But it was one of their strengths — their immune system — that helped contribute to their downfall. By the late 1800s, many ranchers had begun importing “improved” European breeds of cattle, which were beefier and had more fat content than the leaner longhorns. While the immune system of the longhorns gave them a resistance to cattle tick fever, the ticks that traveled north on them wreaked havoc with the more susceptible European breeds. As a result, many locals began to prohibit the passage of longhorn cattle drives across their lands. The loss of marketability coupled with cross-fencing of the open range led the longhorn breed to become virtually extinct within a few years.

In 1927, the federal government recognized the importance of preserving the longhorn’s legacy. Since only a few ranches had private herds, Congress appropriated $3,000 to assemble a small number of Texas Longhorns at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in southwest Oklahoma. A few years later, J. Frank Dobie, Graves Peeler, and Sid W. Richardson also began gathering a herd to be maintained in Texas state parks.

Five other ranchers — J.G. Phillips, M.P. Wright, Milby Butler, Emil Marks, and Cap Yates — also dedicated themselves to preserving the breed. Their resulting herds, along with the Wichita Refuge herd and Peeler’s herd, would become known as the seven original families of longhorns. The Texas Longhorns assembled by these early cattlemen were distinctly different from each other, with variations ranging from horn length and shape to body conformation and size, according to the traits most admired by each of the men.

Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Charles Schreiner III helped establish the first longhorn registry in 1964 to preserve breeding records. Today, herds of Texas Longhorns can be found in all 50 states and throughout North and South America, Australia, and even Africa, where they are being used to upgrade existing cattle breeds.

Red McCombs – philanthropist, automobile baron, cofounder of Clear Channel Communications, and former owner of the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, and Minnesota Vikings – says, "My real interest, rather than just the lore of the [longhorn], was I found I was able to establish a new market for the cattle that we could sustain and grow."

Texas Longhorns are also now being marketed to those individuals who are moving to a more health-conscious diet. “Being a naturally leaner breed, longhorn meat has become a front-runner for a consumer wanting not only lean meat but meat that has been free-ranged and absent from hormones and chemicals,” says Dr. Joseph Graham, a cardiovascular surgeon at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Missouri, and a longhorn breeder. “Longhorn meat on the average contains 10 percent less saturated fat than that of other cattle.”

Transported in small leaky ships across the stormy Atlantic, left to run wild in the harsh American Southwest, driven thousands of miles along the cattle trails, and ultimately saved from the brink of extinction, these magnificent cattle flourish today, providing enjoyment and financial reward to thousands of owners worldwide. A symbol of survival, the Texas Longhorn will continue to be a beloved icon of American heritage for generations to come.

More on the Longhorn breed and the upcoming Legacy Sale in Texas >>

Wes Chancey is the CEO of the Texas Longhorn Marketing Alliance. To learn more about Texas Longhorns, visit Cattlemen’s Texas Longhorn Registry, www.ctlr.org; International Texas Longhorn Association, 254.898.0157, www.itla.com; Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America, 817.625.6241, www.tlbaa.org; and Texas Longhorn Marketing Alliance, 512.556.0300, www.thelonghornalliance.com.