Western Trips

Friday, July 20, 2012

Western Trails / Doan's Crossing

One of the most historic sites you'll find regarding the days of the cattle drives and the Western Trails is found in a remote area of north Texas directly on the Red River. It's not a site you will just happen by but it is a site the history minded traveler just may wish to visit. The small settlement known as Doan's Crossing is on the Texas side of the Red River northeast of the town of Vernon Texas. To reach the site of Doan's Crossing, drive north from Vernon Texas on US Hwy 283 and at about 12 miles out of Vernon turn right on FM 924. Drive east on FM Road 924 until it intersects with FM 2916.

doan's crossing house
Doan's House at Doan's Crossing
Doan's Crossing was a strategic outpost on the Western Cattle Trail, sometimes referred to as the Texas Trail or the Great Western Trail and at some points even the Dodge City Trail. Doan's Crossing on the Western Trail consisted of a general store. It was the very last settlement before the cattle were driven up into Indian Territory, present day Oklahoma, on their way to Dodge City Kansas. Dodge City was the rail head and the final destination of these herds which had been driven north all the way from deep south Texas. The Western Trail was quite significant itself in as much as it was the longest cattle trail in the country. The trail can be traced all the way from the Rio Grande in south Texas to the Canadian border. Along the way there were many branches spreading into Wyoming, Montana and the Dakota's.The Great Western Trail was about 2,000 miles in length.

The cattle industry in Texas took off at the end of the Civil War. There was an abundance of cattle in Texas that had been increasing during the war years and when the war. When the war concluded there was a great demand for beef. The railroads were expanding west rapidly and the cow towns of Abilene Kansas and Dodge City were born. A good deal of the cattle drives were being shifted to western trails as opposed to the Chisholm Trail which also ran south to north but about 100 miles further east. The Chisholm Trail was directed toward Abilene Kansas whereas the Western Trail was directed toward Dodge City. The modern day tourist can pretty much follow the Great Western Trail by driving US Hwy 183/283 and looking for the historic markers about every ten miles.

monument at doan's crossing texas
Doan's Crossing Texas monument
Jonathan Doan and his nephew, Corwin, had operated a trading post at the site while trading with Indians to the north across the Red River. The Doan's did a good deal of trading near the Fort Sill area. The site along the Red River thus picked up the name of 'Doan's Crossing". This was a section of the Red River that offered easy fording. It has been reported that the Doans kept a record of cattle crossings and the peak year was said to be 1883 with over 300,000 head of cattle fording the Red River.

There are a few different interpretations as to who exactly established the Western Trail in Texas. First of all, it's understood that many trails followed old Indian trails which likewise often followed the trail of the buffalo. Exploration for suitable cattle trails often was a search for older trails. Accessibility to water of course was crucial for any cattle drive and buffalo and Native American trails would generally follow the water. The rancher who would be credited with establishing the trail was John T. Lytle who had opened a trailing firm. The business would supervise the trailing of herds for Texas ranchers to the northern rail heads, at that time mainly being Dodge City. Interestingly enough, Lytle found himself in this business after ill health caught up with him as a clerk in Bexar County Texas. Lytle first moved to a relative's ranch where the outdoors would hopefully improve his health. The next stop for John Lytle was the Civil War where he served in the Texas Cavalry. When the war ended he returned to his families ranch and then started one of his own. By the year 1871 Lytle formed his trailing business partnership and used the Great Western Trail for the drives northward.

doan's crossing cattle brands marker
Cattle brands on Doan's Crossing marker
The great cattle trails of the west had their heyday during the period after the Civil War up until the turn of the century. The purpose of the cattle trails were to drive the herd to rail heads for shipment east. The railroad expanded greatly during the last thirty years of the 19th century and with more rail heads, the shorter the distances of cattle drives. Two excellent books with detailed information about the early ranchers and the cattle drives are The Cattle Kings by author Lewis Atherton and Charles Goodnight: Cowman and Plainsman by author J. Evetts Haley.

You'll find these related articles interesting  regarding the cattle drives out of Texas in the late 1800's. Legendary Texas Panhandle rancher Charles Goodnight and the famous Waggoner Ranch of north Texas.

One other interesting thing about present day Doan's Crossing is the annual picnic held there usually the first Saturday in May. The event is a celebration and picnic with riders crossing the Red River at the same point that the Western Trail cattle drives did over a century ago.Those who are direct descendants of the Doan's  are crowned Queen and King at the yearly Coronation.The public is invited to attend this quite unique event. The most up to date information about Doan's Crossing, the Great Western Trail and scheduled western events in the area can be found at the Red River Valley Museum in Vernon Texas.

(Photos from author's private collection)