by Frank W. Jennings
Maps of the Chisholm Trail—the combination of converging routes
used by cattle drivers who moved herds from south Texas to the railheads
in Kansas and Missouri from 1867 to 1875—show a side trail called
the Shawnee Trail, which parallels the eastern side of the Chisholm Trail
from deepest south Texas all the way to Waco, Texas, where it branches
off to the east, crosses the Red River and the Canadian River and goes
through Indian Territory (Oklahoma) all the way to St. Louis, Missouri.
The Chisholm Trail (University of Oklahoma Press, 1954), by Wayne Gard, tells that the Shawnee Trail led from the ranges of southern and southwestern Texas past San Antonio, Austin, Waco and Dallas. It headed north, keeping to the high prairies, and skirting the post oak cross timbers. Herds swam the Red River near Preston in Grayson County.
Texas drovers who used this route in the 1850’s, called it either the Cattle Trail, the Kansas Trail or merely the trail. The name “Shawnee Trail” dates to as early as 1874. Some suggest the name came from an Indian village, called Shawneetown, on the Texas bank of the Red River just below the trail crossing. Or perhaps it might have come from the Shawnee Hills, which the route skirted before crossing the Canadian River.
The Shawnees were an Algonquian-speaking people, as were the Delawares and others. They were driven away from the Eastern United States by the early settlers who came there from Europe. They were forced to move toward the West.
From 1828 to 1846, the U. S. government established an area to hold nearly all the displaced Indian groups, including Shawnees, but the area had no recognized local government. At first called "Indian Territory," it later became Oklahoma, and entered the Union in 1907.
The Shawnees served as especially valuable guides for early expeditions and explorations by the U. S. Army, when it mapped unknown territory and sought the best overland routes.
One of the most outstanding of the U. S. Army explorers was Randolph Barnes Marcy, who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1832. He saw limited battlefield action in the war with Mexico, the Second Seminole War and the Civil War. He became known as "the hero of the Mormon War" for his 634-mile march through the snowcovered Rocky Mountains to get remounts and provisions for the beleaguered U. S. Army. Historian George B. Ward described him as "one of the important soldier-explorers of his century." Marcy retired from the military in 1881 as a brigadier general.
The Prairie Traveler, a Handbook for Overland Expeditions, written by Marcy and published in 1859 is a revealing presentation of life in the western wilderness in the 1800s. It is a detailed guide on how to cope with the wilds -- how to find the best trails, protect oneself from the elements, how to ford a river, and how to treat illnesses, sores and wounds, how to deal with strange Indians.
Marcy learned much from the Shawnee and Delaware Indians whom he preferred as guides and hunters because of their amazing capabilities. They were paid a dollar and half a day, and one ration. He was fortunate about the Shawnees and Delawares, because Indians in most groups were unwilling to serve in this capacity.
Marcy was accompanied on one of his trips by his friend William Brown Parker, a New York City businessman and editor who wanted to see the West. Parker wrote about his adventure in Notes Taken During the Expedition Commanded by Capt. R. B. Marcy, U.S.A., Through Unexplored Texas, In the Summer and Fall of 1854, which was published in 1856.
Parker said that the Shawnees and Delawares were scattered throughout the South and West, though their principle settlement was on the Caw River in Missouri. He wrote that: "Wherever they are found, they preserve the same character for truth, honesty, and intelligence, and are ever ready, at a moment’s warning, to take service, as hunters, guides, or interpreters, and travel hundreds of miles from home."
It seems not unlikely that the Shawnee Trail acquired its name near Waco, where it branched off to the east, heading past Dallas, through Indian Territory and on toward the railroads running through Kansas City and Sedalia, Missouri -- and eventually the name was picked up by drovers all the way to the cattle trail’s southern source.
Not far from traces of the old trail today, is the town of Shawnee, Oklahoma.
When we read about the Shawnee Trail today we can be reminded of some of the best trailblazers in American history. (Copyright 1994)
[Authors note: the word "drovers" appears twice in this article. Also, note that "drivers" appears once. This is intentional. FWJ.]