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Opelousas Cattle Trail

East Texas is not normally thought of as cattle country, but it was the home of a thriving cattle industry from about 1850-1880. Since there was no transportation until the railroad arrived in 1881, it was necessary to drive cattle to market.

Initially the cattle were driven to New Orleans via a series of trails throughout East Texas. One of these trails ran through the Burke area crossing between Burke and Diboll and passing through Pine Valley. The trail is shown on a 1936 Texas Highway Department map below as a dotted line passing generally east and west through the southern part of Angelina County. At its eastern end it appears to have intersected the old Coushatta Trace into Louisiana.

The Opelousas Trail through Angelina County

The name of the trail and the route outside Angelina County is somewhat confused. Some say it was called the Beef Road (or Trail), but the Texas Highway Department map shown above calls it the Opelousas Trail.

According to the Handbook of Texas Online, the Beef Trail originated at Liberty and then

Running northeast through the site of present Jasper, it crossed the Sabine River near that of Belgrade, Newton County. After crossing the Sabine, one branch went to Alexandria, Louisiana, and the other to Natchitoches, Louisiana.

The Handbook of Texas Online also relates the Trail to Morris Ferry as follows:

Morris Ferry was on the Angelina River fourteen miles northwest of Jasper in northwestern Jasper County. As early as 1907 the Jasper County Commissioners Court provided free ferriage for county citizens across the Angelina via the Morris Ferry. Traditionally, this was where the Old Beef Trail crossed the Angelina River.

The History of Angelina County describes the Old Beef Trail as follows:

The Beef Trail originating in Louisiana (trails from Opelousas, Natchitoches, and Alexandria leading into Texas possibly near Newton) went to Corsicana or Fort Worth about 1860. This trail (the portion located In Angelina County) came into the county north of Rockland traversing along the Neches River, south of Manning, thorough where the Havard families lived, through Weaver's Bend, crossing the river at the old crossing at the Strain (earlier family was Mosely) Farm, came up on the ridge near the Grimes Cemetery, across Renfro Prairie keeping to the high ground and ridges, crossing present U. S. HIghway 59 between the present Burke and (south of ) Diboll, through Eason Club pasture, crossing Texas Highway 94 north of Apple Springs near Gann's Ferry, and on to Crockett toward Fort Worth.

The History of Angelina County also describes the Opelousas Trail as shown on the Texas Highway Department map as follows:

...the Opelousas Trail followed a route from Opelousas Louisiana into Texas through Newton County, north of Jasper, thorough Jasper County, crossing the Angelina River into Angelina County a little northeast of the present day Blue Hole, heading northwest south of Zavalla crossing Shawnee, Buck, Bear and Stovall Creeks, crossing U. S. Highway 59 a little north of Diboll, crossing the Neches River into Trinity County, and then the trail leads a little north of Apple Springs into Crockett. This trail seems very similar to the Beef Trail and is probably the same except for some little variations in the southern part of the county.

Historian W. T. Block, however, describes the Opelousas Trail as following the Old Spanish Trail, or La Bahia Road, from New Orleans through Opelousas, crossing the Sabine River near Beaumont, to San Antonio, essentially following the present Interstate Highway 10.

The confusion probably arises from the fact that the trail was likely a branch of a network of trails, each branch having a local name, or multiple names, based on function (beef) or destination (Opelousas). It appears that the trail was initially used to send cattle to New Orleans via Opelousas or Alexandria.

Joe Allen Ryan says he has many memories of his grandparents talking about the old cattle trail. He does not remember the name of the trail and simply calls it the "East Texas trail." Pearl Havard, widow of cattleman Avy Joe Havard, has recollections of the trail preserved in the History Center in Diboll.

The Trail probably played an important role in the life of the Burke area before the railroads and sawmills arrived. In the early days of Angelina County, cattle raising was the primary industry. This is attested by the registration of some 120 cattle brands in the County from 1846-1855.

Most cattlemen also farmed to some degree following the farmer-stockman tradition of the Deep South. Cotton farming and lumber became predominant only after the railroad arrived. Pine Valley was one of the primary cattle raising areas in Angelina County.

The reason is that the southern half of the county was dominated by white pine savannahs. White pines grow far apart providing space beneath them for a lush growth of grass favored by cattlemen all across the south. Joe Ryan remembers his grandfather saying that long leaf pines were abundant in southern Angelina County and that the timber companies favored them for cutting because they were tall and very straight. The white pine also produced a harder, more long lasting wood than the newer growth loblolly pines.

The author's ancestors James Ashworth and his son-in-law Patrick Johnson are good examples of the early ranching families in Pine Valley. The Ashworth's brands were among the first registered in the county in 1846 and 1848. The younger Patrick did not register his brand until 1863. The Ashworths are part of a large clan that settled in southwest Louisiana about 1810, bringing their cattle raising tradition from the Pee Dee region of South Carolina. James' brother Aaron settled near Orange and supplied beef to the Texas Army in the Revolution. James Ashworth and Patrick Johnson probably followed the "cattle frontier" to Angelina and Houston (later Trinity ) Counties. Jordan Perkins, a brother of James Ashworth's wife Mary, initially settled at nearby Alabama Creek in Trinity County. Later he and his clan later moved to Bee County, where they became part of the better known South Texas cattle ranching industry that led to the great cattle drives to Kansas. James and Mary Ashowrth lived the rest of their lives at Pine Valley and are buried at Ryan Chapel Cemetery.

After the Civil War the Opelousas Trail reversed its flow and connected to the Chisholm and other Texas trails north to Kansas. In the days just after the Civil War when the Kansas markets developed due to arrinval of the railroads, East Texas cattlemen undoubtedly drove their own herds north. Patrick Johnson, who settled at Pine Valley, is said to have been on a cattle drive from Burke to Kansas in the late 1860s when when was killed in Houston County in a cattle stampede caused by a lightning storm. He was buried along the trail near Lovelady.

In later years cattle buyers traveled from Ft. Worth to buy cattle, starting in Louisiana and driving them north along the Opelousas Trail. Along the trail settlers such as the Renfros at Renfro Priarie and Stovalls on Stovall Creek near Diboll maintained corrals for the itinerant cattle and boarding houses for the drovers. Locals drove their cattle to these corrals and sold them to the buyers.

The trail ceased operation when the Houston East & West Texas Railroad arrived, and hogs and cattle were shipped from Burke. There was a corral and loading chute located adjacent the railroad tracks in fron of the old Burke and McCall Store. Pearl Havard remembers driving hogs and cattle to Burke from Beulah for shipment.

Sources:

  1. 1850 Census, Angelina County
  2. History of Angelina County (Curtis Publishing)
  3. http://www.texas-ec.org/publications/texascooppower/archive/500cowboy.aspx
  4. Joe Allen Ryan, Personal Recollections
  5. Patrick Landrum, Personal Recollections as told to M. Lee Murrah
  6. M. Lee Murrah, Personal Recollections
  7. Delano Smith, Personal Recollections (2nd great grandson of Patrick Johnson)
  8. Pearl Havard, Personal Recollections