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The Shawnee Trail was the first major route used by the cattle trailing industry to deliver longhorns to the markets of the Midwest. Longhorns were collected around San Antonio, Texas, and taken northward through Austin, Waco, and Dallas, crossing the Red River near Preston, Texas, at Rock Bluff. There the outcroppings that provide the place-name formed a natural chute that forced the cattle together at the ford, and a gradual rise on the north bank made it easy to exit the river. North of the Red River the trail divided for a time, coming together near Boggy Depot in the Choctaw Nation, Indian Territory. Here some herds veered sharply eastward to pass through Fort Smith, Arkansas. The main trail led to the Canadian River directly below the confluence of the north and south branches and forded the Arkansas River between the mouths of the Verdigris and Neosho rivers, and followed the Neosho past Fort Gibson almost to the Kansas border. The trail then subdivided into various routes that, depending on the final destination, led to one of the following: Baxter Springs, Kansas, and Westport, Kansas City, Sedalia, and St. Louis, Missouri.

Throughout the 1830s settlers from the United States heading for Texas traveled across present Oklahoma along the Texas Road. When the first herds were taken north in the early 1840s, they reversed the trek, opening a trail to the railheads in Missouri. Newspapers referred to the route as the Sedalia Trail or simply the cattle trail. No one knows why it was called the Shawnee Trail; however, the route did pass by a Shawnee village in north Texas and near the Shawnee Hills in Indian Territory. By the late 1850s the name was in general use.

In the 1840s herds were taken up the trail primarily to Missouri, and during the Mexican War the trail was used almost constantly during the summer months. The gold rush in California increased demand for cattle after 1848, and for several years the Shawnee Trail was heavily used. By the mid-1850s Kansas City, Missouri, was the largest stock market in the west, and the Texas cattle trailing industry was well established.

The westward expansion of the farming frontier soon intervened. In 1853 farmers in Missouri turned back the drovers, fearing that the longhorns would infect their cattle with a tick-borne disease called Texas fever. Longhorns were immune to it, but they harbored ticks that spread it to local herds. Newly infected animals either died or required expensive treatment. Between 1853 and 1855 herds continued to use the trail, but resistance continued to grow. In December 1855 the Missouri legislature passed the first law banning diseased animals. Some drives avoided Missouri, staying on the eastern edge of Kansas Territory. Anxious farmers there pushed a bill through the territorial legislature in 1859 that limited access to the cattle drives. For a time the drovers were forced to run a gauntlet of angry farmers and justices of the peace to get the cattle to rail heads. Through 1859 and 1860 violence erupted when the drovers encountered the blockades. The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 virtually stopped traffic on the Shawnee Trail north of Indian Territory.

The end of the Civil War signaled the rebirth of the cattle drives on the Shawnee Trail. More than two hundred thousand longhorns were taken up the trail in 1866. However, resistance grew stiffer and better organized. By 1867 six states had enacted laws limiting trail drives. Drovers attempted to avoid populated areas by turning to follow the Arkansas River westward or by grazing their herds in the Cherokee Strip until local quarantines were lifted. These delays and poor grazing in Indian Territory reduced profits, and the future of the trail driving industry seemed in peril. However, in 1867 Joseph G. McCoy, a young entrepreneur from Illinois, built stock pens and loading chutes on the railroad at Abilene, Kansas. Soon the majority of cattle were following the old Shawnee Trail from central Texas to Waco, but there they turned toward Fort Worth, following the Chisholm Trail. When the advancing frontier and barbed wire closed the Chisholm Trail, the trail drives turned to the Western or Dodge City Trail.

Carl N. Tyson

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Wayne Gard, "The Impact of the Cattle Trails," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 71 (July 1967).

Wayne Gard, "The Shawnee Trail," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 56 (January 1953).

Jimmy M. Skaggs, The Cattle-Trailing Industry: Between Supply and Demand, 1866–1890 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1973).


The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Carl N. Tyson, “Shawnee Trail,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=SH015.

Published January 15, 2010

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