The era of cotton, cattle and railroads in the late 19th century was a time of huge economic growth for Texas. Railroads brought rapid expansion of people, business, and cities across the state. In the years after the Civil War, thousands of miles of new track stretched across the state, carrying lumber from East Texas, cattle from West Texas ranches, crops from the state’s farms, and people moving to the state’s booming cities. Because railroads enabled farmers and ranchers to transporttheir products more efficiently, by the turn of the century Texas had become a leading producer of both cattle and cotton.
Although Texas had been cattle country since the 18th century, the economic importance of livestock took off in the post Civil War era, when wild longhorns could be sold for up to 6 times as much in the northern states. Ranch owners corralled wild longhorns and organized drives to sell cattle as far away as Canada. Cowboys, with their iconic hats and boots, ignored personal danger to get their cattle safely to market. They spent weeks at a time on the trail, earning a nationwide reputation for fierce independence and becoming a lasting symbol of Texas determination. Although the era of the cowboy slowly came to an end as ranchers found that railroads were a faster and more economical way of transporting cattle for sale, the era of ranching and cattle production continued.
Ranching wasn’t the only industry with a major impact on the Texas economy during the late 1800s. Many would think that Texas cotton production would be in decline after the Civil War with the loss of slave labor. However, cotton production exploded from 350,628 bales in 1869 to 3.5 million bales at the turn of the century as immigrants from Europe and the Southern United States arrived and cheap Mexican labor took the place of slaves in many parts of the state. As before the Civil War, landowners were the primary beneficiaries of the cotton boom because the work and economic conditions for sharecroppers and field workers remained poor.
Sharecroppers rarely had cash money left over after the cotton was sold and accounts to the landowner were settled. Migrant families, including children as young as four, worked the fields from sunup to sundown and had little time for education. For many Texans, the growth in the cotton industry came at a very high cost.
Texas Our Texas invites you to explore our primary sources and other materials about the era of cotton, cattle and railroads in Texas. Here you’ll find personal accounts of cattle drives, images of railroad construction and city growth, and a look into the lives of people who labored on cotton farms. We hope you’ll enjoy seeing firsthand some of the positive and negative changes that this era brought to Texas.