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The Great Western Cattle Trail

Prairie with a white marker
The Great Western Trail is marked at the Cimarron River between Oklahoma and Kansas.

Take a road trip along the southwestern cattle trails in my book!

Three cattle trails crossed the Red River during the 19th century: the Shawnee, the Chisholm, and the Great Western Trail. 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!

First, let's go up the Shawnee Trail.

Next, we went up the Chisholm Trail.

Lastly, the trail ended with the Great Western Trail..

The Great Western Trail

The Great Western Trail, an offshoot of the Abilene Trail, was blazed by rancher and trail driver John Lytle, and 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.

The most famous of the cattle trail crossings over the Red River took place along the Great Western Cattle Trail. Doan's Crossing was just a small collection of wooden houses that subbed as stores, but the it has become a larger-than-life place, thanks to movies and television series.

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.

Round water hole in a winter landscape.
St. Jacob's well, an ancient watering hole along the Great Western Trail in Kansas.
Plains landscape
The beautiful Big Basin just south of Dodge City, Kansas witnessed the last of the southwestern cattle trails.
Placid river at a shallow crossing.
The Llano River crossing in Kerr County, Texas along the Great Western Trail.

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