to control the wild open range cattle. Cow hunts were often dangerous The author's third great-grandfather, Patrick Johnson, who came to Pine Valley along with the Ashworths in the 1840s, was killed in 1868 on a cow hunt or cattle drive at Lovelady in Houston County.

The Cattle Trails

The cattle keepers were commercial cattlemen, and they needed a market for their cattle. Since there was not transportation, the cattle keepers drove their cattle to market along the Opelousas Trail. The early market was in New Orleans, and cattle were driven eastward. Later when railroads reached Kansas, flow on the trail reversed as cattle were driven westward to Ft. Worth and thence north to Kansas for shipment to the heavily populated East Coast..

Who Were the Stock Keepers?

The 1850 Census for Beat B lists the following citizens who listed their occupation as "stock keeper":

We know that this is the southwestern end of Angelina County since the Ashworths settled near what later became Ryan Chapel Church and Cornelius and John Dollarhide, who settled southeast of Diboll near the Neches River, are shown only three residences away from James Ashworth. Both are ancestors of the webmaster.

Among the early stockmen was pioneering settler and cattleman James Ashworth and his wife Mary (Polly) Perkins and James' son-in-law Patrick Johnson, who married their daughter Mary Vianna. They arrived from Southwest Louisiana in the late 1840s. The Ashworths and Johnsons as well as others such as Dials and Goins were members of a Southwest Louisiana group known as Redbones. The Redbones are a dark-skinned people with Europen features who emigrated from the Pee Dee region of South Carolina to South Louisiana about 1810. The racial makeup of the Redbones is very controversial, and some assert that they have some African ancestry. It is almost certain that they are of primarily European origins with bloodlines heavily influenced by the American Indians of the Southeast United States.

The Redbones brought their cattle culture with them, and University of Texas geographer Terry Jordan credits the Redbones as inventing the Texas cattle industry in Louisiana and bringing it to Texas. James Ashworth's brother, Aaron, was an early settler in the Orange area and supplied beeves to feed Sam Houston's army. It is said that Aaron Ashworth had over _____ cattle in the woods.

The Redbone cattlemen undoubtedly followed a branch of an early cattle trail from Southwest Louisiana called the Beef Road / Opelousas Trail. The description of the trail is very confusing, probably because it was in reality a network of trails with various branches and loops. In general however, it is described as passing from Lousisiana and crossing through Southwest Angelina County between the present locations of Burke and Diboll. The trail eventually led to Crockett, Corsicana and finally Ft. Worth. Before Texas Independence the trail was used to drive cattle to New Orleans for sale, but later it was used to connect to the Chisholm Trail to move cattle on the great cattle drives to Missouri and later Kansas.


  1. 1850 Census, Angelina County
  2. History of Angelina County (Curtis Publishing)
  3. Patrick Landrum, Personal Recollections as told to M. Lee Murrah
  4. M. Lee Murrah, Personal Recollections


© 2006-7 Burke History Project
M. Lee Murrah, Editor
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