'Degree of permanence': Great Western Cattle Trail marked with obelisks to preserve western heritage

The Great Western Cattle Trail was used during the late 19th century for movement of cattle and horses to markets in eastern and northern states. North Dakota Great Western Trail Chair Darrell Dorgan explains the process of marking the trail, courtesy of a handful of volunteers who placed obelisks and black marble markers from the South Dakota border to Belfield last summer and completed the remainder of the North Dakota portion in its entirety this summer.

Cowboys, who drove cattle up from Texas along the Great Western Cattle Trail, are pictured. The Great Western Cattle Trail was used during the late 19th century for movement of cattle and horses to markets in eastern and northern states. (Photo courtesy of ND Great Western Cattle Trail website)
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Long before ranches and homesteads existed on the frontier, cowboys drove longhorns and horses all the way from Matamoros, Mexico, to open-ranges in the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana Dakota territories — even into two provinces in Canada. For almost 100 days, groups of valiant, tough and ornery cowboys would spend their days atop a saddle, riding into unknown territory for the promise of an adventure and a leg up in a new world. The 2,000-mile trek paved the way for today’s ranchers and cattlemen.

The path that winded it way through valleys, buttes, prairies and deserts was called the Great Western Cattle Trail.

While much of the trail today is covered in barbed wired properties, highways and byways, there are those who are taking the steps to preserve the trail and its significant history in the Great Western Trail Project.

Rotary Clubs from the brushlands along the Rio Grande in south Texas to the prairies of North Dakota have teamed up to mark the trail with cement obelisks every six to 10 miles, and North Dakota is the third of nine states on the historic trail that began marking its area. The process has been long and arduous, and neigh impossible without the assistance of so many volunteers.

The final cement marker in North Dakota was unveiled June 27 at Fort Buford, near Williston, N.D. in a ceremonious gathering.


For project chair Darrell Dorgan, this project has taken an abundance of his personal time and effort. Dorgan said in reflection on the years long project and planning that it’s an overwhelming feeling to see this project come to fruition.

“It feels like a degree of permanence. A hundred years from now you’re going to be able to go down the road and point and say, ‘Whoa, look what happened here.’ This was part of what built America,” Dorgan said. “We depend now on the oil industry in western North Dakota, but please don’t forget ranching was the first industry in western North Dakota and still is. It’s a big industry out there, and there are people in ranches in western North Dakota who actually came up with the Great Western Cattle Trail.”

A map of the Great Western Cattle Trail shows the world's longest cattle trail. (Photo courtesy of ND Great Western Cattle Trail website)

Dorgan, former journalist and the first director of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, said that he believes this project will help revitalize more rural towns along the historic trail with economic opportunities as well as preserve what made the West what it is today.

“Now (that) North Dakota is done… South Dakota and six other states… still need to do this to finish this project, but this is the potentiality of becoming another tourism road up through the heartland of western America for people who love western history,” Dorgan said.


The concrete 7-foot-long white obelisks were made possible by Dickinson Ready Mix, which was headed by Stark County historian and businessman Scott Olin.

“This would not have been possible had it not been for Scott… I went over initially to talk to Scott, hoping that he would throw in five posts into the deal (and) make them… (But) he turns out to be a real history buff; he sat there and listened to the story and looked at some of the information I had and said, ‘Well how many do you need?’” Dorgan said. “I have no idea what value of the contribution is monetarily but I can tell you this would not have happened without him.”

Cowboys rest under some trees during lunch hour before getting back to driving a herd of cattle along the Great Western Cattle Trail during the late 1890s. (Photo courtesy of ND Great Western Cattle Trail website)

Dorgan noted that the generous donation from Dickinson Ready Mix helps keep history alive.

“...Had we not done it, this trail would have gone unmarked for another 20 years. It completely would have been forgotten about forever,” Dorgan said. “... It was the primary north (and) south economic route in the United States. For about 20-some years, there were nine million head of cattle and horses that came up there.”

Western history is spread across the central part of the nation even in small towns.

“If you watched westerns when you were a kid, (if) you watched Dodge City, Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty and the Long Branch Saloon, you had the same thing going on in North Dakota. The first saloon that Theodore Roosevelt stayed at when he came to North Dakota in 1883 and he bought a ranch that year, … was not the Long Branch; it was called Big Mouth Bob’s Bug Juice Dispensary. So you've got an incredible amount of western history,” Dorgan remarked.


Jim Ozbun stands near the erected cement obelisk, which marks the Great Western Cattle Trail in Amidon, N.D. The obelisks came as a generous donation from Dickinson Ready Mix. (Photo courtesy of Darrell Dorgan

Jim Ozbun, former North Dakota State University president who now lives in Dickinson, also played a major role in launching this project back when served as district governor for Rotary District 5580 in 2007-2008. He placed the first marker of the Great Western Cattle Trail in Medora in May of 2008. But Ozbun also had a family tie to the historic trail.

His grandfather Lee Massey was just 15 years old when he came up with a herd of cattle on the trail as a drover from Texas to Medora, N.D., in the 1890s during the time

Marquis de Morès was still in the area — the town that was named after his wife.

“It’s really nice and I feel proud of the fact that I had relatives that were involved with it. Many people (brought) cattle into the Great Plains during that period of time. That's really significant in terms of my history,” Ozbun noted.

Once all the remaining states complete their sections to mark the trail, the goal of this project is to give people the opportunity to relive the cowboy experience whether it be driving across the center of the United States, backpacking on foot, bicycling or the traditional method — on horseback.

“It’s important because it preserves the history of North Dakota and it’s really important because it was the starting point for the cattle industry in western North Dakota. The cattle industry continues today as a significant part of our economy. So bringing those cattle up to this area and bringing the people that were involved (with the trail), some of them ended up staying here, and started ranches, and those ranches are still in existence today,” Ozbun added.

Volunteers and history buffs gather near the erected cement obelisk near Amidon, N.D., for the Great Western Cattle Trail.(Photo courtesy of Darrell Dorgan)

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Jackie Jahfetson is a graduate of Northern Michigan University whose journalism path began in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan as a freelancer for The Daily Mining Gazette. Her previous roles include editor-in-chief at The North Wind and reporter at The Mining Journal in Marquette, Mich. Raised on a dairy farm, she immediately knew Dickinson would be her first destination west as she focuses on gaining aptitude for ranch life, crop farming and everything agriculture. She covers hard news stories centered on government, fires, crime and education. When not fulfilling deadlines and attending city commission meetings, she is a budding musician and singer.
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