During the late 1860s, the Western Trail was one of the most important and popular routes for cattlemen to move their stock north. It was first traveled by Captain John T. Lytle in 1874, and became famous for its capacity to move thousands of longhorns from Texas to Nebraska. By 1893, six million cattle had been driven across the country and a million horses moved from the North to the Midwest.
The Western Trail had many unique features. The first major stop was in Abilene. A city that grew to be the cowboy capital of the West, it was home to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. Abilene boomed for five years and was the main cattle market in 1867. The city was also home to saloons and beer halls.
Another notable stop was Doan’s Ranch. A great place to camp, it was situated on a huge red sandstone bluff and had springs spilling out of its face. It was also a great place to sell goods to the long-travellers. The site was later marked by cattle-drive markers.
One of the major drawbacks of the Great Western Cattle Trail was the spread of Texas Fever. This disease was caused by a parasitic tick that spread across the Southwest and decimated the northern herds. By 1885, only a fraction of the cattle were being driven across the Texas border. The Western Trail was eventually closed because of the disease.
A lesser known trail is the Chisholm Trail. The Great Western Cattle Trail had its own merits, and it was also a runner up to the Chisholm Trail as the most important path from Texas to the railheads of Nebraska and Kansas. However, the Chisholm Trail was plagued by farmer hostility to cattle drives, leading to a shift of the herd to Wichita, Ellsworth and Newton.
Another major drawback was the sheer volume of cattle being moved on the trail. It took at least a ten-man crew to drive a single herd to its destination. The crew consisted of a cook, a wrangler and a trail boss. The cowboys worked in shifts to watch their cattle 24 hours a day. Cattlemen were also required to have three horses. The wrangler’s role was particularly important, as he took care of spare horses. He also had a good handle on practical medicine and a working knowledge of practical dentistry.
The Great Western Cattle Trail was a significant milestone in American history. The first version of the trail ran for nearly 900 miles, from the Hill Country to the Fort Griffin (also known as the Great Western Cattle Trail) in Nebraska, and then to the Kansas and Nebraska railheads. It was used for two different purposes: to move cattle to markets in the northern states, and to move horses from Mexico to Mexico and Canada.
The Great Western Cattle Trail was eventually closed due to the spread of Texas Fever. The Western Trail would eventually veer northeastward to leave Texas. In the ensuing years, the cattle business suffered because of rapid advances in farming in the frontier. In addition, the railroads sold out their lands to incoming farmers, and the Western Trail fell into oblivion.