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The Other Trail
A wide indentation in the earth west of Vici marks the path of the Great Western Cattle Trail, which ushered millions of animals across far western Oklahoma during the second half of the nineteenth century.
Photo by SHANE BEVEL
In the nineteenth century, cowboys drove countless herds to new markets hungry for beef. These drives—arduous, grueling, and dangerous—came to symbolize the romance of the old west. One epic route in far western Oklahoma saw more cattle traverse its path than any other, including its more famous counterpart to the east.
By JIM LOGAN
Published March/April 2012
North of the Canadian River in western Oklahoma, a quiet stretch of U.S. Highway 60 courses through Dewey County’s sprawling mixed-grass prairie. Evenings here bring a calming of the wind and a soft yellow light that settles over the land. In early summer, scissortails along fence lines look out over sand plum thickets and patches of paintbrush and Indian blankets that mark the paths of rains across the hills. One can feel time and distance here, smell the earth, and hear its voices in this place, still resonant with the richness of its past.
Just west of Vici, a roadside marker points out a wide, U-shaped depression in the hill to the south—a remnant of the greatest controlled animal migration in history—carved into the earth by the hooves of an estimated seven million longhorn cattle that crossed here between 1874 and 1893. Fraught with risk, the cattle drives epitomized, perhaps more than anything else, the romanticism of the West and set in motion the transformation of its immense, unfenced wastelands into the fields and pastures of America. At the heart of this epic passage was the territory that would become Oklahoma.
By the end of the 1860s, some six million longhorns, descendants of Spanish mission herds left largely untended during the Civil War, lay scattered over southern Texas. The laws of supply and demand dictated that the rangy, powerful animals—some with eight-foot horn spans and valued at around four dollars a head—were worth more than thirty-five dollars in Kansas and almost twice that in the East. While most believed the market distance and attendant hazards of such a cattle drive were too great, some cattlemen and entrepreneurs saw vast profit potential.
The difficult, uphill route required ample water and grazing, manageable river crossings, and dealing with hostiles. When enterprising northerners built shipping pens and brought the Kansas Pacific railroad to Abilene, Kansas, in 1867, the stage was set. Early-day cowboy Edward C. “Teddy Blue” Abbott, in his memoir, We Pointed Them North, wrote:
Here was all these cheap long-horned steers over-running Texas; here was the rest of the country crying out for beef—and no railroads to get them out. So they trailed them out, across hundreds of miles of wild country.
Most drives began after spring roundup. With lush grama and buffalo grass along the way and what Gaylon Barrow described in his 2009 book The Western Trail as “bluestem as high as a man’s shoulder,” animals could actually gain weight on the cross-country trek. Indicative of its magnitude was Abbott’s description, from atop a rise, of the view: He could see seven herds strung out behind him, eight more up ahead, and the dust from an additional thirteen moving parallel to his. “All the cattle in the world seemed to be coming up from Texas,” he wrote.
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From the Red River to Altus, U.S. Highway 283 roughly tracks the Great Western Cattle Trail, as does State Highway 6 north to Elk City. From there, State Highway 34 parallels its course to Woodward, followed by U.S. Highway 183 to the Kansas border. The Museum of the Western Prairie in Altus includes a display of the Western Trail. 1100 Memorial Drive, (580) 482-1044..