In 1874 Captain John T. Lytle and several cowboys left South Texas with 3,500 head of longhorn cattle and a remuda of saddle horses. Five years later, the route Lytle cut out of the prairie to Ft. Rovison, Nebraska, had become the most significant cattle trail in history - the Great Western Trail.
Though less well known that the Chisholm Trail, the Great Western Trail was longer in length and carried cattle two years longer that the Chisholm. The Great Western saw over seven million cattle and horses pass through Texas and Oklahoma to the railheads in Kansas and Nebraska - an important factor in developing the cattle industry as far north as Wyoming and Montana.
A typical herd would move 10 - 12 miles a day and included 3,000 head of cattle, 11 drovers including the trail boss, a wrangler and a cook. The drive from South Texas to Kansas took about two months at a cost of $1,000 in wages and provisions. At the end of the trail, cattle sold for $1.00 to $1.50 per head.
In Texas, feeder trails from the Rio grande led to the trailhead near Bandera and the Great Western passed through Kerville, Juntion, Brady, Coleman, Baird, Albany and Fort Griffin. It is believed that the main streets of Throckmorton, Seymour, and Vernon run north and south because of the trail.
Established in 1878, Doan's Crossing was known on the trail as "the jumping off place." The last place to get mail and supplies before entering Indian Territory, the Doan's store did a brisk business in Stetson hats, guns, ammunition, tobacco and provisions. At its peak, 300 people lived in the town of Doan's which consited of a two-story hotel with basement, a restaurant, saloon, drug store, supply house, wagon yard, branding pens with furnaces and corrals, twelve houses, and several families that lived in half dugouts in the hills surrounding the townsite. Today, the 1881 adobe building, still standing at Doan's, is the oldest structure in Wilbarger County.
Traffic on the Great Western Trail began to decline in 1885 with the introduction of barbed wire and legislation that was passed calling for a quarantine of Texas cattle because of the "Texas Fever," a disease caused by a parasitic tick. In 1893 the last large cattle drive up the Great Western crossed the Red River headed to Deadwood, South Dakota. By this time an estimated six million cattle an one million horses had crossed the river at Doan's and moved up the trail.
In the 1930's two markers were set at Doan's to commemorate the historical significance of the area. In 2003 a project was launched to mark the entire Great Western Trail with a cement post placed every six miles along the trail from the Rio Grande to Ogallala, Nebraska. Oklahoma set the first post south of the city of Altus near the Red River, and challenged Texas to follow suit. The Vernon Rotary Club has adopted the project of marking the trail in Texas from the Red River to the Rio Grande. Oklahoma donated the first post in Texas which was set in 2004 during the 121st Doan's May Day Picnic at the Doan's adobe. The Vernon Rotary Club has invited the Rotary Clubs in each county on the Western Trail to continue the project and will donate the first post to each county.
Through the era of the cowboy and the great trail drives was short historically speaking, the Great Western Trail embodied the spirit, determination, and the grit of the early Texans and remains on the most romantic and interesting times of our past. The Red River Valley Museum in Vernon, Texas, is keeping the spirit and history of the trail and Texas alive with colorful exhibits, maps, photos and presentations. Soon, with the help and support of others interested in preserving the history of the trail, the museum will add a 14,000 sq ft Western Trail Heritage Center providing and invaluable source of information and resources for students, educators, historians, and tourists from around the world.
So saddle up, partner and hit the trail to the past for a "Great Western" adventure across Texas.