Joseph G. McCoyApril 5, 2011
Kansas cattle trade pioneer
Born in 1837 into a moderately prosperous farm family in Illinois, Joe McCoy spent one year at Knox Academy in Galesburg, before leaving school to learn the livestock feeder operation and cattle trade working with two of his brothers. By 1861, he had married Sarah Epler and was settling into a comfortable domesticity. He was buying and selling cattle on his own, apart from his brothers. The Civil War was a boom time for cattle business in Illinois, and by the end of the war, the McCoy brothers were financially comfortable.
Knowing how frustrated Texas cattle ranchers were trying to get their herds through the legal tangle and physical troubles to the western-most available rail lines, McCoy proposed a solution. During a visit to the Kansas Pacific Railroad office in St. Louis, he received verbal assurances that if he would set up a loading yard and attract Texas herds to it, the railroad would pay him a commission on each carload of cattle.
McCoy set about finding a location and setting everything in motion during the summer and fall of 1867 — right in the middle of cattle-shipping season. He approached Junction City, a prime choice given its location adjacent to Fort Riley, but found the business climate hostile to his idea. Next, McCoy tried Salina, but it was already being developed for agricultural pursuits. He headed back east and settled on the town of Abilene.
McCoy bought land east of Abilene in June 1867 and began building stockyards big enough to hold 1,000 head of cattle, installed scales, built an office and a barn. He also began construction on a hotel, a livery stable and bank building, everything necessary to conduct business. On Sept. 5, 1867, the first 20 carloads of longhorns were loaded and on the way to Chicago.
McCoy was also involved in the laying out of the Chisholm Trail, along which thousands of head of cattle were trailed to the Abilene railhead.
According to historian Joe Frantz, “Most observers feel that the Chisholm Trail should have been named for McCoy.”
The next three or four years were a booming success. But the store owners, clerks, railroad personnel and grain dealers who had settled in Abilene wanted year-round commerce rather than the seasonal nature of the cattle trade.
The year 1871 was a turning point for McCoy. He was elected mayor of Abilene — and hired Wild Bill Hickok as marshal — but his personal fortune was exhausted from constant promotion, supporting his family and the shifting winds of the volatile cattle market. And Texas cattle were going to other towns that had emulated McCoy’s plan.
McCoy sold iron fences out of Wichita, but the cattle trade still beckoned. When he was 36, he moved from Abilene to Kansas City, Mo., where he spent the next 41 years working in the cattle business. He established a commission house in the growing Kansas City stockyards, became executive secretary of a Livestock Men’s National Association and was a publicist for the Wichita stockyards. In 1881, he moved to Wichita.
For the remaining years of his life, he was still involved in cattle, first as an agent for the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, helping them systemize taxes on cattle crossing their lands, then as an enumerator of cattle for the Census Bureau in the Southwest. In 1889, he moved to Oklahoma. McCoy died Oct. 19, 1915.
What Joseph McCoy started in Abilene by creating an atmosphere conducive to luring the drovers, facilitating the conduct of their business and providing the shipping facilities was replicated in the other famous cowtowns in Kansas — Ellsworth, Newton, Wichita, Dodge City and Caldwell. Some lasted longer than Abilene and some not as long.
McCoy’s vision of prospering by facilitating a merger of the Texas cattle trade and the expanding railroads was a potent mix that lured many to take the same gamble that he took. His major accomplishment was in opening the markets for the trail herds and stimulating a new chapter in the American livestock industry.