Many of them came from as far away as Texas, following a series of old trails probably first tramped by Indians who stole cattle from Spanish missions in Texas and drove them to French Louisiana to be sold.
One, or perhaps more than one, of these trails came to be known as the Opelousas Trail, which regional historian W. T. Block describes as following the Old Spanish Trail from New Orleans through Opelousas, crossing the Sabine River near Orange, and then continuing to San Antonio, essentially following the present I-10.
At least in the beginning, the trail was likely a branch of a network of trails, each branch having a local name, or sometimes several names, depending on who was traveling it.
It appears that the Opelousas Trail was used to send cattle to New Orleans via Opelousas (and often from there by steamboats landing at Washington) or Alexandria.
As early as 1836, when Texas was still part of Mexico, there was a "Beef Trail" to New Orleans. Block estimates that by 1855, cattle movements along the Opelousas Trail approached 50,000 heads annually.
That was apparently in part because cattlemen began to object to high rates charged to send stock from Galveston and other Texas ports across the Gulf in ships operated by the Morgan Line.
According to one history, a cattleman named William B. Grimes, objecting to the Morgan rates, decided in 1855 to send a herd over the Opelousas Trail to New Orleans.
One of his ranch hands, 20-year-old Abel "Shanghai" Pierce, who was in charge of the herd, became one of the most colorful of the drovers pushing cattle through Louisiana and gained a reputation for his tall tales.
"The mud and water of the Louisiana swamps compelled us to pick every step," Shanghai told anyone who would listen. "The public roads - where there were any - would bog a saddle blanket. My steers were nice, fat slick critters that knew how to swim, but they were used to a carpet of prairie grass. They were mighty choosy as to where they put their feet.
"They had a bushel of sense, and pretty soon over there in Louisiana they got to balancing themselves on logs in order to keep out of the slimy mud. They got so expert that one of them would walk a cypress log to the stump, jump over it, land on a root, and walk it out for another jump.
"If there was a bad bog-hole between cypresses you would see a steer hang his horns into a … grapevine and swing across like a monkey. The way they balanced and jumped and swung actually made my horse laugh."
There were plenty of Louisiana cattle traveling the trail to market alongside the Texas herds.
Geographer William Darby described cattle-raising in Louisiana in the early 19th century: "The prairie Mamou is devoted by the present inhabitants to the rearing of cattle, some of the largest herds in Opelousas are within its precincts. Three rich stockholders have, as if by consent, settled their vacheries in three distinct prairies. Mr. Wikoff, in the Calcasieu prairie, west of the Nezpique, Mr. Fontenot in prairie Mamou; and Mr. Andrus in [the] Opelousas prairie. Those three gentlemen must have collectively fifteen or twenty thousand head of … cattle, with several hundred horses and mules. It may be presumed that Mr. Wikoff is at this time the greatest pastoral farmer in the United States."
The Louisiana & Western Railroad and the Texas & New Orleans line linked up at Orange, Texas, in 1881 to form a part of the Southern Pacific system, and after that cattle cars began to ferry more and more of the Texas beef to market, and the big drives and the trails they used began to fade into memory.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.