Robbers Roost and Canyonlands National Park

The Canyons of Utah

Visiting our National Parks is one of the most fun and low cost things we as Americans are able to do. Each park is unique in it’s own way and offer us a chance to see what America really is. The National Parks in the west present some of the most picturesque scenery on earth and every location has it’s very own history and story to tell. They make terrific additions to a low cost fun road trip.

canyonlands national park

Canyonlands, Courtesy Nat'l Park Service

The state of Utah offers the vacationer no less than five National Parks The Canyonlands region of Utah is divided into two parts, the north and the south, and each has it’s own unique sites and scenery. The north section includes the town of Moab.

Take just a short drive from there and you can enjoy Arches National Park. It’s only 5 miles north of Moab. Arches National Park contains the world’s largest concentration of natural sandstone arches.

Another part of the north region is a part of Canyonlands National Park called the “Island in the Sky“, a place which will make you feel you’re at the top of the world. Also a short drive from Moab is Dead Horse Point State Park which offers thrilling views of the Colorado River running some 2,000 feet below. The southern region also includes Canyonlands National Park as well as beautiful Monument Valley, the scenery of choice for many a western movie, and also Natural Bridges National Monument and the Lake Powell area.

Today, millions of people have traveled to this area of Utah to take in it’s breathtaking scenery but in years past, many many decades ago before the National Parks came to be, the remoteness offered other things.

utah national parks

Canyonlands National Park, Courtesy NPS

The Utah Hideouts

In the days of the late 1800’s, the remoteness of this area of Utah was coveted for reasons other than traveling and it’s natural beauty. The myriad of canyons offered the ideal place for outlaw gangs to hideout in.

Such was the case at today’s Canyonlands region. Butch Cassidy and his gang the “Wild Bunch” made good use of this area as one of the gang’s main hideouts following their many criminal escapades such as train robberies, bank heists and of course cattle rustling. History tells us that other outlaws used the canyons of southeastern Utah for the same reasons but The Wild Bunch, because of the large publicity they received, were probably most responsible for it’s place in old western lore. For over 30 years this highly remote area served as a hideout for outlaws of every type. The rough terrain of this locale made it ideal. It was not difficult to defend from lawmen and because of it’s many high points and small number of trails it was quite easy to spot anyone coming in. It couldn’t have been a better place to take time off after a robbery and lie low for awhile.

butch cassidy photo

Butch Cassidy, Public Domain image

The Wild Bunch even constructed cabins inside Robbers Roost to provide shelter during the winter months. They stored weapons, horses, chickens, and cattle. Cassidy of course had some outside help, namely from Ann and Josie Bassett, owners of a Utah ranch. It was from the Bassetts that Cassidy and his gang received fresh horses and other supplies. The tale is that the Bassett sisters were most likely the only women who had ever visited the Robbers Roost.

It’s reported that lawmen of the era never were able to locate the hideout. That’s how rugged the country was. Over the years the hideout gained a reputation as being impregnable, and the many tales about its defenses boosted its legend. Supposedly the hideout also had tunnels and land mines set in place. This could have been the most elaborately planned hideout in all of old west history. The Robbers Roost was said to be abandoned as an outlaw hideout after the year 1902 when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid left on their journey to South America.

The Legendary Old West Outlaws

Old west history is quite amazing when it comes to outlaws. Legends grow with time and Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch were perfect examples. During their era of course they were considered by most to be criminals. Outlaws who stole money, rustled cattle and occasionally shot and killed people.

Just as with Jesse and Frank James, the Younger brothers, Sam Bass down in Texas, Billy the Kid and Black Bart in old California, the line blurs between what is an outlaw and what is a hero. American popular culture for a variety of reasons has been infatuated with the bad guy.

 The Media Boost

outlaw sam bass

Sam Bass, Public Domain image

Movies, dime novels and in some cases history books have glorified the exploits of a few chosen criminals. Hollywood has made the anti-hero a staple in many cinematic themes.

The purpose has certainly been for commercialization value rather than a serious social statement. Americans seem to like it more when the little guy stands against the injustices of big business or the government. In the old west big business would have been the railroads, stagelines and banks. This perhaps would be the one element that would make an outlaw seem as a hero to some. The strong pro-Confederate stance of Jesse James and his gang tended to frame their crimes in a political tone rather than in an anti-social one that it really was. At least this would explain some of the public’s attitude.

Links to two additional Trips Into History articles you’ll enjoy are the Pinkerton Detective Charlie Siringo and the Pinkertons and Jesse James.

utah national parks canyonland

Canyonlands Nat'l Park geography, Courtesy J.Benjamin Wildeboer

A Hiking Trip to Robbers Roost

Today, adventuresome travelers sometime elect to backpack and hike the canyons to the Robbers Roost.

The trek is considered strenuous and can last from about 3 to 7 days. Also, because of the weather extremes, both hot and cold, the season is March through early June and September through October. The nearest town is Hanksville Utah. A good book for this pursuit is Hiking and Exploring Utah’s Henry Mountains and Robbers Roost authored by Michael R. Kelsey.

Hanksville is in Wayne County Utah at the junction of State Hwys 24 and 95. The town got it’s name from Ebenezer Hanks who was the leader of a Mormon pioneer group who established the small settlement. Today’s economy in Hanksville includes being a jumping off point for tourists going to the canyon recreation areas. Agriculture and mining are also active in the area.

If your next western road trip takes you to the beautiful state of Utah, the unique hiking opportunity to Robbers Roost may be just the thing to make your Utah trip extra special.

(Photos and images from the public domain)



The Quacks

Early 1900’s Quack Medicine

Quackery and the quacks who promote it have been with us for centuries. It’s an interesting topic and in some ways a sad one. The first question is..why would people subject themselves to it? Quackery’s victims were in most cases people with illnesses who simply were searching for a cure. In some cases they were desperate.

snake oil cure

Snake Oil Cure

There’s probably more than a few answers to the above question. One answer has to do with the early medical associations. The medical associations, while being loosely organized, were nothing near what they are today. The other obvious answer is that available medical aid was not what it is in today’s modern world. Doctor’s didn’t have the degree of knowledge that they have today. In addition, oversight and licensing procedures were questionable at best. Thus thrived the quacks.

Quacks of the Early 1900’s

Two of the leading quacks of the early 1900’s, and there were many more, were Albert Abrams and John Brinkley. In the case of Abrams, he developed the “rheostatic dynamizer“. This was essentially a box with wires in it. Abrams would put a drop of his patients blood inside the box and then run additional wires from the box to the head of a healthy person facing west. Strange but true. When Abrams’ tapped the second persons abdomen he could not only tell his patient what was wrong with him but he could also tell him what his religion was. Incredible, unbelievable and you wouldn’t think this was true if it didn’t actually happen. It did happen. Abrams was also credited with devising the ” oscilloclast” which was an improved “rheostatic dynamizer” that he leased out to other quacks for a hefty price.

violet ray cure

Violet Ray Treatment

The Strange Doings of John Brinkley

The quacks came from a diverse background. In the case of John Brinkley, who actually did try to attend a recognized medical school but really never did, you had a “doctor” with a degree via mail from the Eclectic Medical University from Kansas City.

In 1915, for $100 Brinkley received his diploma and a license to practice medicine in eight states. Another amazing fact is that with this “medical” license goat  Brinkley became a U.S. Army doctor at Fort Bliss, Texas when he was inducted. For a variety of reasons this assignment lasted only a few months. After that Brinkley spent a short amount of time as a “physician and clerk” at a Kansas meat packing plant.

‘After he established himself as a small town doctor, Brinkley’s claim to fame were his “goat gland operations” which he declared would restore vitality and delay aging. He did many of these. Some were successful and some were not. His detractors would claim his patients walked in the front door vertically and exit the back door horizontally. Needless to say, the American Medical Association based in Chicago chased him down his entire life. Nevertheless, Brinkley made large sums of money.

dr john brinkley

Dr. John Brinkley, circa 1921

If that wasn’t enough, John Brinkley even ran for Kansas governor. He built hospitals for his operations and he owned a Kansas radio station to help promote his quackery. Thanks to the AMA Brinkley’s radio license was eventually rescinded but that didn’t stop him.

Brinkley approached the Mexican government in 1931 with a proposal to build a radio station across the border from Del Rio, Texas. The Mexican’s had no agreements with the U.S. Federal Radio Commission.and welcomed the idea. Brinkley built what eventually became known as the one-million wattBorder Blaster”. His new $350,000 radio station could be heard in every U.S. state plus in fifteen foreign countries. As a comparison, most U.S. radio stations at that time were putting out 5,000 watts of power.The station basically played country music and promoted Brinkley’s medical remedies and gadgets from paying advertisers. While Brinkley lost his small Kansas station he was now broadcasting to the world. Let’s remember that these were the years of the Great Depression and people were looking for miracles of any kind, especially if they were hurting. Many of the expanded audience made possible by the Border Blaster radio station liked what they heard.

This Border Blaster radio station stirred things up between the U.S. and Mexico as well as with the AMA. Lawsuits were flying left and right and as years went by Brinkley eventually lost the Mexican station as well as his palatial home in Del Rio,Texas.

quackery devices

Electro-Metobograph on display at the Science Museum of Minnesota

Advancing Science Meant Large Profits

Tens of thousands of Violet Ray Machines were sold by the quacks during the second decade of the 20th century. The quacks professed that the Violet Ray machines would restore health and one’s sex drive.

What’s interesting here is that during previous decades quite a lot was learned about electricity. What was not known by the mainstream scientific community was what real effect electricity had on humans.

Selling the Violet Ray Machines was an effort to take advantage of the publicity regarding science discoveries and turning that publicity into something totally different to make large profits off of a gullible public.

The same can be said regarding the “electric belts” which were sold under a dozen or more brand names. The mysticism of electricity was turned into an imaginary cure-all that brought in huge profits for it’s manufacturer’s. There are many other early 20th century miracle medical devices not discussed here.

Links to three additional Trips Into History articles you’ll find interesting are American Frontier / The Doctors ….. Psychics of Lily Dale New York and the Glore Psychiatric Museum in St. Joseph Missouri.

Fighting Quackery

The end to quackery, if it truly totally ended, was brought about by several things. Among these were a more organized and formal medical licensing system, better mainstream medical procedures and pharmaceuticals and along with a better educated general public.

electric belt device

Heidelberg Alternating Curren Electric Belt

As an example, today the public wants and expects dietary information labels on food purchased at the supermarket. Something totally unheard of during the 1920’s and 30’s. I suppose you could make a case that there are cure-all’s on the market today. Some also may perform much less than advertised.This is probably true. I think what stands out about the quacks of the early 20th century was the magnitude of their claims and the invasive nature of some of the treatments. Goat gland transplant operations to restore vitality would certainly qualify as one of the most outrageous.

Interesting Sites on the Subject of Quackery

This was an interesting, if not odd, era in American history and there’s much more to read about on this subject.  Interesting to see what you stumble on when researching somewhat of a different topic. For those wishing to research the quackery subject in more detail there are two places I’m aware of. The Kansas State Historical Society has many manuscripts and records of all sorts regarding John Brinkley. In Minnesota the St. Paul Science Museum has excellent exhibits on quackery with some of the devices like the one shown in this article on display.

The foremost book about the quackery practiced by John Brinkley is Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by author Pope Brock.

Another excellent book regarding the practice of quackery and the quacks is Quack!: Tales of Medical Fraud from the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices by author Bob McCoy.

A third book I’d recommend is The Health Robbers: A Close Look at Quackery in America by author Stephen Barrett.

(Photos and images from the public domain)

American Frontier / The Doctors

Frontier Medicine

American frontier medicine is one of the most interesting aspects of the westward migration during the 1800’s and there’s many unique museums and historic sites to explore regarding the subject.

Doctor's Horse Carriage

Make it a point to visit one of the many museums spread across the United States that chronicle the life and duties of frontier doctors. What was known of the art of healing during the 1800’s? How did doctors travel to tend to the sick and wounded? What types of instruments were available on the frontier? What medicines were available to the frontier doctor? All of these questions are answered in the artifacts, photos and articles exhibited at these museums. Visit one of these on your next vacation or road trip and you’ll be amazed at some of the things you’ll see and learn during your visit. Below are just a few of the museums you’ll enjoy visiting.

National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.

Robert Wood Johnson Museum of Frontier Medicine located at Fort Concho in San Angelo Texas.

The Oklahoma Frontier Drugstore Museum in Guthrie Oklahoma.

Medicine’s Hall of Fame & Museum in the former Central Harley-Davidson building in Shawnee Oklahoma.

The Fort Crawford Museum of Native American Medicine, in Prairie du Chien Wisconsin.

The Indiana Medical History Museum is located in Indianapolis Indiana.

native American Medicine Man from Alaska, circa 1890

Native American Medicine

Long before doctors from the east with their medical diplomas traveled to the western frontier, Native American tribes had their medicine men or shamans. Each may have performed their tasks a bit differently but all functioned as a link between the spirit world and the earth world. All tribes believed that illness came from the spirit world and it would take a man with a direct link to that spirit world to provide a cure.

Interestingly enough, the medicine man didn’t have things too easy. If a certain amount of tribe members died, the medicine man or shaman might be put to death.



Frontier doctors bag

The Role of the Frontier Doctor

In many western frontier towns during the mid to late 1800’s, the medical doctor could very well find himself as the most educated member of the settlement. Because of this the doctor at times performed duties not pertaining to medicine. He could also act as a political leader. It was a luxury in itself during the early days to even have a medical man within the community. One of the best example of this is the case of Dr. David S. Maynard who practiced in the Washington Territory during the 1850’s. Maynard, in addition to being the town physician, also served as a druggist, superintendent of schools, a merchant, justice of the peace and a notary public.

During the latter half of the 1800’s, many of the doctors who served on the western American frontier gained their skills during the Civil War. The doctor who settled there was an adventurous person who may have also been attracted to the region for potential mining opportunities. To be sure, the frontier presented more than enough challenges considering the gunshot wounds, epidemics and other injuries that were a common part of life there. The very way people had to live on the frontier, especially during the earlier years, bred a lot of sickness.

It’s often been said that the task of traveling to reach a sick or wounded patient was often considered as difficult or more so than successfully treating the patient.

The Military Doctor on the Frontier

The military doctor was in some ways quite different than the civilian American frontier doctor. The military doctor might have been an officer himself or in some cases was a contract physician assigned to a fort. The doctor was there in theory to treat soldiers but as was often the case would render his services to the nearby settlements if necessary.

Serving as a physician on the frontier was not without it’s dangers. A good example of this was Custer’s Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. Reportedly there were three physicians attached to Custer’s column. Out of the three only one survived the massacre. This was Dr. Henry Porter who had been with Major Reno’s detachment about a mile away from the Custer fight.

Major Gen. Leonard Wood, 1903

The most noted military physician in the American west may have been Dr. Leonard Wood who served in the southwest during the campaign against Geronimo and later was a commander with the Rough Riders during the Spanish American War. Wood would later become army chief of staff and came close to running for president in the early 1900’s. Dr. Leonard Wood was an exception in that most army physicians didn’t pursue the military as a career. After their military service was completed, many doctors settled in towns that were nearby the forts they had served at.


Doctors who practiced medicine on the American frontier, whether they were military men or not, relied on remedies they were familiar with. Botonic physicians would be partial to herb and root concoctions. Allopaths would rely on calomel and ipecac. Generally though, many frontier doctors carried a bag that contained an assortment of medicines. A few of the more highly used medicines during the latter 1800’s included laudanum, morphine, quinine, jalap and ergot. There were many more.

Links to additional Trips Into History articles you’ll enjoy are Soldier Life on the Frontier and Frontier Women in the American West.

Early pharmacy supplies

The Druggist

The drugstore was the arsenal of the frontier doctor. It was common for the physician to also be the druggist. The medicines received by the frontier druggist were not received in the ready to use form as they are today. The druggist would receive herbs, roots bark and leaves and these materials would need to be mashed and pounded. Since bleeding was a common treatment during this era, it wouldn’t be uncommon for a pharmacist to carry a supply of blood sucking leeches.

The 1800’s military also used a drug wagon that contained medicines that could be used in the field. In essence it was a mobile pharmacy.

Eventually, as the settlements grew from towns to cities, the two professions, physician and pharmacist, separated and each had more than enough to do in their own profession than to practice both.

National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum

Learn More About American Frontier Medicine

As mentioned in the beginning of this article, there are many interesting museums to visit in the U.S. which chronicle the efforts to provide health care on the wild American frontier. It’s interesting to learn how the profession evolved and about the challenges and dangers that went hand in hand in trying to treat the sick and wounded when supplies were limited.

All of these medical history museums, some of which are National Landmarks, make excellent additions to your vacation or road trip planner. They represent low cost ways to turn your road trip into an educational and fun experience.

Recommended books on this subject are Frontier Medicine by author David Dary and Doctors of the Old West by author Robert F. Karolevitz.

(Photos and images of medicine man and Dr. Leonard Wood from the public domain. Remainder of photos from the author’s collection)

The Palace Steamers of the Great Lakes

The history of transportation on the Great Lakes is an interesting topic and one which has quite a long history. One of the reasons that make the subject interesting is the role it played in transporting immigrants to the then northwest territory of the United States.

walk in the water steamboat

Steamship Walk-In-The-Water

U.S. Historians generally refer to the side-wheeler Walk-In-The-Water, launched from Buffalo New York in 1818, as the boat that ushered in Great Lakes navigation Great Lakes. This first steamboat on Lake Erie was both a passenger and freight carrier. This was merely nine years after the steamboat itself was developed as a transportation vehicle. During this very same year the Great lakes received it’s first lighthouse at Erie Pennsylvania. In fact, steamboats are credited with developing much of the midwest and Great Lakes region for half a century during the 1800’s. By the 1850s steamboats dominated river and lake transportation. As you can imagine, the history of the Great Lakes also includes some very tragic shipping disasters.

The Palace Steamers

The Palace Steamer is a type of vessel that started to operate on the Great Lakes from 1844 to 1857. It’s very name implies that this was a luxurious vessel. Palace steamers marked the high point of Great Lakes passenger service. The fact is that many steamers whether on the Great Lakes or on this nation’s rivers referred to themselves as “palaces” because of their luxurious appointments.

There were some twenty-five of these ships built specifically for Great Lakes transportation. The vessels sported stained glass windows and domes, parlors, saloons, beautiful carpeting and the finest of furniture. The Palace steamer was the first class way to travel the Great Lakes in the decades before the American Civil War. It’s interesting to see the contrast between the finely appointed Palace steamers and their many luxuries and the inherent dangers that Great Lakes navigation could present.

The Palace steamers were built to carry hundreds of passengers and large amounts of cargo. Steamers actually decreased freight rates while being more speedy than wagon freighters.

niagara palace steamer sidewheeler

Niagara steamship

The Palace Steamer Niagara

The second Palace steamer to begin navigating the Great Lakes was the Niagara. The Niagara was a 245 foot long sidewheeler with a thirty-four foot beam and was considered one of the world’s longest steamboats. Entering service in 1846, and owned by the Collingwood Line,  the steamboat Niagara played a big role in bringing settlers to new homes in Wisconsin.

All went well for many years with the Niagara until September 23, 1856. That was the date that the beautiful Niagara met the fate of many 1800’s steamboats, fire. The Niagara which was a frequent sight on the Wisconsin shoreline was steaming on Lake Michigan between Sheboygan and Port Washington Wisconsin bound for Chicago Illinois.

The fire was first noticed in the engine room and the smoke that emanated caused the passengers to panic. Men, women and children rushed on deck. Captain Miller, who was asleep, was called and the steam pumps set to work. The fire hoses were not working and the panicking passengers took to the lifeboats. The stampede and fighting between passengers caused every lifeboat but one to capsize causing many to just jump into the water. Others lowered themselves into the water by rope. Most of these were women and children.

lake michigan shoreline

Moonlight over Lake Michigan shoreline

At the same time, the Niagara’s captain steered the vessel toward the Lake Michigan shore at top speed which seemed to only fuel the raging fire even more. The vessel made some headway toward shore but sank about one mile short near present day Belgium Wisconsin.

Links to three additional Trips Into History articles about Great Lakes shipping you’ll enjoy are the

Sinking of the Lady Elgin

The Sinking of the Carl D. Bradley

The Storm of 1913 and the Loss of the SS Wexford

The Aftermath

It was believed that the fire caught in the “fire room,” or “engine room” and had made such rapid headway before being discovered that all attempts to extinguish it was futile. Captain Miller and most of his crew survived the fire and sinking of the Niagara. It was reported that over 150 passengers were lost making it one of Wisconsin’s worst transportation disasters. It was also reported that a small schooner saved six persons, the propeller driver Illinois picked up another thirty survivors.

city of cleveland steamer

The modern day sidewheeler steamer "City of Cleveland", 1941

Captain Miller during the investigation pointed out that there were over three hundred life preservers aboard the Niagara and that he felt not more than half a dozen were used. Some reports from the era stated however that there were no life preservers on board. If indeed there were so many life preservers present, the only logical reason offered for their non use was that the utter panic and chaos aboard the vessel caused such terror that many passengers simply acted irrationally.

One cause offered for the disaster was that some flammable cargo caught fire. The only other cause ever proffered for the Niagara fire was incendiary in nature. In other words, it was possible that the fire was started by an arsonist although there never were charges brought.

The Wreck of the Niagara

The sunken hull of the Niagara was discovered in 55 feet of water about one mile off Belgium Wisconsin and about eight miles north/northeast of Port Washington Wisconsin.The vessel’s boilers were found a little north of the hull site.The site is just offshore of Harrington Beach State Park. This is about 39 miles north of Milwaukee.

A Lake Michigan Diving Site

Today, the Niagara wreck site is visited by divers of intermediate skill level. The Wisconsin Historical Society, with assistance from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee WATER Institute, installed a seasonal mooring buoy at the site. Boats stopping at the site are to moor to this buoy. The mooring prevents boat anchors from further damaging the wreck, and provides a solid and safe descent and ascent line for divers. The wreck site is a Registered Historic Place.

(Photos and images from the public domain)

The Great Western Trail

The Longest of Trails

From Texas to Canada

One of the lesser romanticized cattle driving trails of the 1800’s actually stretched all the way from the Rio Grande in south Texas to the Canadian border. The trail was known as the Great Western Trail and often referred to as the Texas Trail. This trail which eventually spanned the entire north to south length of the U.S. was the busiest of all for cattle drives.

cattle roundup

Modern day cattle roundup

Two of the more publicized cattle drive trails, aside from the Western Trail or the Texas Trail were the Chisholm Trail and the Goodnight-Loving Trail. The Chisholm Trail led from the south Texas ranches up through what is now east central Texas, through Fort Worth and Indian Territory, to the railroad towns in Kansas. The Goodnight-Loving Trail was a route far to the west running into New Mexico near Fort Sumner and then northward toward Colorado. The movie Lonesome Dove was based loosely on the exploits of Texas rancher Charles Goodnight, known as the Father of the Texas Panhandle, and his trail blazing partner Oliver Loving.

Most history books attribute the blazing of The Great Western Trail to a man named John T. Lytle who drove a herd of 3,500 head of cattle through Texas in 1874. In Texas this trail was sometimes referred to as the Fort Griffin Trail or the Dodge City Trail. Further to the north it was called by many the Texas Trail. The Great Western Trail ran in the same general direction as the Chisholm Trail, only more to the west. In south Texas, the trail head was near Bandera Texas just a short distance northwest of San Antonio. Several feeder trails from the lower Rio Grande Valley led to Bandera. Because of this, the Western Trail or the Texas Trail could be said to reach all the way down to the Rio Grande. Today, Bandera Texas calls itself “The Cowboy Capital of the World”.

cattle branding irons

Texas cattle branding irons from the old Texas Trail era

Running through Texas, the trail passed by Buffalo Gap just west of Abilene, past Fort Griffin and nearby to present day Vernon Texas near the Oklahoma border. Looking at a present day map of Texas, the Great Western Trail roughly followed today’s US Hwy 83 and US Hwy 283 up from south Texas to the Red River. The crossing of the Red River and into what was then Indian Territory was made at a small settlement called Doan’s Crossing which was established in 1878.


doans crossing

cattle brand marker at Doan's Crossing

Historic Doan’s Crossing

Doan’s Crossing is about eighteen miles north of Vernon Texas on the Red River.

Doan’s Crossing today is a ghost town but back in the late 1870’s it was anything but that. Doan’s Crossing was called the “jumping off place” and the last settlement with stores before you traveled into Indian Territory on your way to Dodge City Kansas.

At it’s peak, Doan’s Crossing had about 300 inhabitants. You can just imagine how busy it was during the cattle drives. The Doan’s General Store was a hub of activity. According to the Red River Museum in Vernon Texas, some 6 million cattle and 1 million horses passed through Texas, Doan’s Crossing and through Indian Territory on the Great Western Trail.

An interesting tourist item is that a Doan’s Crossing Celebration and Picnic is held annually. This event starts on the Texas side of the Red River and features over one hundred riders. The annual Picnic event has been celebrated continuously for 136 years. This is remarkable in itself. Direct descendants of the Doan’s Crossing pioneers are crowned King and Queen during the event. The public is invited to attend this fun and historic event. If you’re traveling near Vernon Texas at the time of the celebration, it could be a very unique addition to your trip planner. My information is that the event usually takes place in May.

longhorn statue dodge city kansas

Longhorn Statue, Dodge City KS, courtesy Gerald B. Keane

Destination Dodge City and Beyond

The Great Western Trail’s first destination was the roaring cowtown of Dodge City Kansas. This was the western end of the rail line and was an ideal location for the Texas herds. As it turned out, Dodge City would remain the western terminus for some time since the financial panic of 1873 put a halt on rail construction further west. At least for the time being. The railroad and the Texas Longhorn cattle put Dodge City on the map and turned it into the legendary cattle town it was. The stories of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson and others all evolved from the cow town days of Dodge City Kansas.

Many events were taking place on the northern plains at about this same time during the mid 1870’s. The Sioux and Cheyenne tribes north of the Platte River were roaming free hunting buffalo. The U.S. government was making every effort to return these Native Americans to reservations. Gold was discovered in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory and settlers and miners were flooding into the region.

Treaties between the U.S. and the Native Americans were being broken by both sides. The federal government could not have held back the flood of emigrants even if it really wanted to. All of this came together in what ended up to be the Great Sioux War of 1876-77. This conflict came to a head when Custer was defeated at the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the army launched an all out campaign to round up the free roaming Indians once and for all. The military committed massive forces after the Little Bighorn battle to achieve this end.

custer battlefield memorial

Little Bighorn Memorial obelisk, Montana

Into the Land of the Sioux

The excellent grazing potential of the Powder River region of Montana and surrounding areas was not lost on the ranchers. What hampered grazing of their cattle in the northern plains was the Indian problem and now the issue was coming to a head. What cattle that was being grazed in Montana had been driven east from Oregon. When the Sioux War ended with the surrender of Crazy Horse in 1877 and the return to the Red Cloud Agency of his followers, the northern plains opened up.

In the book, Trailing the Longhorns by author Sue Flanagan, the following move into the Powder River region is described. “As the Sioux retreated to reservations in 1877-1878, trail herds streamed into this valley stretching from Wyoming to Montana. The coveted grasslands were reached by a drive of three months and twenty days up from the Red River boundary with Texas. Many cowboys stayed on this northern range to work as hands or to establish ranches“. The booming Montana mining towns such as Virginia City were good end markets for cattlemen.

xit ranch cowboys

Old photo of group of XIT Ranch cowboys

The Trails of the Northern Plains

As the Indians of the northern plains retreated to their reservations in 1877 and 1878, the cattlemen pushed northward. In just a few years after the opening of the northern plains, Texas cattle brands such as the famous XIT were seen in Wyoming and Montana. The XIT leased 2 million acres of grazing land between the Yellowstone and the Missouri Rivers. The XIT drove 10,000 head of young steers from the Texas Panhandle all the way to Montana.

The Great Western Trail spread northward into Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas. In these areas it was generally called the Texas Trail. Similar to other cattle drive trails, there were several feeder trails branching out. The trails were anything but one long road. depending on the northern markets to be served and the location of rail heads, feeder trails ran all over the northern plains. One thing that the cattle drovers did find in the north plains was a different climate. Unlike the plains of Texas, when you grazed north of the North Platte River, winter could come early. Sue Flanagan in Trailing the Longhorns writes…”Late August and early September snows , not uncommon from the North Platte in Wyoming to Montana and beyond, were revelations to sun-baked Texans arriving with cattle”. She goes on to reflect on how the Texas Trail, which the Great Western Trail was called in many areas of the north, paralleled the Deadwood Stage route for many miles in Wyoming and passed by the Cheyenne-Deadwood stage station. “Stage stops were welcome sights when cow ponies needed shoeing or chuck wagon axles broke. Like the forts, some stage stations had telegraph facilities, which drovers used more and more to contact their markets and home ranches”.

The Railroad Brought the Markets Closer to the Herds

Cattle drives in the north were much shorter than the old Texas to Kansas route. In the north the cattle were much closer to their market. Both the Union Pacific Railroad and the Northern Pacific were at most only two days away. One very active cattle town was Ogallala in Nebraska and directly on the Union Pacific rail line. Today, the town is off Interstate 80. The town’s name was derived from the Sioux tribe. The word in Sioux language means to scatter or scatter ones own. This was very appropriate for this cattle town because from it’s location on the Union Pacific route, trails were spread to the north in many directions. To give you an idea of the kind of cattle traffic seen at Ogallala, the book Trails of the Longhorns points out that in 1876, the record number of cattle driven by one firm, (Ellison, Dewees, Millett and Mabry) into Ogallala was 100,000. In addition to that, it was reported that the King Ranch of south Texas drove some 30,000 head of cattle to Ogallala that very same year. This kind of cattle traffic occurred in a town that never had a permanent population of over one-hundred. What it did have was a coveted rail head.

Links to additional Trips Into History articles you’ll enjoy are the Surrender of Crazy Horse...Cattle Drives and the Cowboy Life and Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill Cody.

The Red Cloud Agency

In addition to the rail heads of the Union Pacific and Northern Pacific Railroads, there was a regular market right at the cattlemen’s doorstep. One offshoot trail from the Great Western or the Texas Trail, was a road to the Red Cloud Agency which housed many of the Sioux who had retreated just a short time before.

The cattle upon arrival would be put in pens at the Red Cloud Agency and Indian names would be called out for each to claim his steer. To give you a perspective of the size of the Indian beef market, it was reported that in the year 1880, the Sioux-beef contracts exceeded 39 million pounds. In addition to this, the cattlemen regularly supplied beef to the military posts in the north. The end market for much northern beef was not far from the grazing lands and this helped make cattle ranching even more profitable.

barbed wire exhibit

Barbed wire design exhibit

Barbed Wire and the End of the Great Cattle Drives

In a large way, the increased settlement in the great plains spelled the end of the open range and the great cattle drives. Settlers arrived and in many cases erected barbed wire fences around their land. Cattlemen had to share the open range with farmers. This was a first. They also shared the grasslands with sheep.

Times were changing dramatically. There was more than one skirmish between cattle interests and the agrarians. Probably the most violent and infamous conflict was the Johnson County War in Wyoming. After lynchings, shootings and a counterattack by settlers from the town of Buffalo Wyoming, U.S. troops reluctantly entered the fray. The violence was stopped, many gunmen working for the cattlemen were arrested but eventually none were successfully prosecuted. The Johnson County War showed just how high the friction was between cattlemen and settlers.

The Last Great Cattle Drive

The last great cattle drive up from Texas occurred in 1893 with a herd headed for Deadwood South Dakota. Rail heads were expanding and the distance to markets decreased substantially. The romanticized American ranching industry was changing at the turn of the century and would never be the same. What would live on forever was it’s colorful history.The history of cattle drives, the cowboys and the trails they used is quite interesting and of course there’s many side stories on the subject to explore further.

Recommended reading include Trailing the Longhorns by author Sue Flanagan…The Cattle Kings by author Lewis Atherton and Dodge City:The Cowboy Capital by author Robert M. Wright.

(Cattle branding irons, Doan’s Crossing monument, barbed wire exhibit from author’s collection. Remaining photos from the public domain)