The Texas longhorn is a hybrid breed resulting from a random mixing of Spanish retinto (criollo) stock and English cattle that Anglo-American frontiersmen brought to Texas from southern and midwestern states in the 1820s and 1830s. "A few old-timers," J. Frank Dobie wrote, "contend that both the horns and bodies of the Texas cattle were derived from importations from the States out of Longhorn Herefords of England," but he was convinced that the Texas longhorn was largely Spanish. Spanish cattle had roamed in Texas probably before the eighteenth century. The old-timers were probably right. Some cattlemen observed that not only the horns and bodies, but also the colors of many Texas longhorns resembled the English Bakewell stock brought from the Ohio valley and Kentucky. Criollo cattle are of solid color ranging from Jersey tan to cherry red. Black animals are few and brindles rare. Spanish and Anglo cattle mixed on a small scale in the 1830s and after, but by the Civil War the half-wild Texas longhorns emerged as a recognizable type. They behaved like Spanish stock but had an appreciable amount of British blood. Old steers (four years old and older) had extremely long horns, and the large number of these animals in postwar trail herds produced the popular misconception that all Texas cattle had unusually long horns. In the 1880s, when younger cattle with improved blood were trailed north, the average horn spread was less than four feet.
In the 1850s Texas longhorns were trailed to markets in New Orleans and California. They developed an immunity to Texas fever, which they carried with them and passed on to herds on the way. In 1861 Missouri and the eastern counties of Kansas banned Texas stock, and during the second half of the nineteenth century many states attempted to enact restrictive laws in an effort to fight the fever. After the Civil War, however, millions of Texas longhorns were driven to market. Herds were driven to Indian and military reservations in New Mexico and Arizona, and in 1867 Illinois cattle dealer Joseph G. McCoy arranged to ship cattle from Abilene, Kansas, to the Union Stockyards in Chicago. Over the next twenty years contractors drove five to ten million cattle out of Texas, commerce that helped revive the state's economy. Longhorns, with their long legs and hard hoofs, were ideal trail cattle; they even gained weight on the way to market.
After the buffalo herds were slaughtered and the Plains Indians confined in the late 1870s, private and syndicate ranches spread northward to the open range and free grass on the Great Plains. Texas longhorns, accompanied by Texas cowboys, stocked most of the new ranches; the trailing era made the cowboy a universal folk hero. The "Big Die-up" of 1886–87, together with the rapid spread of barbed wire fences, brought an abrupt end to the open-range cattle boom and with it the dominance of the longhorn. Fencing made possible controlled breeding, and with the end of free grass it was economically advisable to raise cattle that developed faster than longhorns. By this time ranchers had begun crossing longhorns with shorthorn Durhams and later with Herefords, thus producing excellent beef animals. Longhorns were bred almost out of existence; by the 1920s only a few small herds remained.
In 1927 the Texas longhorn was saved from probable extinction by Will C. Barnes and other Forest Service men, when they collected a small herd of breeding stock in South Texas for the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. A few years later J. Frank Dobie, with the help of former range inspector Graves Peeler and financial support from oilman Sid W. Richardson, gathered small herds for Texas state parks. After the wildlife-refuge herd had increased to several hundred, the Forest Service held annual sales of surplus animals. Cowmen at first purchased them as curiosities, then rediscovered the longhorn's longevity, resistance to disease, fertility, ease of calving, and ability to thrive on marginal pastures. Its growing popularity in beef herds was spurred by a diet-conscious population's desire for lean beef.
In 1964 Charles Schreiner III of the YO Ranch took the lead in organizing the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America, which maintains a registry in order to perpetuate the breed in a pure state. Since then the number of longhorns and their use in cross-breeding have steadily increased, and their future appears secure. Since 1948 the official state Texas longhorn herd has been kept at Fort Griffin State Historic Site which is now part of the Texas Historical Commission. Smaller longhorn herds have been located at various times at Possum Kingdom State Recreation Area, Palo Duro Canyon State Scenic Park, Abilene State Park, Dinosaur Valley State Park, and Copper Breaks State Park.