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The Southwestern Cattle Trails


Great Western Trail crossing at the Cimarron River between Oklahoma and Kansas

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Three cattle trails crossed the Red River during the 19th century: the Shawnee, the Chisholm, and the Great Western. While purists continue to argue the names for the trails and some parts of their routes, they are nonetheless an integral part of the Red River's history.

Mosey on up with the Red River Historian as we explore some of the history and places where you can enjoy your own historic road trip!

The Shawnee Trail

The Shawnee Trail is also known as Preston Road or Texas Trail or Military Road or Emigrant Trail. Yes, it had a number of names because if there's one thing that western historians can agree on, it's that there are NO official names for any of the cattle trails.


The Shawnee Trail was most likely called the Shawnee Trail by cowboys who talked about the cattle drives in their WPA interviews during the 1930s - many of the early drives passed by Shawnee Town at the Red River (across from Colbert, Oklahoma), which was a settlement of Shawnees. Or, it could have been called the "Shawnee Trail" because the road used by the cattle drivers was also used by the Shawnees as they sought to move away from Missouri.  Whatever the reason for the name, this one road served pioneers, stage coach lines (the Butterfield Overland being the most famous), soldiers, Native Americans, and, of course, cattle.

The Shawnee Trail, formed from older Indian paths and military roads that linked forts from Kansas Territory to Texas, gradually replaced the practice of driving cattle to New Orleans to send live stock up river via steam boat. The "official" start of the road dates to around 1843; the cattle drives commenced by the mid-1850s, when a rail head was established in Sedalia, Missouri. This terminus was owned by the same company that would ultimately use the trail to build the first railroad in Indian Territory and also to be the first north/south line to enter Texas - the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railway.

Within a few years, the cattle drives on the Shawnee Trail halted altogether - Illinois cattle trader Joseph McCoy had surveyed a far-less populated route to the west, which cowboys would come to call the Chisholm Trail. Cowboys abandoned the Shawnee Trail and routed their cattle instead through Wichita to Abilene, Kansas.

The Chisholm Trail / Abilene Trail

Before the Civil War, Joseph McCoy, a merchant from Illinois, had dealt with longhorn cattle that had been driven up from Texas and into Missouri on the Shawnee (or Texas) Trail. These cows, he knew, still roamed untended in the southern reaches of Texas. With long, curved horns and hardier than most bovine, the longhorns numbered in the millions, a product of years of free range. Because they remained wild, they were by nature tough and enduring. The added bonus was that these cattle were cheap and - in some instances - free for the taking.

McCoy believed that the old Shawnee Trail was no longer predictable, as new farmers had settled around the old trail, and they didn't like cows trampling on their crops or destroying their own herds with Texas Fever, a disease carried by a tick that resided on longhorn cattle but did not affect them. Missouri farmers physically attacked cattle drivers as they despised any northern economic activity, which they believed cattle driving to be. McCoy set out to discover a new cattle driving route. As Tim Hersey surveyed a new trail, McCoy convinced the Hannibal- St. Joseph railroad to set up a terminus at a stockade in a little town on the Kansas prairie named Abilene. Then, McCoy traveled to Texas to persuade ranchers to herd their cattle and drive them to Abilene, Kansas, where they could sell the cows for 10x the amount of what they'd receive in Texas. From Abilene, the cattle would be transported by rail to stations back east, then on to Northern markets. McCoy must have been an excellent salesman, since the ranchers accepted the risky scheme on faith alone. They had no idea if Abilene really existed or if cattle pens really had been built to accommodate the herds. But what did they have to lose? The ranchers signed on.

Although the western parts of the Indian Territory were still primarily in Plains Indians hands, the eastern portion had been settled by the "Five Civilized Tribes" (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole) in the 1820s - 1840s. These immigrant Native Americans created a trail system for settlers to come after them. Most notable of these were Black Beaver of the Delawares and Jesse B. Chisholm, a Cherokee- Scotsman. Black Beaver was a well known guide, forging the California Trail with Randolph B. Marcy and living to see it become one of the main western immigration routes. A prosperous farmer, he gave up all of his lands to the Confederacy to guide Union soldiers through Oklahoma to Leavensworth, Kansas. The route that he took comprised the northern edge of what would become the Chisholm Trail. Jesse Chisholm was a store owner, trader (which included slaves as well as livestock) and translator. He could speak several Indian languages, a talent that made him a peace negotiator and a sought-after guide. To bring his wares to market, bring his trade stuffs to the store his wife maintained, and to assist in westward settlement that would bring in customers, Chisholm laid out several trails, especially one that opened up southwestern Indian Territory to Indian tribes and trade. This would be called the Chisholm Trail by cowboys who reminisced about their work for the WPA's Federal Writer's Project during the 1930s. During its actual life, this trail was called the Abilene Cattle Trail.

While the Abilene Trail never extended into Texas, Texas ranchers carved a network of smaller trails across Texas to drive the cattle to Fort Worth. The cattle would then be driven to the crossing at Red River Station. After crossing the river, the drive would go in almost a straight path through Chickasaw, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Cherokee lands into Kansas, where they'd meet the trains bound for northern and eastern markets in Abilene.

The Chisholm/ Abilene Trail did not last long. When the railroad pushed further west, other trails opened up to meet stations in less populated areas. But barbed wire really killed the trails. When first introduced, it served to keep cattle from grazing in cultivated fields. Then ranchers began using it to separate the less desirous longhorn - with its tough, stringy meat - from the fattier, more tender mixed breeds. Northerners quickly developed a taste for the softer meat, which pushed the longhorn off the market. The cattle drives trickled to a halt.

The Great Western Trail

The Great Western Trail, an offshoot of the Abilene Trail, was blazed by rancher and trail driver John Lytle, was the last great northern cattle trail. Running from Kerrville to Dodge City and points northward, it had many functions in its relatively brief lifespan (ca. 1875-1885, give or take a few years).

Trail outfits took cattle to sell to the Comanche, Kiowa, Apache, and Cheyenne reservations in western Oklahoma Territory. They brought cattle to Dodge City to ship to processing plants in Kansas City, St. Joseph, or even Chicago. Finally, the longhorn were taken the Dakotas in order to stock the ranches there.

Cowboys who took to the trail tended to call it the Chisholm Trail - just about every single trail they rode on in Texas they called the Chisholm Trail - but the Great Western was actually quite distinctive. The terrain was decidedly more rugged and parched, and formidable barriers, such as the canyons in Texas, the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma Territory, and the Great Basin in Kansas, made the trail drivers really earn their keep. This territory was also the last domain of the southern bison herds. Histories from Plains Indians tell how the cattle chased the buffalo off their traditional lands.

As railroads started to venture into Texas, barbed wire became all the rage on the range, Texas fever caused stricter quarantine laws, and the taste for longhorn flesh ebbed, the Great Western Trail succumbed fairly quickly to the wiles of progress. Today, it's a little known trail save for its importance in the history of Dodge City.

The Trails End

The southwestern cattle trails did much more than just bring surplus beef to market. Not only did they help Texas and Indian Territory economically, but they also helped forge western expansion. Prior to the trails, many eastern Americans believed that the West was too wild to settle properly, with bands of Plains Indians lurking everywhere and lands too scrappy to cultivate. The Chisholm Trail proved that people could live well on the Plains. It also meant the end of a way of life for the western Indians and the death of the bison. The cattle trails, therefore, have both positive and negative historic contributions.

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