Looking Back on Cattle Drives in the Northwoods

Jan 30, 2019

This week on A Northwoods Moment in History, Gary Entz tells us about cattle drives that used to take place in the Northwoods.

Cattle drives are a colorful part of American history, and when reminded about the famous cattle drives of the 19th century most of us tend to think about the Chisholm Trail that led from west Texas through Indian Territory and up to railheads in places like Abilene and Dodge City, Kansas.  Sometimes famous Hollywood westerns like “Red River” or “Lonesome Dove” come to mind as well.  But perhaps in this case “The Far Country” would be a better touchstone film because what many people don’t realize is that cattle drives were not isolated to the Southwest.  They existed in other places as well, including the Northwoods.

Copper mining had been going on in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula since the ore was first discovered in 1841, and extensive mining operations developed along the copper belt in Ontonogon, Houghton, and Keweenaw Counties in Michigan.  Mining in the 19th century was labor intensive.  Mine laborers needed to be fed, and this is where the cattle drives came in.  The mine owners contracted with stock buyers in Wisconsin to drive cattle through the northern part of the state then into Michigan where they would be slaughtered to feed the hungry miners, and cattle drives means cowboys.

Patrick Johnson was born in Syracuse, New York, in 1849.  As a young man he found employment with stock buyers in Wisconsin and was hired to drive cattle north into Michigan.  As Johnson recounted, the stock buyers obtained cattle throughout the state and herded them together in the area around Merrill.  Following Indigenous trails and the old Military Road through the region, Johnson and the other cowboys drove the cattle north to John Curran’s Trading Post at the Junction of the Pelican and Wisconsin Rivers.  After camping out by the rivers, the cowboys drove the cattle directly over where the Oneida County Courthouse now stands and northward toward the Eagle River.  From the Eagle River the cattle were driven north into the Upper Peninsula, over the Porcupine Mountains, and into the mining camps.

Johnson fell in love with the country he saw on the cattle drives.  In 1886 he married Jule Leary of Antigo.  The couple made the new town of Rhinelander their home, and Johnson began working as a Northwoods lumberjack.  In 1909, as the logging industry declined, Johnson took a job as custodian for the Rhinelander City Hall, near the very place where he once drove cattle.  Johnson had a unique experience in the Northwoods that is unlikely to be replicated.  In February 1932 Rhinelander’s own cowboy passed away.    

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio and the web by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. The photo above is used with permisson from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.