FINDING THE GREAT WESTERN TRAIL
by Sylvia Gann Mahoney
published by Texas Tech University Press
The Great Western Trail (GWT) is a nineteenth-century cattle trail that originated in northern Mexico, ran west parallel to the Chisholm Trail, traversed the United States for some two thousand miles, and terminated after crossing the Canadian border. Yet through time, misinformation, and the perpetuation of error, the historic path of this once-crucial cattle trail has been lost. Finding the Great Western Trail documents the first multi-community effort made to recover evidence and verify the route of the Great Western Trail.
The GWT had long been celebrated in two neighboring communities: Vernon, Texas, and Altus, Oklahoma. Separated by the Red River, a natural border that cattle trail drovers forded with their herds, both Vernon and Altus maintained a living trail history with exhibits at local museums, annual trail-related events, ongoing narratives from local descendants of drovers, and historical monuments and structures. So when Western Trail Historical Society members in Altus challenged the Vernon Rotary Club to mark the trail across Texas every six miles, the effort soon spread along the trail in part through Rotary networks from Mexico, across nine US states, and into Saskatchewan, Canada.
This book is the story of finding and marking the trail, and it stands as a record of each community’s efforts to uncover their own GWT history. What began as local bravado transformed into a grass-roots project that, one hopes, will bring the previously obscured history of the Great Western Trail to light.
An Interview with the Author
Describe your book in one sentence. I’ll quote a noted historian, Tai Kreidler, Texas Tech University historian: “Finding the Great Western Trail chronicles the most amazing public history project in America.”
What is the most important thing you have to do as an author of nonfiction vs. fiction? Nonfiction requires documentation of facts for it to be useful for research and for readers who use it to build on their factual knowledge of history.
What made you want to share your story and write this book? The Great Western Trail, the last and longest of the Texas cattle trails that moved longhorns to northern markets, had almost been forgotten. The Hollywood-famous Chisholm Trail that ran some ninety to one hundred miles east of the GWT had overshadowed it, even given its name erroneously to portions of the GWT.
In 2004, the Vernon, Texas, Rotary Club was challenged to mark the Great Western Trail across the twenty counties that the GWT crossed before it exited into Oklahoma at Doan’s Crossing on the Red River. I accepted the co-chair position of the history-research project, which resulted, because of Rotary, in the becoming the Marking the Great Western Trail from Mexico to Canada.
With more than eight hundred volunteers along the two-thousand mile trail agreeing to document the path of the GWT across their county, state, or province, it became important to give the volunteers recognition for their research to discover and preserve GWT history and to promote it by setting white-with-red-GWT-letters on a seven-foot cement post along the trail.
This book will also unify small rural towns along the trail so that they can promote tourism with competition along the trail. It is a record of the towns and of the more than eight hundred people along the trail, a record with great economic possibilities for promoting the cowboy way of life.
Did your research for this book lead you into any other interesting discoveries? My research led to my visiting every location that dedicated a GWT marker along the two–thousand–mile trail. Visiting the sites along the path of the GWT gave me visual effects of the environment that some 10-12 drovers faced as they trailed herds of some twenty-five hundred to thirty-five hundred longhorns across an often unforgiving landscape: Romanticism shows the trail to have long stretches of grasslands with rivers usually accessible at the end of a day’s journey. However, those stretches, without rain, often left the cattle without ample fodder to graze as they moved north. The rivers, on occasion, were more than a day’s drive. Rivers could be flooding, so drovers, fearing stampedes and drowning, waited while trying to hold the herds during lightning storms. Often, the results were deadly.
What steps did you take to prepare for writing this book? I collected names, took photos, local histories, listened to ancestors living on the land that their drover ancestors claimed when they pocketed enough gold from delivering cattle to invest in ranchland and cattle. To interview descendants whose histories of the trail were in their scrapbooks and photos on the walls, their history became an introduction to the people who carved out businesses that have become generational businesses. One verification, having been raised on a farm/ranch operation, is that the people whose businesses involve stewardship of the land and indigenous wildlife understand the importance of preserving the ecosystem. They respect the relationship between humans and nature.
What resources or tools did you find useful in writing this book? A master’s degree in English and a minor in history as well as teaching writing and research on the college level for many years supported my writing efforts.
How long did it take you, beginning of research to final product, to complete this book?I started collecting my research documentation in 2004 when we started visiting towns in the twenty counties in Texas to dedicate their first GWT marker, often on the courthouse lawn or at a museum. We basically completed marking the trail from Matamoros, Mexico, to Val Marie, Saskatchewan, in 2011. My book is scheduled to be published by Texas Tech University Press in December 2015.
What do you want people to take away from reading this book? The project brought citizens from three countries together using our common historical and economic thread of cowboys going up an economic trail moving longhorns to sell to eastern markets or to stock northern states open-range ranches. In so doing, cattle and horse industries were established. Of major importance, the legend of the cowboy whose ethics and self-reliance continues in the work environment and lives of the people who populate the path of the trail. Rotarians whose network from Mexico across nine US states into Canada have the equivalent of the Code of the Cowboy in its 4-Way Test, which fosters truth, fairness, good will, friendship, and benefits for all.
How did you become involved with the subject or theme of your book? At Vernon, Texas, where I lived, each May Day, the annual Doan’s Picnic had been held continuously since its origin in 1884. After the Great Western Trail drovers crossed the Red River at Doan’s Crossing, a low-water crossing on the Red River, their wives had a picnic.
Why did you choose to write in your particular field or genre? History provides a rich source of heroes, villains, rare circumstances, and memorable, motivational experiences that show life at its best and worse. What could be better?
What was the hardest part of writing this book? This book records Great Western Trail history from 1874 to 1893; however, it also records the making of GWT history from 2004 to current times. The complexity of moving from third person to first person, a rare nonfiction issue, required a constant assessment of the flow of ideas.
What did you enjoy most about writing this book? It gives credit to the hundreds of volunteers who readily joined our marking the trail research project at their own expense and contribution of hours and hours of research. The most amazing collateral was the strong friendships that evolved and continues among the trail researchers and participants.
Even the Rotary International President Ray Klinginsmith, whose theme for his speaking tour of more than 200 countries, was Cowboy Logic and Cowboy Ethics, brought his support. He requested an international goodwill photo shoot at Brownsville, Texas, with representatives from the three countries attending. He also helped dedicate the GWT marker at Miles City, Montana, the first time a Rotary International president had visited Montana. Unity among three countries is important in our world, a world fraught with violence and division.
For those interested in exploring the subject or theme of your book, where should they start? This is a critical point that readers should take to heart and read closely. The Great Western Trail was not academically documented until 1965 when historian Jimmy M. Scaggs wrote his Texas Tech University thesis, “The Great Western Cattle Trail to Dodge City, Kansas.” One man tried to change the name from Great Western Trail to Longhorn Chisholm Trail, with this continuing to be an issue. Fiction writers used the name Western, the direction the trail traveled when the Eastern Trail (later known as the Chisholm Trail) closed due to homesteaders laying claim to the eastern part of Kansas and tick fever decimating the domestic cattle. Vast amounts of erroneous information continues to proliferate today, especially on the Internet.
What advice would you give to writers just starting out? Make accurate documented notes and documented photos as you record them. Maintain a plan for organizing these. Your organization plan will provide an overarching perspective for the table of contents for your book.
What is the most useful writing advice you ever received? The least useful? When I wrote my first book, I had done research on it for many years. I met a friend and noted author at an airport. He asked if my book had been published. I said that I had more research to do. He said, “Get your book published; put the rest of it in another book.” Words of Wisdom!
Sylvia Gann Mahoney was an educator for thirty-three years at community colleges in Texas and New Mexico as an administrator, teacher, and rodeo team coach. She became involved with the Great Western Trail project through her involvement in the Rotary Club of Vernon. She now lives in Fort Worth.