A lot of people are interested in trails in Kansas which people used, such as the Santa Fe. But the trail that made Dodge City famous moved far more animals than people.
The history leading up to the Western Cattle Trail began in the 16th century when Spanish explorers brought longhorn cattle to south Texas aboard their ships. Their plan was to have herds of cattle in place for potential settlers.
The mass of settlers didn't materialize, but the cattle left behind flourished. By the end of the Civil War millions of "feral" cattle inhabited the land nearly 1,000 miles to our south. They belonged to no one and were free meat for the taking.
However, that was not as wonderful as it sounds. First the cattle had to rounded up, branded and fed for the arduous trip north to Kansas and beyond. And it took about 12 cowboys to herd 3,000 longhorns.
Shortly after the Civil War, cowboys brought cattle up to central Kansas on the Chisholm Trail, but a problem developed. The longhorns carried, but were immune to, a tick-borne disease "Texas Fever" which was fatal to domestic herds in eastern and central Kansas. In 1874, in response to this threat, the government established a north-south quarantine line east of Dodge City. This quarantine placed the Chisholm to the east off-limits to the longhorns.
In 1874, Captain John T. Lytle was the first to herd his 3,500 cattle up the Western Cattle Trail. Lytle didn't stop in Dodge City but continued north. Also known as the Western Trail, Fort Griffin Trail, Dodge City Trail, Northern Trail or Texas Trail, this trail went through western Kansas for next 11 years and was the main route for longhorns coming from Texas.
Within five years the Western Trail was the most heavily traveled trail in the United States. Passing through Dodge City, the longhorns either continued to points north or were placed on railcars. Some historians estimate Dodge City was the endpoint for only 20 percent of the cattle. Cattle usually continued north as far as the Dakotas, Wyoming or Montana. Dodge City often served only as a brief, but necessary, respite from the ardors of the Trail.
The trip was not only difficult for the longhorns but also for the cowboys who accompanied them. It consisted of weeks filled with long dusty days in the saddle away from the comforts of home. It was usually boring, with unappetizing food, no booze and no female companionship.
Things were worse when it wasn't boring. Sometimes the routine was disrupted by stampedes, violent storms, high water, rattlesnakes, illness, injury and, on rare occasions, Indian attacks. As the years passed, run-ins with farmers and ranchers increased as the west was settled.
Settlement lead to the ultimate demise of the drives. Conflicts with homesteaders and fences threatened the drives. The deathblow came in 1885 when the quarantine line, meant to prevent the spread of Texas Fever to settlers' herds, moved west to the Colorado border. This halted the drives up the Western Trail and through Kansas. Though a form of the Western Cattle Trail lasted until 1897, cattle drives through eastern Colorado never reached the numbers as those passing through Dodge City.
Today, ruts left by over four million longhorns mark parts of the Western Trail. The Trail roughly follows US Highway 283 from Dodge City through Oklahoma into most of Texas. Various civic groups and organizations have placed markers and monuments along the Trail. Efforts are underway to designate the Western Cattle Trail as a National Historic Trail.
The Dodge City Chapter of the Western Cattle Trail Association promotes the history of the Trail.
They will be meeting at the Cowtown Club on Dec. 13 at 4:30 p.m. For more information, contact President Mike Strodtman at 620-826-5526.