On September 25, 1867, the pioneering cattleman Oliver Loving dies from gangrene poisoning in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. A few weeks before, Loving had been trapped by 500 Commanche braves along the Pecos River. Shot in the arm and side, Loving managed to escape and reach Fort Sumner. Though the wounds alone were not fatal, Loving soon developed gangrene in his arm, a common infection in the days before antibiotics. Even then he might still have been saved had his arm been removed, but unfortunately the fort doctor “had never amputated any limbs and did not want to undertake such work.”
Sometimes referred to as the “Dean of the Trail Drivers,” Loving had been braving the Commanche territory along the Pecos in order to make his second pioneering drive of cattle from Texas to Denver. In the 1860s, the Texas cattle herds were booming, but as long as the cattle were in Texas they were essentially worthless. To make money, they had to be moved over thousands of miles to the big cities where Americans were becoming increasingly fond of good fresh western beef. To overcome this challenge, a number of Texans pioneered the technique known as the “long drive,” hiring cowboys to take massive cattle herds overland to the first cattle towns like Wichita and Dodge City where they could be loaded on trains for the East.
Along with his partner Charles Goodnight, Oliver Loving tried a brilliant alternative approach. Goodnight and Loving proposed to drive a herd of cattle directly to the growing population centers in New Mexico and Colorado where they could avoid middlemen and earn higher prices per head. The result was the Goodnight-Loving Trail, a 700-mile route through west Texas and New Mexico that eventually brought the cattle right into the booming mining regions of Colorado.
During the course of their first long and often treacherous drive in 1866, Loving and Goodnight lost more than 400 head, mainly to dehydration and drowning. But the 1,600 cattle that survived the trip brought good prices, and when Goodnight headed back to Texas his mule carried $12,000 in gold. Encouraged, the two men were preparing to follow the same route the next year when Loving’s fatal encounter with the Commanche abruptly ended the partnership. However, Goodnight and others continued to use the Goodnight-Loving Trail, and it soon became one of the most successful cattle trails of the day.