The Western Trail and Cowboys

The Western Trail was one of the primary migration routes for settlers, miners and travelers to California or Oregon before the transcontinental railroad was built. During its heyday the trail was used by some 400,000 people, including 4,000 who died. The death rate was high because of the grueling journey and harsh conditions over which it was made. Some of the main dangers included flash floods, lightning strikes, falling trees, avalanches, homicides, stampedes and snake bites.

Despite the many hazards, traveling on the trail offered great opportunities. It could be lucrative for a drover, or cowboy, who would buy the herd of cattle at a jumping-off place in Texas and then drive them over the hundreds of miles to a destination in the west. A drover or cowboy had to oversee a herd of thousands of animals and keep them moving together in the same direction, usually along an erratic, winding path over rugged terrain. His job also included keeping a close eye on the remuda – the herd of spare saddle horses – so no horse was left behind. The crew also needed to repair wagons, get supplies and send a letter home.

In order to do their work, a team of 10 to 20 cowboys was needed per herd. Each cowboy worked three horses in shifts, watching the cattle 24 hours a day and herding them to the next pasture or water source. They also needed to be able to read the landscape and identify places where herds might be trapped in deep ruts, on short rock ledges or in a mud hole. They also had to ward off wild animals and other threats.

Some of the sturdiest and most successful cowboys were from the Texas Hill Country. They used a chuck wagon to carry all their supplies and tools. Most had a fold-up mattress and other bedding inside the wagon, although in bad weather they slept outside on a cot or on a blanket. A chuck box was a cupboard-like structure on the back of the wagon that served as storage space for food, pans and other gear.

Eventually, herds of Texas longhorns began to trample domestic cattle on Kansas homesteads. The longhorns also carried a tick that transmitted a deadly disease called “Texas Fever.” This disease decimated northern herds and led to laws that barred Texas cattle from entering Eastern Kansas.

By the late 1800s, emigrant travel on the Western Trail began to decline because of improvements in barbed wire fencing and the development of beefier cattle breeds. Still, herds of cattle were driven over the trail as far north as Nebraska, and the route was still a vital transportation link.

The Vernon Rotary Club, along with clubs in Matamoros, Mexico and Regina, Canada, contributed to the project of marking the trails through which herds passed. The resulting markers can be seen today in the states of Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. They serve as silent reminders of the brave herds that once moved the nation’s economy.

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