The Wallace Branch of the Great Western Cattle Trail came to exist from a combination of factors: first, demand for beef; second, lack of rail transportation from Texas to the beef packing houses; third, the tide of settlement that pushed cattle drives ever westward; and last, the Smoky Hill Cattle Pool‘s formation.
Longhorns make the long trip from Texas to the railheads
After the Civil War, Texans were impoverished. But they did have lots of longhorn cattle. In Texas, a longhorn steer might bring $4 — if a buyer could be found. People in the northeastern states wanted to eat beef. They would pay $40 a head.
In 1874, John Lytle and his cowboys blazed a new cattle trail from South Texas. They drove 3,500 cattle to Ft. Robinson in Nebraska’s northwest panhandle. The trail they blazed would be named the Western Cattle Trail (PDF). It was longer and carried more cattle than its more famous counterpart, the Chisholm Trail. Cowboys drove over 7 million head of livestock from Texas and Oklahoma to Kansas and Nebraska railheads, spreading the cattle industry as far as Wyoming and Montana. (The famous TV miniseries “Lonesome Dove” took place along the Western Trail.)
The cattle trails bisected the spread of homesteaders across the Great Plains. The Homestead Act opened vast areas of the Great Plains to settlement. The cowboys called the homesteaders “nesters“. Nesters and cowboys were a volatile mix. The cowboys wanted open range to move their cattle without impediment, while homesteaders wanted to fence their properties, usually with barbed wire.
Pushing the Western Cattle Trail westward
The homesteaders generally objected to the giant herds of longhorns moving across their properties. The cattle trampled crops and broke fences. However, the worst curse of the longhorns was invisible. Texas cattle carried a certain tick. This tick species carried Texas fever, an infection 95 percent fatal to settlers’ cattle, which had no immunity to the disease.
Because of the damage the cattle herds caused, the Kansas Legislature implemented quarantine lines to keep the longhorns away from settlers’ cattle. As settlement moved westward, so did quarantine lines. In order to follow the law, the Western Trail moved westward ahead of the quarantine lines. In 1883, a group of ranchers formed the Smoky Hill Cattle Pool, building a 48-mile fence that blocked the trail. The pool’s fence stood on public lands.
The Wallace Branch is born
In order to avoid the fence, trail bosses turned their longhorns west at the fence line, then northwest once they were away from it. This route was called the Wallace Branch, named for Fort Wallace, which had been decommissioned May 31, 1882. Few settlers had arrived in the western edge of Kansas. Because of the lack of population, the cattle drives had few human obstacles. The new route also had major disadvantages. It was longer and drier than the other Western Trail routes. The herds found no reliable water sources for stretches of 40 and 50 miles. The herds could cover 15 miles in an average day’s travel. That meant days of no water for people and animals. And 1880-1884 were very dry years.
The cowboys looked forward to mail at the Bray Post Office, the first post office after the cowboys left Dodge City. Elijah Bray’s post office along Beaver Creek was Sherman County’s first.
The Wallace Branch exited Kansas at Texas Trail Canyon, where Nebraska inspected the herds before allowing them to enter that state. The canyon formed a natural holding pen. In 1886, the inspection station estimated that 150,000 cattle had followed the Wallace Branch to the Nebraska line.
Quarantine law ends cattle drives through Kansas
In 1885, the Kansas Legislature blocked all Texas cattle from crossing the state unless the cattle had been north of the 36th latitude since December of the previous year. Outfits had to drive their cattle through Colorado or further west or load them on railroad cars.
Western Trail may become a National Historic Trail without the Wallace Branch
The National Park Service is considering the Great Western Cattle Trail for inclusion in the National Historic Trail program. Unfortunately, the NPS has neglected to include the Wallace Branch in their feasibility study. They do recognize the Wallace Branch (PDF); they just snubbed it.
Commemorate the Wallace Branch every July 4
Every July 4, Homestead Ranch hosts the Great Western Cattle Drive. The site of Bray Post Office is now home to a buffalo and longhorn ranch. Learn about the trail and the cattle drive in this Facebook group.
To learn more about the Western Trail, including the Wallace Branch, we recommend “The Western Cattle Trail, 1874-1897: Its Rise, Collapse and Revival“, by Gary and Margaret Kraisinger.