Artifacts and the Great Western Trail

For many students, the era of cowboys and the Great Western Cattle Trail is a romantic and interesting time in history. For teachers, it provides an opportunity to engage students in historical inquiry and help them become information literate. An important component of being an information literate student is the ability to evaluate and use primary sources, including artifacts.

Artifacts are the physical remains of an event, activity, or period in time. An artifact can be as simple as a candy wrapper, but it could also be a piece of rock, a tree branch, or even a rusty chunk of metal. Artifacts can tell us a lot about what happened, who did it, why they did it, and how people lived during an era in our country’s past.

An artifact can be as simple as any object that people made, transported or modified. In fact, we encounter hundreds of these objects every day. Whether it’s the candy wrapper on the trail or the rusty chunk of metal, all these objects are considered part of our cultural heritage and must be protected as such.

From 1866 until railroad connections opened up northern markets in the 1880s, 2.7 million to 6 million Texas cattle were moved to market on the Great Western Trail. This tremendous traffic gave rise to contract drovers who, for a fee, walked livestock from Texas to Kansas towns. These were usually young former Confederate soldiers or other men with herds of their own to drive as well as those owned by large and small cattle raisers.

A typical crew for a cattle drive included at least ten cowboys who worked in shifts, herding cattle during the day and watching them during the night to prevent stampedes or theft. The cook who ran the chuck wagon, along with a horse wrangler and an extra cowboy to help with the spare horses, was another member of the team.

Besides the drudgery, cattle drives were often a dangerous affair with violent weather, stampedes, dangerous river crossings, and hostile Indians. The image of a gun-toting cowboy owes more to Hollywood than to reality, but there were some who took on the trail’s challenges for their own sense of adventure or as a way out of poverty.

One of the last stops on the Great Western Trail was Doan’s Crossing on the Red River in northwestern Texas, a place where drovers bought supplies like food, firearms and ammo, tobacco, provisions, Stetson hats, and a new saddle for the rig. It was at Doan’s that the tradition of the “end-of-the-trail picnic” began.

In 2003, Rotary International President Ray Klinginsmith and a group of his fellow club members envisioned marking the entire route by placing cement trail markers every six to 10 miles. The project grew to involve clubs across the United States and eventually included Rotary in Mexico, Canada, and Brazil. The dedication of the first trail marker in Matamoros in 2009 emphasized that the ties between our nations are far more than the borders that separate them.

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