Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century Texas cattlemen sought routes to trail their herds to northern markets. As the line of settlements moved westward, the trails that served cattlemen were closed. First the Shawnee Trail and then the Chisholm Trail became unusable. In 1874 John T. Lytle blazed a new path beyond the western edge of settlement, stretching from the grazing ranges of Texas to Fort Robinson, Nebraska. When the U.S. Army successfully concluded the Red River War in early 1875, driving the Comanche and Kiowa onto a reservation, Lytle's trail became the most popular path to the railheads in Kansas and Nebraska. It remained the most used until the cattle trailing industry ended in the 1890s.
The Western Trail was also called the Dodge City Trail or simply the Texas Trail; it began in the hill country of Texas near present Kerrville, where various minor trails converged. The trail crossed the Llano River near present Brady, Texas, and passed over the Clear Fork of the Brazos near Fort Griffin. It reached the Red River about ten miles north of present Vernon, Texas. Corwin Doan, who opened a trading post on the river in 1878, maintained a detailed account of the herds moving north for many years. He recorded that more than three hundred thousand longhorns had passed by his establishment in 1881. The ford soon became known as Doan's Crossing. Across western Texas, minor trails fed into the Western Trail, bringing cattle from a wide area. North of Abilene, the Potter-Bacon Cutoff left the Western Trail to cross the Llano Estacado, ending in Wyoming.
The Western Trail crossed the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River a few miles north of Doan's, utilizing gently sloping embankments to enter Greer County. The trail then pushed northward, crossing the North Fork of the Red River near present Warren, Oklahoma. Leaving the river, the trail passed along the western edge of the Comanche-Kiowa-Apache Reservation and then entered the most dangerous section of the route, the Cheyenne-Arapaho Reservation. Here the drovers frequently met American Indians who wanted to supplement their meager government rations with fresh beef. Usually the meetings ended amicably, but in the mid-1880s military escorts were frequently assigned to the trail.
The trail broadened here to let the cattle graze but coalesced at the fords on Elk Creek near present Canute and on the Washita River south of present Butler. After the Washita the trail turned eastward to avoid the Gypsum Hills and then back north to the main Canadian River near present Camargo. It then turned eastward again, following the terrain, to bisect the old Camp Supply spur of the Chisholm Trail near present May, Oklahoma. Before 1884, herds turned westward here to cross the Public Land Strip (Oklahoma Panhandle) to reach Colorado, Wyoming, and eventually Canada on the International Trail. The U.S. Congress briefly considered designating the International Trail as the "National Route" for cattle drives.
Directly northwest of May, Oklahoma, the route crossed the Beaver River (North Canadian River), fording on the sand bar at the mouth of Clear Creek. It then passed near present Laverne and Rosston; it crossed the border into Kansas just east of the Cimarron River and then crossed that stream at Deep Hole Crossing. Here the drovers could visit the Long Horn Round-Up Saloon or the Dead Fall Saloon. From the Cimarron the trail veered slightly eastward to cross the Arkansas River at Dodge City. The final section followed the Arkansas westward to the stock pens at the railhead on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.
During the 1880s the drives frequently passed by Dodge City, heading to Ogallala, Nebraska, and Wyoming. Some herds traveled to Canada. However, the large majority of the more than two million longhorns that traveled up the Western Trail were shipped out of Dodge City. The route remained busy until 1891, when traffic drastically fell. In 1894 John Blocker drove his herd from West Texas to South Dakota on the Western Trail, its last recorded use. By the turn of the twentieth century the cattle driving industry was no more.
Harry Sinclair Drago, Great American Cattle Trails: The Story of the Old Cow Paths of the East and the Longhorn Highways of the Plains (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1965).
Jimmy M. Skaggs, The Cattle-Trailing Industry: Between Supply and Demand, 1866–1890 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1973).
Jimmy M. Skaggs, "The Route of the Great Western (Dodge City) Cattle Trail," West Texas Historical Association Year Book 41 (1965).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Carl N. Tyson, “Western Trail,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=WE025.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.