Rancher Women of America’s Old West

When the American Civil War ended, the era of the big western ranches began. There were large ranches prior to the war but not many. The King Ranch of southeast Texas is probably the largest ranch of note prior to the war. Being located in Texas at the time of the war, the King Ranch and it’s owner, Richard King, were indeed involved in the conflict.

old ranch bunkhouse

Cowboy bunkhouse exhibit from old Goodnight Ranch

King’s ranch was raided several times by Union forces in Texas. They considered it a stopping off site for traveling and resupply for Confederate forces. In fact, Union forces arrived at one time with orders for Kings arrest. Lucky for King he was learned in advance of the raid and fled.

Female Contributions to the Western Expansion / Rancher Women of the Old West

Women were certainly a part of the western frontier and they made very important contributions. There are some interesting stories about the introduction of women on the American western frontier and particularly as wives of ranchers. The women we are referring to here are not the typical cowgirls.

What the frontier woman did do was work hard in difficult settings and contributed in a big way to the civilizing of the west. To understand the settling of the American frontier outside of Hollywood stereotypes, a look at how the wives of ranch owners adapted to their new surroundings is quite enlightening. The presence of someone in the old west who could cause a cowboy to act more gentlemanly had to be appreciated.

cattle drive cowboys

Cattle drive structure

For the most part, women married to ranchers were brought into the frontier “after” the male established himself. Conditions were rough in the decade after the Civil War and the man striving to get a herd together and start a ranch had all he could do to provide suitable living conditions for himself.

Most aspiring ranchers thought the conditions just too harsh and dangerous for their wife or new bride. The idea at the time was to establish oneself in the ranching industry and then return to one’s hometown to find yourself a bride, or if you had a wife, make arrangements to take her out west. This was the beginning of adventure for many a frontier woman.

Mrs. Charles Goodnight

In the book Cattle Kingsby author Lewis Atherton, several observations are made as to the type of woman that a rancher seemed to gravitate towards. For the most part, they chose a like minded wife. The rancher himself was a strong individualist, one of the reasons he turned to ranching in the first place, and many times this was the type of partner they preferred.

A good example was Charles Goodnight, one of the more successful ranchers in the Texas Panhandle region. Before settling in Texas, Goodnight established a ranch in Colorado and married for the first time only after the ranch was operating. Mrs. Goodnight was an adventuresome pioneer woman and the ranch life in Colorado seemed to satisfy her. Everything however was disrupted due to the  financial panic of 1873. This  bankrupted the Goodnights. While Charles took care of the ranch debts he sent his wife to live in California.

Rancher Charles Goodnight planned on reestablishing himself of which he eventually did in the area of Pala Duro Canyon, just outside present day Amarillo, Texas.

Not shying away from adventure it seems that Mrs. Goodnight spent much of her time as a frontier woman patching the clothes of cowboys and tending to the small and non-luxurious home. Mrs. Goodnight did enjoy adventure and didn’t shy away from the hardship remote living brought. Futures were not guaranteed. The hope was that after a few years of hard work in inhospitable surroundings, prosperity would eventually come and the days ahead would be better. Ranching was a gamble and the rancher preferred a wife who understood the situation.

How successful a rancher was pretty much dictated what the rancher’s wife had to endure. The wives of some of the bigger ranchers no doubt had workers present who do a lot of the chores for them. In other cases, life could be tough.  Cooking, sewing, fetching what water was available for washing and in many cases helping her husband with regular cowboy duties could be required. It really was a life of voluntary sacrifice with the hope of better days ahead.

Alice Littlefield

Another western rancher of the post Civil War era was George Littlefield. The ranch / farm was in the area of Gonzales Texas.

In the year 1869 the Littlefields were struggling earning about $150 per year by farming. Littlefield was an ex Confederate officer and Mrs. Littlefield came from a southern plantation and was accustomed to rural life. Becoming a frontier woman may not have represented that big of a change.

xit cowboys

XIT Ranch Cowboys

Alice Littlefield lived a tough life on the Littlefield farm but circumstances changed dramatically after they became involved in cattle ranching. The Littlefields represented what the successful, and perhaps lucky, rancher could achieve.

Over the early 1870’s Littlefield drove cattle to Kansas rail heads and expanded his enterprise. Over the years he had several ranches throughout Texas and into New Mexico with the LIT being one of his biggest. At one time his cattle branded LFD grazed over an area of Eastern New Mexico the size of the state of Rhode Island.

Alice enjoyed being involved with philanthropy and was responsible to a large degree for George’s many charitable contributions. The Littlefields were one of the founders of the University of Texas in Austin. The Littlefields had two children but unfortunately both were lost during infancy. Most likely as a result of their misfortune they were very close to his extended family, paying for the college education for all of his many nieces and nephews.

You may also enjoy the Trips Into History Stories on the links below…

The National Ranching Heritage Center

Battle of Pala Duro Canyon Texas


Excellent Venues to Learn About the Frontier Ranch Life

The National Cowboy Western & Heritage Museum- Oklahoma City, OK

The King Ranch Museum- South of Corpus Christi, Texas

The National Ranching Heritage Center- Lubbock, TX

MacGregor Ranch Museum- Estes Park, CO

The Farm and Ranch Museum- Elk City, OK

New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum- Las Cruces, NM

(Article and photos copyright Trips Into History)

The National Ranching Heritage Center / A Texas Treasure

If you want to learn more about Texas ranching and pioneer life on the western frontier, a visit to the National Ranching Heritage Center in Lubbock Texas is where you what you want to add to your Texas trip planner. The National Ranching Heritage Center is a magnificent museum that is well maintained and extremely informative. If you love Texas pioneer history then this venue is a must stop. This is one of the best Lubbock attractions you’ll entirely enjoy.

ranching museum lubbock texas

National Ranching Heritage Center, Lubbock, Texas

The National Ranching Heritage Center was dedicated in 1976 however the planning, the securing of financial resources and the gathering of  western, ranch and pioneer exhibits including historic structures took place over the prior decade.

What to See

Located on the north boundary of the Texas Tech University campus in Lubbock, this amazing western museum comprising thirty acres features about fifty buildings that include a schoolhouse, barns, and very well preserved houses, etc. There are thirty-eight ranch structures. Each of them have been authentically and historically restored and furnished. Many of the ranch buildings are from history’s most important ranches.  The buildings date from the late 1800’s to the mid twentieth century. The homesteads on display date from the time that the panhandle of Texas was settled and it’s pretty easy to appreciate what these settlers went through when you visit.

The photo below is the Hedwig’s Hill Dogtrot House that was originally built in Mason County Texas near the Llano River. This house was built as two log cabins under a common roof separated by a breezeway called a dogtrot. This architecture was very common on the frontier.

historic ranch buildings

Hedwig’s Hill Dogtrot House

Also at the museum is a large collection of western art and ranching artifacts. You’ll also view nearly 200 vintage and antique firearms and about 1,000 pairs of spurs.

The National Ranching Heritage Center hosts several events throughout the year. Included is a chuck wagon dinner and a concert during the spring. During the summer are fiddle dances and an event named “Candlelight at the Ranch” in December. As an interesting side note, Texas rancher Charles Goodnight was credited with developing the first chuck wagon. Goodnight reportedly built his chuck wagon using a Civil War surplus Studebaker wagon.

old frontier cabin

El Capote Cabin

The National Ranching Heritage Center sponsors the Junior Rough Riders, a membership organization for youths. Some of the programs that are part of the membership are coloring contests, summer youth classes, children’s library, Heritage Halloween and Ranch Day.

As of this writing, the National Ranching Heritage Center is open seven days a week. M-Sat 10A-5P. Sun 1-5P. The Historical Park closes at 4P every day. The National Ranching Heritage Center is located at 3121 4th St., at the north boundary of the Texas Tech University campus in Lubbock Texas.

The Ranches of the Texas Panhandle

It is quite appropriate that a large ranching museum is located in Lubbock Texas. It just so happens that some of the largest and more famous ranches in our country were in the Texas Panhandle area of the state.

Among these would be the XIT and the JA. The XIT, established during the early 1880’s, and the money paid for it by investors financed the building of the Texas State Capital Building in Austin. That same building, constructed of local pink granite, is still today the state capital building of Texas.

The JA Ranch was established by veteran rancher Charles Goodnight and John Adair. The ranch was centered in the Palo Duro Canyon area of the Panhandle. Goodnight is often referred to as the Father of the Texas Panhandle.

You may also enjoy the Trips Into History articles on the links below…

The Famous Ranches of Old Texas

Cattle Drives and Cowboys / What It Was Really Like

The Wells Fargo Stagecoach / Photos and History

On our Western Trips site you might enjoy our article and visit to the Panhandle Plains Museum in Canyon, Texas.

spanish frontier homes

Los Corralito’s historic structure

Historic Frontier Structures

As mentioned above, the National Ranching Heritage Center exhibits dozens of historic buildings and structures. This makes it one of the most unique of Lubbock attractions.

Among those featured in this article is the Hedwig’s Hill Dogtrot House explained above.

Also shown in a photo above is the El Capote Cabin.from the period 1836 to 1845. This was the period of the Republic of Texas. This cabin was located in what is now Guadalupe County, Texas. Construction material included winged elm logs chinked with mud from a nearby stream bed. The roof material was hand split pecan shakes and the floor of the cabin was compacted earth which was very common in that period and in that locale. This architecture was very prevalent in early frontier cabins.

national ranching heritage center photos

One area of the National Ranching Heritage Center

The Los Corralito’s structure shown above was a fortified home from Zapata County Texas. The structure is distinctive with it’s 33 inch thick walls, one door and no windows and six gun ports for defense.

It’s thought that Los Corralito’s rancho might have been the earliest rancho in Texas with standing structures. The walls of this defensive building were made of cut sandstone along with mud and mortar. The term los corralito’s in Spanish means “little corrals“.

(Article and photos copyright 2014 Trips Into History)


Famous Ranches of Old Texas

The famous ranches of old Texas in a variety of ways represent the story of Texas and exploring this history when you travel through the state can be a lot of fun. There are several excellent venues to visit in Texas that tell the ranching story in great detail. You’ll find saddle exhibits, firearms, carriages, cowboy artifacts, dozens of different barbed wire used, a wide display of old ranch photographs, household furnishings of the ranching era, cattle drive equipment and many more artifacts that have been preserved from these historic Texas ranches.

xit ranch cowboys

1890's photo of XIT Ranch cowboys

The Old Texas Ranches and Ranchers

The old famous ranches of Texas include the massive XIT Ranch in the Texas Panhandle. The massive King Ranch in southeast Texas, south of present day Corpus Christie, the Waggoner Ranch which was in northern Texas near the Oklahoma border and the JA Ranch in the Palo Duro Canyon area south of present day Amarillo.


One of the interesting facts about each one of these ranches is that each had an impact on both the western ranching industry in general and the state of Texas in particular.

 Early Ranchers

Ranching was a tough business in the late 1800’s and there were some who made it big. Certainly not all but some. Many of these successful Texas ranchers used a good part of their fortune helping to build civic structures, churches and schools and colleges throughout the state. Among others, Texas Christian University got it’s start with ranch money.

The earliest of the great Texas ranches was the King Ranch. The King Ranch history predates the American Civil War. When the Civil War did break out, Texas of course was a southern sympathizer, and the King Ranch was important for beef.

JA Ranch Texas

Palo Duro Canyon, home of the legendary JA Ranch

Interesting Facts About the Legendary Texas Ranches

  • The 3 million plus acres set aside by the state of Texas for the XIT Ranch funded the construction of the Texas State Capitol Building.
  • The XIT Ranch was funded and owned by British investors.
  • The XIT Ranch eventually grazed cattle as north as Montana.
  • The XIT Ranch was the largest of the old ranches in the Texas Panhandle. Its headquarters are still standing today.
  • During the Civil War, Captain Richard King, the founder and owner of the King Ranch, had to flee to Mexico to avoid arrest by Union troops.
  • Richard King was also a steamboat pilot and had a monopoly of on the Rio Grande River. During the Civil War he used his steamboats to help procure supplies for the Texas Confederate forces.
  • George Littlefield, founder of the LFD Ranch was one of the founders of the University of Texas.
  • Charles Goodnight, founder of the JA Ranch in the Texas Panhandle area,was the co-founder along with Oliver Loving of the famous 1866 Goodnight -Loving Cattle Trail from Fort Belknap Texas through New Mexico and up into Colorado. The Lonesome Dove movie was loosely based on the life of Charles Goodnight. Charles Goodnight is often referred to today as the Father of the Texas Panhandle.
  • The Waggoner Ranch struck a large oil deposit on their ranch lands and at one time had several service stations selling their brand of gasoline.
  • The Waggoner Ranch donated funding to build several structures on the Texas Womens University in present day Denton Texas.
  • The present day town of Electra Texas just west of Wichita Falls was named for his daughter “Electra”.
  • The Great Texas Trail was the longest cattle trail in the western U.S. extending at one time from the Rio Grande River in south Texas all the way to the Canadian border.
  • The large Matador Ranch in Texas was also owned by British and Scottish investors.

Branding iron of the JA Ranch

Live and Let Live / The Code of the West

Cowboys looked forward to spring and the fall roundup as social occasions of sorts. There was also competition among the various outfits as they rode side by side carrying out their work. At night it was campfires that served for socializing and entertainment. One of the most unique aspects of these gatherings were the diversity of people there. Rich, poor, college graduates, uneducated all got together in a common effort. The Texas cowboy represented many social classes. Everyone involved knew that to get along they merely needed to follow the code of live and let live.

Probably one of the most false tale was how rowdy and violent the cowboys could be at the end of a trail drive. To be sure, there was a lot of celebration and drinking at the end of the drive but the violence was hard to find. Dodge City Kansas, one of the biggest cattle towns, reported a miniscule amount of violence and shootings involving cattle drive cowboys. The real trouble in these towns came from the outsiders who traveled there to take advantage of the cowboys. A large cattle town would surely attract the gamblers, swindlers and outlaws.

ja ranch bunkouse

JA Ranch cowboy bunkhouse exhibit at Saints Roost Museum

Overseas Capital helped Fund Texas Ranching

Many foreign investors were well aware of the potential profits to be made in early cattle ranching. Many British and Scottish groups were formed just for the purpose of buying into western ranches. Generally, during the ranching boom of the 1880’s, American speculative groups sold their ranch holdings to foreign investors with one of them becoming manager for the new corporation. In some instances, foreigners with some livestock experience assumed the role. Sometimes that arrangement worked and sometimes it didn’t. The biggest problem with foreign capital was trying to explain ranch conditions to boards sitting across an ocean.

Two of the largest foreign owned ranches in Texas were the XIT and the Matador Ranches. Not to let foreign capital dominate things, old Eastern Capital also found it’s way west. One good example of this was Theodore Roosevelt’s investments in Dakota Territory ranch land.

Fort Worth Texas stockyards

Old Fort Worth Texas Stockyards

 Characteristics of the Early Texas Ranchers

The most distinguishing characteristic of the old Texas Rancher was his individuality. One of these best descriptions of the Texas rancher can be found in the book, The Cattle Kings by author Lewis Atherton. Atherton makes the case that ranchers and cowboys both expressed allegiance to individualism since the early days. Government influence at the time was basically nonexistent. The open range was available to all takers.

The ranchers were rugged individualists who opposed government paternalism and generally cooperated among each other quite well. These ranchers would return strays to their rightful owners without asking for a fee. Ranchers would offer hospitality to all travelers coming by and would help neighboring outfits in cases of illness or accidents.

The old Texas ranches would form associations to coordinate cattle drives and decide how many cowboys would be required. You might think that the Texas rancher who got his cattle to Dodge City first would benefit from higher prices but that really wasn’t the case. Instead, they would meet with their neighbors and coordinate dates for the roundup.

Additional Trips Into History articles you may enjoy are linked below…

Cattle Drives and Cowboys / What It Was Really Like

Things That Can Go Wrong on a Cattle Drive

The First Chuckwagon

panhandle plains historical museum canyon texas

Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, Canyon Texas

Historic Sites and Museums to Add to Your Trip Planner

There are numerous venues to visit to see genuine artifacts from the old Texas Ranching days. They include The Red River Valley Museum in Vernon Texas, The XIT Museum in Dalhart Texas, the King Ranch Museum in Kingsville Texas which includes a saddle shop and firearm exhibits, the George Littlefield Mansion at the main gate of the University of Texas in Austin, the Pioneer Homestead in Plano Texas, a northern suburb of Dallas, the Charles Goodnight Ranch House in Goodnight Texas, just a short drive east of Amarillo on US Hwy 287, the Armstrong County History Museum in Claude Texas, also just a few miles west of Goodnight and east of Amarillo.

Another fascinating stop is to the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum located on Canyon Texas just a short drive south of Amarillo and just a few miles west of Palo Duro Canyon.

Today there are historical markers and one old structure at a site called “Doans Crossing“. The site is just about twenty miles north of Vernon Texas and was the chosen spot where cattle on the Great Western Trail crossed the Red River into then Indian Territory on their way to the rail heads at Dodge City Kansas.

The Texas ranch story is a story about the early history of Texas. Visiting any of the museums and venues mentioned above make good additions to your Texas vacation planner.

Two excellent books to explore the subject further are The Cattle Kings by author Lewis Atherton and Historic Ranches of Texas by author Lawrence Clayton.

( XIT cowboys photo from the public domain, Article copyright Trips Into History)

The Chuckwagon

It was as important to a successful cattle drive as the drovers themselves. The chuckwagon is what made sure the cowboys had hot meals while driving cattle herds north to the railroad towns in Kansas and elsewhere.


Chuck Wagon

As a side note, the term Chuckwagon is spelled as both one word and as two. You’ll see both Chuckwagon and Chuck Wagon used.

Another interesting fact is that the word “chuck” was derived from 1700’s English meat merchants where it was used to describe a lower priced meat.

You might think that the chuckwagon was simply a wagon transporting food. Of course any horse drawn wagon could transport food and supplies but the chuckwagon was different. It’s creation is generally credited to one well known rancher of the 1800’s..

Charles Goodnight’s Invention

The chuckwagon was developed in 1866 by Charles Goodnight, a Texas rancher who is also referred to as the “father of the Texas Panhandle“. Goodnight essentially modified a Studebaker Wagon. This was a wagon built by the Studebaker brothers whose family first arrived in America during the 1700’s. The Studebaker family would later go on to be early American automakers.

chuck wagon

Chuck Wagon interior for supplies

Originally the Studebaker brothers were blacksmith’s in South Bend Indiana. Later they would form a company to build horse drawn wagons. The Studebaker’s business was helped by the demand created by the California Gold Rush. Later the brothers won a large government contract to build wagons for the U.S. Army during the Civil War. These two events made for a lucrative manufacturing business.

What was a Studebaker Wagon? The Studebaker Road Wagon resembles to a degree a conestoga wagon that the pioneers are pictured traveling along in wagon trains. Four wheels and a wood body. The Studebaker Road Wagon however was much better. Made of rosewood, the Studebaker Wagon was considered very durable, easy to handle and a quality made product. Studebaker would also be a top producer of what would be called “farm wagons”.

An interesting side note is that when you’ve seen the Budweiser Clydesdale horses pulling that wagon loaded with beer they are pulling a Studebaker Wagon.

chuck wagon photo


The year 1866 was an important one for ranchers in Texas. While the Civil War raged for five years, the number of heads of cattle in Texas grew enormously. The Civil War kept shipments quite low and when the war ended there was more cattle in Texas than ever before. While the big cattle drives as we know them started after the Civil War, cattle had been driven from Texas to Louisiana as far back as 1836.

How the Chuck Wagon was Built

As mentioned above, rancher Charles Goodnight took a Studebaker Wagon and made modifications. He built a pantry box on it’s rear end that had a hinged door. The hinged door would lay flat to serve as a table. The cook would use this table as a work area.

Shelves and drawers were built in to keep the cook’s gear and supplies in easy reach. Invention is the father of necessity and what Charles Goodnight did was merely take a surplus supply wagon and convert it to a mobile kitchen. Goodnight well knew that a cowboy was a much better worker when he could eat well while on the trail. The key to eating well on the trail was to be able to have a “hot meal“. Cattle drives could easily last two months or so therefore the Chuck Wagon had to be constructed to last. The old Studebaker surplus wagon bought from the army was a durable wagon.

See additional Trips Into History photo articles on the links below.

Cowboys and Cattle Drives

The Great Western Cattle Trail

The National Ranching Heritage Center / A Texas Treasure

chuckwagon supplies

Wagon converted to Chuckwagon

Today’s Celebrations of the Chuck Wagon

Many communities and associations, mostly in the western U.S., put on events during the year that include chuck wagon cooking. One of these is at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, OK. The museum has been celebrating the Chuck Wagon Gathering and Children’s Cowboy Festival for twenty-three years as of this writing.

Another interesting event is put on by the American Chuck Wagon Association. The association hosts several events throughout the country each year. The association will help those wishing to put on Chuck Wagon competitions. The ACWA was formed in 1997 in Bryson Texas. It’s goal is to preserve the heritage of the chuck wagon. For more information about this group see website www.americanchuckwagon.org.

chuckwagon table

Fold out work table for cook

Every October in LLano Texas you can attend the Llano Texas Chuck Wagon Cookoff. Chuck Wagons are set up in the morning and authenticity judging takes place later. Llano is located southwest of the Dallas/Fort Worth area and northwest of Austin. For more information see website www.llanochuckwagoncookoff.com

The New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe is featuring a very large exhibit about cowboys lasting through March 16, 2014. The exhibit is titled Cowboys Real and Imagined. Among many artifacts and photographs on display is a Chuck Wagon. This is one of the best exhibits of cowboy artifacts and information assembled under one roof.

(Article and photos copyright Trips Into History)


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)