Innovation/Global Risk

The “Real McCoy” – America’s Earliest Entrepreneur

By Shlomo  Maital   



 Joseph McCoy


  An Illinois entrepreneur named Joseph McCoy may well be America’s first true entrepreneur, and may have given birth to the expression “the real McCoy”, which means, the true authentic thing.  Born in 1837, McCoy had a business vision. At the time, the railroad had reached Kansas.  Millions of cattle were raised on the lush pastures of Texas.  But how can you get the beef to the meat-starved East from the Wild West, and from Texas to Kansas, where the steers can be put on cattle cars?

    Not long after the Civil War ended, McCoy found a tiny town called Abilene, Kansas, on the rail line, with a population of 35.  He decided that it would become his ‘rail head’.  He bought land, and invested heavily to build a stockyard.  But it was ‘field of dreams’.  He had to convince Texas cattlemen to drive their cattle for some 150 miles, at least, to Abilene from Texas.  And there was no established trail to do so.   So McCoy explored and found the Chisholm Trail, that had been used in the Civil War to bring supplies to the Confederate (rebel) forces.   And then?  According to Wikipedia: 

     McCoy advertised extensively throughout Texas to encourage cattle owners to drive their cattle to market in Abilene. By 1870 thousands of Texas longhorn cattle were being driven over the Chisholm Trail to the shipping center at Abilene. By 1871 as many as 5,000 cowboys were being paid off during a single day, and Abilene became known as a rough town in the Old West.  Due to their long legs and hard hoofs, Longhorns were ideal trail cattle, even gaining weight on their way to market.  One story says that McCoy bragged before leaving Chicago that he would bring 200,000 head in 10 years and actually brought two million head in 4 years, leading to the phrase “It’s the Real McCoy”.

McCoy ran into trouble because he lacked strategic agility.  He had become mayor of Abilene, and as such encouraged bars, saloons, and brothels, to cater to the cowboys who worked hard during the cattle drive, were paid off in Abilene and had pockets full of money to spend.  But the farmers in the area objected. McCoy took the brothels and moved them to the other side of the tracks, creating a ‘red light district’.  But that was not enough.  The Abilene citizens forced him into exile.  He launched new railheads, but the peak of his success had come and gone.   He wrote a   book about his life, before he died,  Historic Sketches of the Cattle Trade of the West and Southwest, but it was published only in 1974, 50 years after his death.