Volunteers Preserve Historic Cattle Trail Through Western North Dakota

From the Bismarck Tribune – June 25, 2021
Jim Lowman was glad to see three Alexander high school boys recently help with setting markers on a historic cattle trail over the Great Plains.

“I was pleased that these young fellas got involved in history and seemed to enjoy what they were doing,” the Fairfield-area rancher said.

The volunteer project commemorates the Great Western Cattle Trail, over which millions of horses and cattle were driven north from Mexico and Texas from the 1870s to the 1890s. The trail traversed nine states, including North Dakota — the third state to mark the historic route, after similar efforts in Texas and Oklahoma.

The trail generally followed what is now north-south U.S. Highway 85. Fifty-seven 7-foot concrete posts parallel the highway from the South Dakota line to Fort Buford State Historic Site, near Williston. Several plaques in various towns along the way give a history of the trail.

Project organizers will formally dedicate the project with the last marker in a public event at 2 p.m. Sunday at Fort Buford.

The trail’s historic significance to ranching is what attracted Lowman and other volunteers to the project.

“I felt like I ought to be a part of it and get this done and establish some history,” he said.

Project chair and former broadcaster Darrell Dorgan called the trail “a superhighway across the Great Plains,” key in the history of cattle country.

“This was a fascinating project. It really was,” he said.

The project dates to the first marker installed in 2008 at the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame in Medora, where Dorgan was executive director. 

Volunteer efforts began in earnest three years ago on the project, he said. Rotary clubs, ranchers, landowners and history buffs have all contributed, with “no government money behind this at all,” Dorgan said.

The 2021 Legislature passed a resolution honoring the trail and volunteer efforts to commemorate it.

Dickinson Ready-Mix Co. President/General Manager Scott Olin poured and donated the posts made from unused concrete, and his crew also painted and delivered them, Dorgan said — “an incredible gift.”

Ranchers gave permission for setting markers on their land, along the highway, he said. As many as 20 volunteers set markers from Belfield to Williston last week.

Project organizer Jim Ozbun, who was president of North Dakota State University from 1988-95, said volunteers raised about $6,000 for the effort. Donations for the first marker, a bronze one, also totaled about $6,000.

Ozbun’s grandfather brought cattle into North Dakota during the trail’s heyday and was even offered a job at 15 by the wily Marquis de Morès, a French aristocrat who founded Medora in 1883.

“He didn’t take the job, but that’s some of our history,” said Ozbun, a Flasher native who ranched north of Dickinson after retiring from NDSU.

Dorgan said Sunday’s event takes place at what he considers “the most historic spot in North Dakota,” near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, home of the Fort Union trading post and Fort Buford military post.

Eventually the history plaques will have scannable barcodes to tell visitors about local events and attractions, he said.

“In essence what this is going to kind of turn out to be, I suspect, is a new tourism route from Mexico to Canada,” he said. 

Great Western Cattle Trail Featured in Rotarian


The Great Western Cattle Trail was recently featured in the National Rotarian magazine highlighting the great efforts to preserve this rich history. Check it out online at https://www.rotary.org/en/rotarians-resurrect-forgotten-great-western-trail

Great Western Cattle Trail Plaques

Between 1874 and 1893, seven million head of cattle and horses went up the Great Western Trail from Texas through nine U.S. states into Canada.  This famous trail lasted more years, carried more cattle, and was longer than any other cattle trail in the United States.  The trail had a significant impact on the economy of the western United States, assisting in the establishment of the ranching and livestock industry.   

Longhorns were gathered around Matamoras, Mexico and south Texas, and were then driven north through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, and on to Canada.  These vast herds established the famous Great Western Trail, on which you stand  today. 

The first trail herd to reach North Dakota left Texas in 1884.  A daring band of cowboys piloted a monster herd from the Rio Grande to the Little Missouri River.  Until the decline of the trail’s use in the 1890s, millions of cattle and horses continued up the trail where they thrived on rich prairie grasses of the endless Plains. 

Along with cattle came cowboys out of Texas and elsewhere who established ranches and helped grow North Dakota’s western heritage which is still strong and prosperous.  From these romantic, wild days comes much of our rich western history that still thrives and is celebrated. Rotary clubs, the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, local groups and people interested in preserving North Dakota’s heritage and history banded together to mark this important trail for future generations.                               

Great Western Cattle Trail Featured in Working Ranch

A celebration of the history of the Great Western Trail will be held in Texas this summer.  

They’re inviting anyone interested in The Great Western Cattle Trail project to consider making the trip and joining them.  In turn, they would send a group to North Dakota when we plant the first obelisk and plaque at the Slope County Courthouse in Amidon this summer.  

Jim Nordby has amazingly singed agreements with ranchers from South Dakota to Amidon to place Great Western obilesks on their lands next to Highway 85.  The group decided the first obelisk will be placed between the courthouse and Highway 85 at the courthouse in Amidon and it will be a press event. The County Commission approved the placement a couple of years ago.   The rest of the markers between South Dakota and I-94 will be placed the summer of 2020. Summer of 2021 the markers between Belfield and Williston will be placed. 

Landowners who have signed to allow obelisks on their land from South Dakota to Amidon include Paul White, Lowell Faris, Wayne Mrnak, City of Bowman, Wes Andrews, Dick Folske, Steve Brooks, Doug Pope, Dick Fredert, and the County Courthouse in Amidon. 

The first marker will be placed on the state line when there is a pull-off highway 85, if we can get permission from state highway officials.  It, like four others along the route will feature a bronze plaque explaining The Great Western Trail and its significance.  

John Hanson is obtaining signatures from landowners from Amidon to I-94.