Cattle Drive Chili – A Cowboys Staple Food – American Cattle Drives 1865-1886

The first thing you must do is learn what life in the 19th Century [1865-1890] was like. You must understand what was and was not available to the average family or trail cook.

In most cases a cowboy was really a boy. Many young boys some only 12 years old moved millions of head of longhorn cows to market buyers. Many buyers headquartered in rail head towns like Abilene, Kansas to be shipped to stockyards in Chicago and other midwest and eastern markets. Trail drives were no place for old men or the weak.

Moving a herd of longhorns from Texas to Kansas was no small undertaking. Herds could number in 1 to 3 thousand head, could be moved only about 10 or 12 miles a day without the loss of much body weight. Cattle buyers would pay little if anything for poor starved down cows. It could take as much as 2 or 3 months to move a large herd of longhorn cows from Texas to railheads in Kansas. It required as many as 20 or more cowboys and a experienced, inventive cook.

Cattle drives were moving millions of cattle from Texas Midwest markets. There was stiff competition among different cattle drivers, recruiting a good cowboy was difficult. The Goodnight-Loving cattle trail, co-founded by Col. Charles Goodnight, decided to gain interest in his trail drives through good cooking. Side note: An injured or dead cowboy could be easily replaced, a good trail cook could not be so easily replaced.

Col. Goodnight needed a mobile kitchen and a good cook. He used a military wagon to hold supplies and a makeshift kitchen. The military wagon was strong enough for all the supplies and could withstand harsh weather and bumpy trails. With the help of his cook, Col. Goodnight developed an efficient layout that was soon adopted by all trail drivers across the west. It was named the chuck wagon after Charles “Chuck” Goodnight.

Cooks were the kings of the chuck wagon. They were the cook, and only doctor available on trail drives. You wouldn’t want to annoy the person cooking your food or treating your medical needs would you?
The cook enforced the rules of the wagon.
Cowboys were required to ride downwind so dust would not blow into the food, and no horses could be tied to the chuck wagon wheels. The cook worked the hardest with the least amount of sleep. He had to get up before the rest of the cowboys to prepare the food and had to clean up pots, pans and dishes after meals.

A typical day’s food on the trail was meat generally beef or cured salt pork bacon, hot bread or biscuits, dried fruit and coffee for breakfast. The lunch and dinner meals included roast beef, boiled potatoes, beans, brown gravy, bread or biscuits and coffee. Dessert consisted of dried fruit pies, stewed dried fruit and spiced cake made without butter or eggs. These items would be cooked in a Dutch oven or skillet over hot coals.

Foods like butter, milk, eggs and fresh vegetables would soon spoil [no ice or refrigeration on the trail] and were not part of a cowboys daily menu.

Some say that ‘real’ chili can not contain beans, rice or other fillers. I disagree with this assessment. A chuck wagon cook had to feed 20 or more hungry boys 3 times a day. He had very limited resources in the variety of foods available, the number of cooking utensils and was always on a very tight time schedule to prepare and serve meals.
I think that it would not be uncommon to add fillers such as beans and rice to any one pot meal. It would cut down on preparation time, number of pots required and allow the cook to feed more cowboys using less meat.

There are thousands of ‘chili’ recipes that can be found when you do a chili recipe search. Find one that is to your liking, adjust spices to fit your taste. You can call bean soup with a bit of chili spices added chili [meatless] chili if thats what you like.

Another Texas Red Chili Recipe
In Texas, they often refer to their Chili as ‘a bowl of red’ which is an old slang term carried over from the trail drive days. Unlike most other Chili, real Texas Red Chili never contains beans or other fillers. It is generally made with beef, but it can be made with goat meat.

1 pound lean ground beef [it is unlikely trail cooks had ‘ground meats’] More likely it was cubed meat
6 cups water
2 pounds boneless stew meat (beef or goat)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil [trail cooks used beef fat or pork lard. Vegetable oil had not been invented]
1 small strong flavored yellow onion course chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 teaspoons salt
6 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon white vinegar [personally I like to use balsamic vinegar]
Black pepper to taste (about 1 teaspoon)
Ground red pepper to taste (to start, about 1 teaspoon)
6 tablespoons Masa Harina (Mexican corn flour) or [trail cooks would have most likely used 4 tablespoons of regular yellow corn meal]

**Please note this recipe does not call for tomato’s, tomato sauce or that awful tasting ketchup.

Place ground beef into a large pot with water. Stir vigorously to separate meat and incorporate it throughout water.

Meantime, heat oil. When hot, brown meat, searing on all sides. When browned, add goat and or beef mixture in pot.

Stir in garlic, salt, chili powder, cumin, vinegar, black and red pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer, and simmer for a minimum of two hours, 4 to 6 hours is better.

Just before serving, stirring briskly to keep from forming lump, slowly add Masa Harina. Continue to stir briskly to make a smooth, thick sauce.

Adjust salt and red pepper to your taste.

Why is common sense so uncommon?
Don’t be shy. Leave me your comment(s)

19 responses to “Cattle Drive Chili – A Cowboys Staple Food – American Cattle Drives 1865-1886

  1. I like this recipe, but have often wondered about the water in the chilli. Seems to me that with a limited supply of fresh water that the left over coffee makes more sense to use as the liquid, and of course some of the grounds too. I stopped using beer in my chilli years ago, and added fine ground coffee to my chilli powder. People love it and can never figure out what the rich flavor is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • After the first few day on the trail cooks would know his cowboys and there would be very little of anything ‘leftover’ from meals.
      Grin … I have read different things that indicate ‘leftover’ coffee found it’s way into many cowboy and soldiers foods.
      It is said coffee could often be found in gravy, I see no reason the same could not be said for trail chili.
      Happy Gardening


  2. My husband loves the chili at Wendy’s.Thanks for the recipe, maybe I’ll make it at home for him one of these days. The story is interesting, I like listening to stories like this, with the history behind why is something called what it’s called.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Quite interesting. I never thought of cowboys as 12-year-olds — maybe fourteen or sixteen or older, I would have thought. There’s a wonderful song by Utah Phillips about the cook on “The Goodnight Loving Trail.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the heads up on song by Utah Phillips about the cook on “The Goodnight Loving Trail and for taking time to visit my little blog.

      *** I’m not recommending Amazon, however it your interested in the real day to day life of that period in Americas history you make like “Forty Miles a Day on Beans and Hay: The Enlisted Soldier Fighting the Indian Wars [Don Rickey Jr.]. It can be purchased on It details enlisted men in the United States Army during the Indian Wars (1866-1891). They no longer be mere shadows in history.


  4. You say these men were just boys, but by 12 they had lived a Third of their lives. Most had experienced life and death, lean and times of bounty. The summers where hot and you froze in the winter. You carried water from a well, and the bathroom was a drafty little shed with one or two holes. They cooked and heated with wood, coal, cow chips, etc. depending on where you lived and your light at night was a candle or oil lamp. If you had a job you worked can’t to can’t for $20 a month and found. Many years ago, some 55 or so I had to write a paper on the effect of the Great Depression had on my family. After speaking with my parents, Uncles and Aunts I found that it had little effect. They grew most of the food they consumed. What was not consumed fresh was canned for the rest of the year, or bartered for items they did not have. Money was something that most had very little of, by todays standards they would have been considered dirty poor, but in many ways they were richer than we are today,

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for taking time to visit my little blog.
      Yes, everything you say is true historical facts.

      Grin we got elect power on the farm sometime in the summer of 1953.

      I didn’t know I was living in poverty, no one I knew was living any better .or had more in-come than my family.

      Happy Holidays


  5. What an interesting read, I really enjoyed that! I didn’t know about Cattle drives! (and as for chili, my husband prefers beans, we prefer without beans!) 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. You have a great blog. Thank you for sharing

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I really enjoyed reading the background information. People don’t always consider the origins of their favorite dishes and so often they’re based on the necessity of feeding a crowd of people on whatever happens to be available at the time. Although I knew most cowboys really were boys, having you remind me of that brought a smile to my face and fueled my imagination.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Growing up after he dust bowl, depression and war years food rationing, chili and stew were most commonly winter or at least cold weather meals. Often served as a lunch and or dinner meal feeding live in bunkhouse ranch hands and migrant field hands at harvest time.

      Happy Gardening


  8. Reblogged this on The Asylum and commented:
    great info with a great recipe…making chilli today, but will try this next time

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Very good article but you missed the most important thing when it came to making chili. Chick wagons did not carry meat grinders and even if they did, the cooks did not have time to ground meat every. Chili was made with chunks of the cheapest cuts of beef, the better cuts were served as steaks or beef tips or even roasted over an open spot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you… Yes I failed to indicate that chili was always made from cubed meat not ground beef very often being the trimmings from bones and other cuts of beef. Chili and stew meat looked the same, cubed meat until it was cooked and seasoned to become beef stew or beef chili. I was a grown man before I saw my first pot of ground beef chili.

      Happy Gardening


  10. You were lucky not to have experienced World War Ii rationing. Equally as important as eggs, milk, or butter rationing was the rationing of gasoline (How do I get to work?), tires (How do I get to work?), and all sorts of leather (What will the children wear to school when their shoes wear out?).s But we all pulled together as a nation and won the war as a result. Such rationale and national unity are a forgotten fact of life, it seems.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Grin … the best thing about the good old days is that are long past.
      However I don’t think it would hurt our younger generations to be forced to ‘some what’ depend on a home garden, home canning of garden produce. We all have become spoiled and in many ways lazy depending on supermarkets and too often welfare food stamps to feed us.
      Happy Gardening


  11. I actually have one of those spiced cake recipes … no eggs, no dairy .. although I’ve never cooked it in a Dutch oven … only in the regular oven … mine came out of a European WWII cookbook that dealt with rationing. … it’s turned out to be my best cake recipe … I’m known for it … happy to share though …smile … S

    Liked by 1 person

    • WWII rationing. Something new for me to consider.
      Me and all my family was raised or lived on a farm and having a shortage of eggs, milk or butter was never an issue.
      Excess Milk, eggs and butter was the domain of the woman of the house and was sold or traded for other needed food items at the discretion of the woman of the house.
      Hope you have had a few dry, warm gardening days

      Liked by 1 person

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