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McCoy, Joseph Geitinglocked

(21 December 1837–19 October 1915)
  • Jimmy M. Skaggs

McCoy, Joseph Geiting (21 December 1837–19 October 1915), businessman, was born near Springfield (Sangamon County), Illinois, the son of David McCoy and Mary Kilpatrick, farmers. Joseph McCoy attended Knox College at Galesburg (1857–1858). In 1861 he married Sarah Epler; they had seven children.

Before his marriage, McCoy had raised and traded mules, and in 1861 he commenced buying “western” cattle and fattening them on local grains for the Chicago slaughter market, a booming enterprise into which his two older brothers had preceded him. During the Civil War, Joseph McCoy expanded his activities by fattening hogs and sheep. In 1867 he joined his brothers’ cattle brokerage firm William K. McCoy & Brothers. While a member of that firm, McCoy conceived the notion of a remote cattle market for Texas livestock.

Largely isolated during the Civil War, Texas cattle had proliferated while slaughter cattle counts elsewhere, both North and South, had been decimated by wartime demand. In 1866 many enterprising Texans tried to connect $2 cows with $40 markets by driving upwards of 260,000 Longhorns in search of buyers, many of them following the Shawnee Trail into Missouri. Before the war both Missouri and Kansas had quarantined themselves against “Texas” or “tick fever” (piroplasmosis), a pestilence carried by southern cattle. Northern herds were vulnerable to the fever, not having been immunized as Longhorns had by centuries of exposure to the offending microbe, Babesia bovis. As the malady reappeared in the wake of the first trail drives in 1866, Missouri farmers and lawmen began blocking trails, confiscating or killing suspect animals, and otherwise impeding the path to railhead-markets. So difficult was the long drive north that most Texans resolved not to try again in 1867.

After Kansas amended its quarantine law that year to permit Texas cattle to traverse the state west of the sixth principal meridian, an area then mostly unsettled, McCoy grasped the idea, as he later put it, “of opening up an outlet for Texas cattle.” He persuaded Kansas Pacific Railroad officials to provide sidings and other facilities at Abilene, Kansas, a six-year-old prairie hamlet where McCoy had acquired 250 acres, and to pay him a commission of $5 for every carload of cattle shipped from his pens, which, along with a hotel and offices, he erected on his land. He also printed handbills to attract Texans, advising drovers to follow a trader’s trace, Jesse Chisholm’s trail, northward from the Canadian River in Indian Territory past Chisholm’s trading post at the confluence of the Little Arkansas and Arkansas rivers (present-day Wichita, Kans.) to Abilene, about ninety miles away.

No more than a score of trail drives, aggregating an estimated 35,000 cattle, responded in 1867, but, as the word spread, Abilene quickly became the principal terminus of the famed Chisholm Trail. Over the ensuing five years upwards of two million animals filled McCoy’s pens before being shipped eastward, mostly for slaughter. With the $200,000 he is said to have earned in commissions, he bought more land, erected more buildings, and became Abilene’s first mayor, hiring Wild Bill Hickok as town marshal to maintain law and order among cowboys, gamblers, prostitutes, and other disreputable elements who were attracted to Kansas’s first cow town.

In 1869 the railroad reneged on its agreement with McCoy, and as the cattle trade shifted to other Kansas settlements, he sold his Abilene holdings and pursued a variety of other endeavors. He wrote Historic Sketches of the Cattle Trade of the West and Southwest (1874), a mostly third-person autobiographical account that railed against the railroad. He also designed stockyards at Newton, Kansas (1871); sold wrought-iron fences in Wichita and promoted its stockyards (1872); operated a cattle commission company in Kansas City, Kansas (1873–1881); gathered statistics on range and ranch cattle traffic for the U.S. government (1880–1881); collected taxes in Indian Territory for the Cherokee nation (1881); was a grocer, real estate agent, commodity speculator, cattle broker, and feed and flour store operator in Wichita (intermittently, 1885–1899); became an Oklahoma territorial promoter and unsuccessful Democratic nominee as territorial delegate to Congress (1890); served as a U.S. Treasury agent in the Pacific Northwest to detect opium smuggling (1893); and worked as a cattle inspector in the Kansas City Stock Yards (1894). Retiring in 1900, he resided in Wichita until 1914 when, in failing health, he moved to Kansas City to live with one of his daughters, a physician.

McCoy, who is widely recognized as the originator of the cattle-trailing industry, died in Kansas City and was buried in Wichita.


McCoy’s Historic Sketches of the Cattle Trade of the West and Southwest (1940 ed.) was thoroughly edited and documented by Ralph P. Bieber, whose introduction offers the best synopsis of McCoy’s life yet published. McCoy’s “Historic and Biographical Sketch,” Kansas Magazine 2 (Dec. 1909): 45–55, also penned as third-person narrative, adds a few details to his life. Don D. Walker, Clio’s Cowboys (1981), disparages McCoy and his book. Far more helpful is William E. Unrau, “Joseph G. McCoy and Federal Regulation of the Cattle Trade,” Colorado Magazine 43 (1966): 32–41. Obituaries are in the Kansas City Journal, 20 Oct. 1915, and Wichita Eagle, 20, 21 Oct. 1915.