Working Cattle in Early America


A few years ago an ox was defined as any bovine animal trained to work. In modern terminology an ox is a steer that has been trained to work and has reached maturity. The accepted age seems to be 4-years-old. The ox was probably the first wild animal that was trained to serve man as a draft animal. A cow likely was used, due to the ease in handling her as opposed to handling a bull.

When the pilgrims came to America in 1620 the only draft animals they had were themselves and their families. In 1623 the pilgrims at Plymouth sent Edward Winslow back to England for supplies. When he returned to Plymouth in 1624 he brought with him three Devon heifers and a Devon bull. To this day the descendants of these cattle, called Milking Devons, still make the best all-around farm oxen.

A working cow is the most efficient working animal available to man. She will do her share of the work, furnish your family with milk and beef and then replace herself. She will grow to only about 75% the size of an ox of the same breeding.

Ezra Meeker, who traveled the Oregon Trail in 1852, stated “On the plains in 1852, fully half of the teams were cows.” The immigrants took many cows with them across and a high percentage of them were not herded behind the wagon but yoked to the front of it.

Shoes were not usually needed on the ox that pulled the immigrant wagon or worked the early farm, as those animals were light in weight. As the ox of later years became larger and worked harder, wearing shoes became more important.

In the middle 1800s the three major freight lines alone were buying in excess of 150,000 head of steers each year for oxen. They would buy only 4- and 5-year-old steers, hence a steer had to be 4-years-old to be an ox.

The main reason ox teams were so popular on the freight lines in the middle 19th century was that they could pull freight for about half the cost of horse or mule teams. The American Indian also had much less tendency to steal an ox than a horse.

The preferred team on the freight lines was a pair of Texas Longhorns for leaders because they were aggressive enough that they would go almost anywhere. The teamster then wanted a big pair of Durhams for wheelers to handle the wagon tongue and to help stop the Longhorns when they tried to run away. The three pairs in between the Longhorns and the Durhams could be just about any breed. Work in this position is where a great many of the freight oxen got any and all of the training they received.

When you are trying to decide what breed to raise for working cattle you must take into consideration a great number of things. The most important things are what you will use them for, size, and cost. If you are planning to try competitive pulling in the unlimited class you need a Chianina or Chianina cross. If you just want a pair of steers to play with, Dexters will probably suit your needs just fine. If you want an animal to work a garden, a couple of acres, you need a good working cow or a pair of working cows.

You have surely heard the term “dumb as an ox.” The only way an ox is dumb is that the animal can’t talk. The reason some people think an ox is dumb is because these people are not capable of communicating with the ox. My father always told me, “There are far and away more balky drivers than there are balky draft animals.” A properly handled ox will do his best to please his handler. A good, patient and communicative teamster can make a poor ox look better. Conversely, a poor teamster can make even the best ox look bad.

Howard VanOrd