Did Our Nation Build Our National Highway System on Ancient Indigenous Trails?




Our US government, as our people moved westward at the beginning of our great nation, used Native American trails to move settlers ever further into middle America to finally meet from sea to shining sea. 

"In the New World," said Carl Sauer in his 1932 monograph, The Road to Cibola, "the routes of great explorations usually have become historic highways and thus has been forged a link connecting the distant past with the modern present. For the explorers followed main trails beaten by many generations of Indian travel."

As far back as eight or nine millennia ago, Native Americans forged the trails for purposes of hunting, harvesting seeds, nuts, and fruits, commerce, warfare, and religion. As their cultures grew over time, they mapped out thousands of trails that interconnected from the southern tip of Brazil to the northern shores of Canada and western Alaska. 

We have many iconic highways across the U.S., but especially the Lincoln Highway and Route 66. These highways live and breathe today with traffic supporting the same purposes the Native Americans used before European invasion into the Americas. Oklahoma and Texas are not excluded in this history, with many of our roads and highways that began with indigenous ingenuity. 

How Did Native Americans Forge our Highway System? 

Before horses came to the two American continents, Native Americans traded and warred with each other throughout the centuries in every region on both continents on foot. Archeologists have found proof of natural resources from North America in South America and vice versa. 

The Native American peoples followed the path of least resistance, just like animals and insects do for survival purposes when forging a trail. The natives used what we call today, Indian marker trees in Oklahoma and Texas. They bent trees by tying them down with leather thongs and ties to mark their trails, pointing to the next direction. 

We have two certified Indian marker trees in Grayson County, Texas. Richard Denney, a historian fascinated with studying the old Indian trails, told the Austin Statesman, “Among history nuts, there are some who are particularly fascinated with old trails. There is actually a name these people sometimes call themselves: ‘rut nuts.’” 

The Indians followed rivers and ridgelines that connected the first highwaymen in the Americas to natural resources and trade opportunities. Their trails were near food and water supplies, and low crossings at rivers and streams. They also cached away supplies in tree trunks or under rocks for those that followed behind them on the same trails. Cache, Oklahoma, is named for this strategy. 

Oklahoma and Texas Road Development

The Spanish explorers and their priests, and at first, the fur traders who became fur trappers back in the late 1700s were the first to venture into their unknown territories in Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas. 

The Spaniards followed these trails from Mexico through Texas and across the deserts to California. The fur traders and trappers were not legally allowed in Texas due to the different nation owners of Texas until 1836, but they took advantage of the Indian trails in Oklahoma Territory from the very beginning of their expeditions. 

The French fur traders and trappers just wanted their cut of the hides, and did not make improvements to the Indian trails. The Spanish priests were on a mission to Christianize the Native Americans, and they worked to make the Indian trails more hospitable to horse travel. 

At the same time, the fur traders snuck into Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, to bargain with the Indians, but then became fur trappers, caught their hides, and got right back out. If France before the Louisiana Purchase or Spain caught them, it was long prison sentences or death to them. Those hides were mighty valuable to the fur trappers, but the Indians only wanted to trade with them. The Indians did not want the trappers to steal their livelihood. 

It was not until the fur traders began illegally trapping that they ran into serious issues with the Indians. International borders did not matter at that point in time. Over many years, the Native Americans created thousands of miles of interconnecting trails that extended from Texas’s Llano Estacado to California’s Pacific Coast and from Mexico northward across the Southwest.

Historic Highways That Follow Indigenous Trails

There are many roads that people today are speeding along on the highways and byways of Oklahoma and Texas without a thought in their heads that they are actually following an ancient trail. 

In Texas, our most well known Indian trails that have turned into major corridors of modern travel are the Old Spanish Road, the Texas Road, and US 75 that began east of Preston Bend in Grayson County. Route 66 through Oklahoma is so iconic that it continues to intrigue road trippers to this very day, and on through to California. 

Route 66 took the Dust Bowl escapees to Bakersfield in the 1930s. US 75 originally used to be between Galveston and the Canadian Border. We know it as a traffic jammer in Dallas now and all bottlenecked up consistently. US 75 took in many routes that were originally Indian trails and a cattle drive trail called the Shawnee Trail and the Texas Road. 

Preston Bend, the town established by outlaw fur trader Holland Coffee, began what Dallas knows as the prestigious Preston district just north of Southern Methodist University in the exclusive city of Highland Park. Preston Road is now SH 289 crossing SH 82 between Whitesboro and Sherman, Texas in Texomaland. 

In 1840, authorized by an 1838 act of the congress of the Republic of Texas, Col. W. G. Cooke and the Texas First Infantry regiment laid out a military road from Austin to the north through what became Dallas to the Holland Coffee Trading Post on Red River. When Texas became its own nation and Oklahoma was the dumping ground for Indians forced out of their homelands, and the governments wanted settlers, that is when the ancient Indian trails became important.

The military of the Republic of Texas and the U.S. governing Oklahoma Territory realized that these trails needed to be improved for wagon travel if they were going to settle these regions. The displaced Indians traveled on the Trail of Tears because of President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of Indians from the southeastern U.S. to Oklahoma. Those Indians followed ancient trails on that journey westward. 

The governments of that day understood that if they were to protect their citizens militarily and promote settlements, they had to build good roads. The Indian trails were not optimally conducive to wagon wheels in the 1830s, and the Spanish explorers rode horses on their expeditions. However, none of those governing authorities cared about the welfare of the Indians. 

Early Republic of Texas law called for the establishment of first-class roads between county seats. They built these roads as forty-foot-wide cleared paths. They cut off stumps less than eight inches in diameter at ground level, and rounded off larger stumps so that wagon wheels could easily roll over them. Second-class roads were thirty-feet wide, and third-class roads were twenty-two feet wide. 

In Oklahoma, by the 1850s, the need for a transcontinental route across the southern U.S. caught the attention of the U.S. Army, who sent Lieutenant Amiel W. Whipple and Colonel Randolph B. Marcy on expeditions to survey routes across Oklahoma Territory. 

From 1858 to 1859, Edward F. Beale blazed a wagon road from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to California and mapped out a route along the South Canadian River, constructed bridges, and forged the way of the Western Trail, the Chisholm Trail, and the Shawnee Trail. The Shawnee Trail is also known as the Texas Road. The Butterfield Overland Mail and Stage route utilized the southern section through the Choctaw Nation, which also facilitated cross-country traffic. 

Cattle Drive Trails in Texomaland

The most famous cattle drive trail in Texomaland was known as the Shawnee Trail or the Texas Road. The Shawnee Trail was named for an Indian village called Shawnee Town north of today’s Denison, Texas. 

The Shawnee Trail was the first cattle drive trail in the history of Texas cattle drives to the railheads in Missouri. Cowboys herded the cattle to swim the Red River at Rock Bluff crossing, a natural rock formation that served as a chute into the water, which later became the site of the City of Sherman's water intake station on Lake Texoma. 

The last of the large cattle herds moved north on the Shawnee Trail in 1871. The Shawnee Trail followed the Red River to where Eufaula, Oklahoma, is located now. It then branched off east to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where it turned north to today’s Maysville, Arkansas, before crossing into Missouri. Texans called it the Shawnee Trail, and Okies called it the Texas Road. It eventually became known as the Sedalia Trail.

The Choctaw Nation began charging a toll at ten cents a head and eventually raised the toll to 50 cents a head at the end of the cattle drive era. The Cherokees then charged 75 cents a head, but would accept a live longhorn as a toll payment. The Texas drivers had to go through the Choctaw Nation first, then immediately through Cherokee Nation on the Shawnee Trail.

Automobiles and Roads

By 1912, the automobile ruled. The automobile was the best invention ever, but the wagon roads were too rough for automobile travel upon. So again, the government had to reinvent road infrastructure for the new automobile. 

The first roads for automobiles were called “auto trails”. They had names, but their  signs were tacked on to telegraph and telephone poles to mark them. There were more telegraph poles than telephone poles in 1912. We can imagine the confusion and the drive of the boys who owned the first automobiles to go out and see what that horseless carriage could do. 

By the 1920s, state highway experts met and planned a national highway numbering system to replace the old named roads. Odd-numbered highways ran north to south, starting with US 1 on the East Coast. Even-numbered routes ran east to west and began with US 2 near the Canadian border. The National Road became US 40 in 1927.




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