Western Trail

By: Jimmy M. Skaggs

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: February 28, 2020

The Western Trail, also known as the Great Western Trail, Dodge City Trail, and the Fort Griffin Trail, was blazed in 1874 by cattle-drover John T. Lytle, who herded 3,500 longhorn cattle along the leading edge of the frontier from South Texas to the Red Cloud Indian Agency at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. Following the defeat of the Plains Indians in the Red River War, Lytle's route supplanted the farmer-laden Chisholm Trail to the east. By 1879 the Western Trail was the principal thoroughfare for Texas cattle bound for northern markets. Feeder routes such as the Matamoros Trail from Brownsville, which ran northward through Santa Rosa, George West, Three Rivers, San Antonio, Beckman, Leon Springs, Boerne, and Comfort, and the Old Trail from Castroville, which ran northward through Bandera and Camp Verde, converged in Kerrville to form the Western Trail. The trail proceeded northward, crossing the James River near the site of present Noxville, the Llano at Beef Trail Crossing, the San Saba at Pegleg Crossing, and Brady Creek west of Brady. The trail left the Hill Country through Cow Gap, where minor feeder trails from Mason, San Saba, and Lampasas counties converged. It crossed the Colorado River at Waldrip and passed through Coleman, where a trail from Trickham and one of two feeders from Tom Green County merged with the trunk route. Beyond Coleman, the Western Trail fanned out to take advantage of grassy prairies; branches passed through the sites of present Baird, Clyde, Putnam, and Albany, where the Potter and Bacon Trail (or Potter-Blocker Trail) diverged toward the Llano Estacado and Colorado pastures, and reunited north of Albany. The Western Trail crossed the Clear Fork of the Brazos near Fort Griffin at the Butterfield-Military Road crossing, where the second feeder trail from Tom Green County, which ran through Buffalo Gap, joined the trunk route. Thence the Western Trail proceeded through Throckmorton, crossed the Brazos at Seymour and the Pease at the site of Vernon, and veered northeastward to leave Texas at what later became known as Doan's Crossing, on the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. Several alternative routes crossed Indian Territory to Dodge City, Kansas, on the Santa Fe Railroad, the first and most important terminus of the trail; to Ogallala, Nebraska, on the Union Pacific, the principal alternative for rail shipment; and to northern ranges. Some herds were delivered to Indian reservations on the northern plains.

Several factors such as barbed wire, the introduction of beefier cattle breeds, and the settlement of the frontier contributed to the demise of the Western Trail, but a principal cause was the Texas fever controversy. Carried northward by longhorns, the disease decimated northern herds, giving rise by 1885 to quarantines in many northern states and territories which banned the importation of Texas cattle during warm months. In an attempt to circumvent state legislation, Texas congressman James Francis Miller, Lytle's brother-in-law, introduced legislation that would have plotted a National Trail north of Texas under federal supervision, but the proposal did not pass. The last reported drive on the Western Trail was made in 1893 by John Rufus Blocker to Deadwood, South Dakota. By then, three to five million cattle had been driven to northern pastures and markets along the route.

By the early twenty-first century, the Great Western Cattle Trail Association had undertaken the mission to preserve the route of the trail by placing cement markers every six miles. The first marker in Texas was erected in 2004 at Doans, Texas.

Harry S. Drago, Great American Cattle Trails (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1965). Great Western Cattle Trail Association (http://greatwesterntrail.net/index.html), accessed September 4, 2010. J. Evetts Haley, Some Southwestern Trails (San Angelo Standard Times, 1948). J. Evetts Haley, Survey of Texas Cattle Drives to the North, 1866–1895 (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1926). Jimmy M. Skaggs, "Northward Across the Plains: The Western Cattle Trail," Great Plains Journal 12 (Fall 1972). Jimmy M. Skaggs, "The Route of the Great Western (Dodge City) Cattle Trail," West Texas Historical Association Year Book 41 (1965). Jimmy M. Skaggs, The Cattle-Trailing Industry: Between Supply and Demand, 1866–1890 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1973).

  • Ranching and Cowboys
  • Cattle Trails
Time Periods:
  • Reconstruction

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Jimmy M. Skaggs, “Western Trail,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 10, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/western-trail.

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February 28, 2020