Horses,  North Dakota History,  The Cowboy Chronicle,  Western History

The Western Trail

Published in:

The Cowboy Chronicle; Publication of the NDCHF

The Dickinson Press; The Drill

Dickinson, North Dakota

Page C4

June 25, 2014

The National Day of the Cowboy is celebrated every year on the fourth Saturday in July. This day is set aside to honor cowboys and cowgirls in American history and life. A primary objective of this celebration is to promote the preservation of the pioneer heritage and cowboy culture. The cowboy is a symbol of the American West and has become a folk hero in American culture. The “golden age “ of the cowboy was 1866-1886, during the era of the open range and the great cattle drives. The Western Trail was the greatest of these.

cattle drive
Cattle Drive by Charles M. Russell

“There’s money in beef, but it doesn’t come easy. There’s a market for all the steers you can raise. But it’s a thousand miles away. You get top prices only for top cattle. Pushin’ the herd up the trail is only half the job. You’ve gotta get in there in good shape. It takes tough men workin’ long hours for low wages, starin’ trouble in the face at every bend in  the trail.”  ( Gil Favor, trail boss Rawhide television show)

American cattle drives loom large in our imagination, but in reality they only lasted a short time in our history. The Chisolm Trail is iconic Americana and often what people think of when they envision an old west cattle drive. However, the lesser known Western Trail which succeeded the Chisolm was longer, carried more cattle and was traveled for more years. The Western Trail began in 1874, with its peak years from 1875- 1889. Three hundred thousand head of cattle, seven thousand horses and a thousand men would move north on the two thousand mile Western Trail each year. This great movement of cattle in turn caused the volume of cattle shipped from the railheads to far surpass the preceding Chisolm Trail. The years with the greatest number of cattle on the Western Trail were 1880 to 1884 when so many herds traveled the trail they were ”lined up like dominoes”. There was a procession of cattle one after another so dense that if a rain swelled river or any other delay occurred there would be a bottle neck with tens of thousands of cattle essentially trapped.

The Western Trail started as far south as Brownsville Texas and headed north detouring around Dodge City and heading across western Kansas to points north into the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming and even on occasion as far north as Canada. The northern branch of the trail first went to the Black Hills. In the early 1880’s, when the Northern Pacific Railroad was being extended into the Yellowstone River Valley the Western Trail was continued to Fort Buford in present day North Dakota. The second branch of the Western Trail went to Miles City by way of Cheyenne.

During the Civil War the southern markets were good for Texas ranchers. After the war however, the demand for cattle in places like New Orleans had all but dried up and the ranchers were left with thousands of head of cattle and no market for them. The demand for beef in the eastern markets was high; the Union armies had drained the supply and the urbanizing east provided eager markets. These markets would be lucrative if only the cattle could get there. Ranchers needed to get their cattle to the railheads for shipment to slaughterhouses and on to the markets. The first large-scale effort to drive cattle from Texas to the nearest railhead for shipment was in 1866. A number of Texas ranchers banded together to drive their cattle to the closest point that the railroad tracks reached. This was the beginning of the cattle drive that we think of today. The actual origins of the cattle drive stretch all the way back to the Spaniards in Mexico who began driving herds northward   in the 1540s. Later in the California gold fields, cattle worth $5 to $10 a head in Texas would bring five to twenty times that amount in San Francisco. If ranchers could get their cattle to a railhead and then to the eastern markets their profits would also be huge. At the beginning of the trail drive era cattlemen could make profits of up to a hundred percent in three years. Over time this diminished but was still well worth the risks involved for these early financiers.

loading cattle
Loading cattle onto a train, Eland, ND). Eland, N.D. Photograph Collection, Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU, Fargo

Cattle barons, as they were referred to by newspaper editors of the time, came almost exclusively from the east and Europe establishing operations in western towns along the trails. Many of the Dakota cattle owners came from Britain, and in the case of the colorful Marquis de Mores, France. Predictably the towns catering to the drovers grew as quickly as the cattle along the trail. “Cow towns“ were needed as supply depots, rendezvous points and often as shipping terminals. Places like Medora in Dakota Territory sprang up and by 1884, along with nearby Dickinson were major shipping points. The Western Trail also supplied the reservations of the plains and military outposts.

In addition to getting cattle to market, the impact of the Western Trail on ranching in the northern plains cannot be understated. The Texas longhorns that moved along the Western Trail seeded the cattle ranching operations in Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas. Even though the long drives reached the western territory about ten years after the drives began in Texas, the territory became one of the most influential to the rest of the country both economically and for the sheer number of cattle grazing there.

Ironically, one of the major reasons the trails pushed westward would eventually contribute to the demise of the Western Trail. In 1875 the Kansas legislature passed quarantine laws that forbade Texas cattle from entering Eastern Kansas. The Texas longhorns transported a tick that carried a deadly fever. The Texas herds were immune to it. Ranchers and homesteaders believed the Texas cattle coming in contact with their stock caused devastation; the Texas fever was a disease with a one hundred percent mortality rate. The Texas livestock was also competing for the grazing lands across the homesteads which only added to these herds being unwelcome. Local farmers and cattlemen successfully pushed the legislature to pass the quarantine laws. This shut down all of the established eastern cattle shipment depots to Texas longhorns and forced the cattle trail to move west. The Great Western Trail was blazed to avoid the settlements of the homesteaders and ranchers and to adhere to the 1875 law.

cattle drive pic
Cattle Drive in the Dakota Territory This is an historic image of Round-up scenes taken in 1887 by John C. H. Grabill, photographer

The late 1880’s saw the Western Trail losing its importance and traffic on the trail beginning to decline. By 1885 quarantine laws had extended into many northern states and territories. Additionally, the late 1880’s brought other events that led to the Western Trail’s eventual end. The advance of farming onto grazing lands, railroad land sales to homesteaders, and the invention of barbed wire were all factors. In 1893 the last large cattle drive up The Western Trail left Texas, crossed the Red River and headed north ending up in Deadwood South Dakota. By the end of the trail, three to five million head of cattle had been driven along this route to northern pastures and to railheads and markets along the way.


  • North Dakota State University: History of Cattle Production in North Dakota
  • North Dakota State Historical Society
  • The Great Western Cattle Trail Association
  • The Spell of the West: Western Cattle Trail
  • Encyclopedia of the Great Plains (on line)
  • “Cowboys and Cow Town Newspapers in Dakota Territory” by Ross F. Collins, NDSU.
  • The Cowboys, Senior editor Ezra Bowen, Time Life Books c. 1973
  • Texas State Historical Association: The Texas Almanac. “Cattle Drives Started in Earnest after the Civil War” by Mary G. Ramos
  • History Channel online: Cowboys
  • www.old

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