Also known as the Texas Road, the Sedalia Trail, or the Kansas Trail, the Shawnee Trail was a major trade and emigrant route from Texas through Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri. Blazed along the paths of old Indian trails and military roads, Texas cattle were driven up the trail as early as the 1840s.
In fact, it is the earliest and easternmost route by which Texas Longhorn cattle were taken to the north from Austin, Waco, and Dallas Texas, crossing the Red River near Preston, Texas before following a path along the Grand River in present-day Oklahoma to Fort Gibson. From there, the trail split into several branches ending Baxter Springs, Kansas and St. Louis, Sedalia, Independence, and Westport, Missouri. It is unknown why it was called the Shawnee Trail, but it has been suggested that it was named for a Shawnee Indian village on the Red River.
Use of the Shawnee Trail gradually increased, but, as more and more cattle moved northward, so did a cattle disease that was soon called “Texas Fever”. The longhorn cattle appeared to be perfectly healthy, but Midwestern cattle allowed to mix with them or to use a pasture recently vacated by the longhorns sometimes became ill and often died. This was determined in 1853 after Texas cattle had been sold in Sarcoxie County, Missouri in the winter of 1852. Also called Spanish Fever, it was later determined that ticks were spreading the disease to the local cattle but the longhorns were immune to it. As a result, in June 1853, when some 3,000 longhorns were being driven up the Shawnee Trail in Missouri, local farmers blocked their passage and forced them back the way they came.
Though the use of the trail continued, many drovers avoided the blockades, which gave rise to stronger and more effective means of blocking them, including vigilance committees and political wrangling. By December 1855, the Missouri Legislature banned diseased cattle from being brought into or through the state. However, the ban was ineffective because the longhorn cattle were not themselves diseased. Farmers once again took matters into their own hands, often turning back the herds. Others began to drive their cattle through eastern Kansas, but soon met the same opposition and the Sunflower State passed its own protective law.
Parts of the trail would also serve stagecoach lines, most significantly — Butterfield’s Overland Mail between the years 1857 to 1861. When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Texas cattle were no longer allowed to be shipped northward, effectively cutting off the income and much of the economy of the Confederate state of Texas. At that time, there was little travel on the Shawnee Trail with exception of its use as a military road by both Union and Confederate Armies. In addition to moving supplies and troops along the pathway, two battles were fought along the route including the Battle of Honey Springs northeast of present-day Checotah, Oklahoma and the Battle of Baxter Springs in Kansas.
When the war was finally over, there was a large abundance of Texas cattle — some five million head — roaming the ranches of the Lone Star State. With no railroads to ship them to market, the cattle were worth only $3 to $4 a head. In the meantime, there was a pent-up demand for beef in the northern and eastern states where the going rate was 10 times that amount. Realizing the immense profits to be made, Texas cattlemen began searching for the nearest railheads. However, this would not be as easy as it might seem.
In the spring of 1866 drovers were wrangling an estimated 200,000 to 260,000 longhorns northward from Texas. While many were turned back or severely delayed due to Texas Fever, some drovers diverted their herds around the hostile settlements getting their cattle to market and making large profits. One of those caught in the net of vigilantes was a young man named James M. Daugherty.
In 1865, when Daugherty was just 15 years old, he went to work for a man named James Adams, one of the most extensive cattle raisers in Southwestern Texas. In the Spring of 1866, he was tasked with driving a herd of 500 head from his employer up to Sedalia, Missouri, then the terminus of the Missouri Pacific Railroad.
It was a particularly dangerous undertaking in the unsettled condition of the country, but it was necessary that the cattle should reach a market, and Mr. Adams had faith in young Daugherty’s ability to carry them through if anyone could do so. The story of the drive, as told by Daugherty, shows what difficulties the Texas cattlemen had to contend with in marketing their cattle in the days when fear of the introduction of Texas Fever was often assumed by unscrupulous people as an excuse for their own lawless actions.
Driving his slow-moving herd northward, Daugherty crossed the Red River and picked his way through the Arkansas Mountains to Fort Smith, in order to avoid payment of the exorbitant taxes assessed by the Indians upon herds passing through their Territory. This part of the trip was accomplished in safety and the southern Kansas-Missouri border was reached. But, he and the other drovers were far from safe. Before long they were attacked by a band of Jayhawkers dressed in buckskin and had on coonskin caps, and all armed, who told them the cattle could go no further North. The attackers stampeded the herd, killed one of the drovers, and tied Daugherty to a tree. In the end, Daugherty was able to recover about 350 head of cattle and ended up selling them in Fort Scott, Kansas for a profit.
But the days of cattle blazing the Shawnee Trail were virtually over. In the first half of 1867 six states enacted laws against trailing, and Texas cattlemen knew that something else would have to be done. At about this time, a young livestock dealer named Joseph G. McCoy conceived the idea of establishing a shipping depot for cattle at some point in the west and knew that the railroad companies were interested in expanding their freight operations. He soon selected Abilene, Kansas, and opened the Abilene Trail through Indian Territory from Texas.
As the developing railheads moved westward, more and more cowtowns would be born including Ellsworth, Caldwell, Wichita, and Dodge City, most of which developed reputations as wild and wooly frontier towns.
© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated December 2020.
List of Trail Blazers, Riders, & Cowboys
Cowboys on the American Frontier
The Range of the American West
Tales & Trails of the American West