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 North Manchester, Indiana

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Newsletter
of the North Manchester Historical Society, Inc.
Volume XXVI Number 2 May 2009

COMSTOCK'S CATTLE DRIVE TO NEW YORK CITY, 1855

By John Knarr

Published in 1884, Helm's History of Wabash County on page 288 made reference to a remarkable event in the annals of early local agriculture. It was claimed that John Comstock (1802-1879) of Liberty Mills in the summer of 1854 drove 120 head of native steers (three and four years old) to Toledo, Ohio. Then the cattle were shipped by rail to New York City to fetch $27 per head. In the 1850s the Chicago stockyards were yet undeveloped and the railroads had not yet reached towns such as Liberty Mills and North Manchester.

My research challenge: What do the historical records reveal about this extraordinary feat by a prominent local farmer? It was in the spirit of checking the historical facts as presented in the Helm history that my research was undertaken. Helm observed in the very first sentence of his volume that "the essential features of a local history are accuracy and completeness." He also goes on to say that "some errors of fact" may have escaped his scrutiny. As editor, Helm acknowledged that the recollections of Elijah Hackleman were relied upon for much of the writing of local history, and that the history of Chester Township had been prepared by L.H. Newton. But many stories contained in Helm's remarkable history offer no other source documentation and apparently rely upon "recollections."

Helm [p. 288] claimed that the summer of 1854 was very dry, "cutting short the pasturage" when Comstock decided to send 120 head of cattle to New York. It was true that drought gripped much of the country during the summer of 1854. The land was literally parched, as reported by the newspapers and farm publications. [Toledo Blade; weatherarchives.owlinc.org]

When were the rail lines completed that would have enabled Comstock to ship his cattle to NY? According to the 1913 Annual Report of the NY Central Railroad System, the last link in the chain of railways from Chicago to New York to Boston was completed in 1853. But the track was tore up in 1853-1854 between Erie, PA, and Buffalo, NY, because contracts were let to make uniform the gauge of the track (four feet ten inches from six feet). In February of 1854 the first train passed from Buffalo to Erie over the uniform gauge.

So far, Helm's story was consistent with my findings on the timing of the drought and railway construction. Could I then locate corroborative evidence for the cattle drive date being the summer of 1854 and the price of the cattle at $27 a head?

As a researcher, I had access to the Allen County Public Library microfilmed copies of the New York Tribune for this time period. Could it be possible that the Comstock sale was reported or otherwise described in that newspaper?

In the Tribune one can read the weekly reports of "receipts and selling prices of BEEVES, MILK COWS, VEAL CALVES, SHEEP AND LAMBS, AND SWINE; with a carefully prepared account of the number, quality and price of BEEF CATTLE at the great Wednesday market WASHINGTON DROVE YARDS, 44th St." Also listed in these weekly reports were the names of owners of droves of 30 or more, names of States where the cattle were from, and the names of the commissioned agents or cattle brokers!

In scanning these weekly reports, I did not locate any entry for Comstock in the summer months of 1854 and 1856. But "J. Comstock of Indiana" did show on an August 16, 1855, weekly report for the New York Cattle Market. The salesmen were Meed & Oakham. The relevant paragraph in the Tribune: "Meed & Oakham have 120 head from Wabash County, Indiana. They are young steers and very thin, but fair quality. Average weight, 560. Price about $40 a head. They were driven from [sic]Toledo at the rate of twelve miles a day. Were only two days in coming from Buffalo to Bergen; from home fifteen days." The NY reporter apparently intended to say that Comstock's herd was driven from Liberty Mills to Toledo at the twelve mile rate. Consequently the cattle drive consumed about ten days overland, while the rail transportation took nearly five days from Toledo to NY.

Comstock, for all his exertions, then received between seven and eight cents/lb. for his steers. The newspaper reported that First Quality Beeves were getting on average 10 ½-11 cents/lb; medium quality between 9-10 cents/lb; poorest quality 7-8 ½ cents/lb. On Wednesday, August 15, 1855, Comstock was among a group of twenty large western farmers selling droves of thirty or more beef cattle. Another farmer Jacob Moser from Tippecanoe County, Indiana, had 79. Other states represented were Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky and New York. Moser had sent his cattle by rail out of Indianapolis, but complained of "the inconvenience experienced on the Indianapolis and Bellefontaine Railroad, the cars on that road being very small, and the accommodations at the Union Depot for shipping the cattle are likewise very inadequate." A week later another large farmer in Indiana, H.C. Bruce shipped to this same New York market 150 steers from Jasper and White counties. The Tribune editorialized: "They came by the Michigan Central Railroad. We should be glad if this company would instruct their conductors to regard proprietors of cattle and drovers as men and not as beasts. On this road those who accompany a drove of cattle are compelled to ride [in cattle cars] with nothing but rough dirty boards for seats and ill-ventilated boxes to ride in. We can scarcely believe that the directors of this company are cognizant of this fact, and we take this opportunity of informing them of it, with the additional information that any repetition of such treatment will receive a deserved exposition before the cattle-owning public of the West." Indiana in 1855 was in the American West! And shipping cattle by rail was in its infancy.

The "cattle kings" in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois had historically driven their cattle overland to such eastern seaboard markets as Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and even Boston. An infrastructure of "drove stands" with staging pens and fenced feed lots had developed over time. Farmers along the drover's path had earned money by furnishing feed and enclosures at night. With the completion of various railroad routes in the 1850s, such activity went by the wayside and was all but abandoned to the detriment of those who had profited from that infrastructure. [See "Hoosier Cattle Kings" in Indiana Magazine of History, March 1948; "The Beef Cattle Industry in Ohio Prior to the Civil War" in The Ohio Historical Quarterly, April 1955 and July 1955.]

The early 1850s represented a "golden age" for the cattle graziers in Ohio and Indiana, because of cheap land, marketing advantage over westward competition, and rising cattle prices between 1848 and 1855. New York was the "big apple", the most profitable outlet. Whereas the local market might bring $20-30 a head, the grazier could likely double that price in New York.

In 1850, stock cattle could be purchased for $10-12 a head, the cost of grazing was estimated at $5-6 for the calendar year. The cost of any cattle drive then had to be factored in. According to various accounts, the distance covered per day overland during a cattle drive averaged ten to twelve miles, which was consistent with the report on the Comstock drive. Before the advent of railroads, it took Ohio drovers on average 40-50 days to reach the New York markets. Even John Brown the abolitionist tried his hand in the 1830s in buying cattle in Ohio and driving them to Connecticut! [see ibid, p. 297]. It was estimated to cost in wages and feed from $10-13 per head to get a drove from central Ohio to NY. As one historian reported: "…it was up to the drover and his helpers to keep the animals out of corn fields, the unfenced logging fallows, and the miry swales, to make them take the one right direction instead of the two wrong ones at each crossroads, to force them past any other droves they might meet, and to get them through each village….The drove would rest at mid-day, and after a dozen miles or so would be quartered in some farmer's feedlot or pasture or in a village stockyard or pound." [ibid, p. 299]

During 1855, the railroad rate via Cleveland and Buffalo to New York was between $152 and $200/railway car. Usually there were sixteen cattle per car so the average cost per head was $10-12 to ship the cattle by rail and on average an additional $1 per head for feed, labor for the train trip.

Comstock was truly a pioneer in so many ways. He had big ideas and far-sighted vision. Along with other large agricultural operators in Indiana, he had driven his cattle to the biggest market over a long distance. He was intensely interested in improving his stock. He recognized the marketing potential of railroads. Involved in all sorts of economic and public endeavors, and seizing opportunity when it presented itself, Comstock made his mark on our county history. As early as 1837-1838, he was buying and selling hogs, cows and heifers, some of which he took as far as Michigan City [Helm, 288]. At one time Comstock owned over 1600 acres of land [Helm, 288]. To sum up: According to the records available for research, Comstock received a much higher price for his cattle in New York than that recalled in the 1884 Helm history, and the year was 1855, not 1854.