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Area ranchers memorialize Great Western Trail

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Local ranchers throughout the state came together to complete the first segment of the Great Western Trail. (File Image/The Dickinson Press)

The Great Western Trail is a north-south cattle route which runs from Canada to Mexico through five western states of the United States. Historically it was the site of numerous cattle drives and the spirit of the west still whispers across each of its 4,455 miles. Most, particularly younger generations, may not know about this trail or its history — but all that will soon change if a handful of volunteer historians complete a monumental task.

This weekend, work began on marking the route from Canada to Mexico with the first segment starting in western North Dakota by crews composed of Bowman, Dickinson and Medora volunteers.

The crews came together from across North Dakota, hailing from places such as Bismarck, Dickinson and Belfield, and each sought to complete the first segment of the Great Western Trail project by putting up six-foot-high posts marking the route. One group started at the state’s southern border and headed North while others, mainly the group from the Western region, began at Belfield and headed South.

For ranchers like Jim Lowman, a lifetime western North Dakota rancher and history aficionado, the landmarks are an essential part of not just North Dakota’s history, but the entire United States history as well.

“You gotta know where you came from, or you don’t know where you’re at or where you’re going to go,” Lowman said. “It’s good to look back and see our history and preserve that. Besides, it’s quite interesting. We want the future generations to look back on it too.”

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Cattle has always been a major asset to the state of North Dakota, and while the state is known for its wide ranges and production of strong cattle, the Badlands of North Dakota also played a part of the Great Western Cattle Trail in the 1880s through the early 1890s.

According to Lowman, the trail was a lifeline to prosperity in North Dakota before even the territory became a state.

On Sunday, Lowman and others began their lofty endeavour placing posts every six miles so travelers could easily follow the trail.

“It’s all volunteer work. Just something we thought we ought to get done to preserve our history,” he said. “I have always lived ranching, from the time I was born. I was raised on a ranch in the badlands, and I still ranch in the Badlands, so what I cut my teeth on is the cowboy life and that’s what started in this country.”

According to Lowman, the trail originally started at the Texas-Mexico border in the 1870s and continued across the United States to the Canadian border.

On the trail cowboys would take massive herds of cattle across the country, usually with an average of 3,000 to 4,000 cows, and would sell to ranchers or slaughterhouses.

“It was a tough life, they lived in the weather,” Lowman said. “They didn’t have any shelter, they had a tough covered bedroll and then they had slickers most of them. Otherwise they were out in the elements day and night.”

Lowman recounted how cowboys would alternate shifts during nightfall to protect the herd.

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“Two guys a day had to do night herd, a two-hour shift for night herd, making sure the cows didn’t stampede, then they’d come in, wake up two more guys and they’d go out for two hours and the cycle would continue,” he said. “So they all had a night shift too, it was tough.”

Over the years, Texas and Oklahoma have each similarly embarked on marking the trail to help preserve its history and this weekend’s endeavour finally saw North Dakota join the herd.

While North Dakota ranchers who volunteered were happy with the progress, they admitted that the job is yet to be completed and could take a year or more.

“We’ve got to extend it on up, all the rest of the way North,” Lowman said. “But we don’t really have a time frame to get it done. Maybe this fall, maybe next year.”

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Cowboys gather a herd of grass-fed cattle into corrals south of Medora, an ode to a way of life in the Dakota Territories of years past. (Photo by James B. Miller, Jr. / The Dickinson Press)

Related Topics: CATTLEHISTORYNORTH DAKOTA
Matthew Curry is a sports reporter and photographer for the West Central Tribune.
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