A map of cattle trails and a life-size statue of James A. “Tennessee” Vaughn astride a horse dominate the Founders Room at the High Plains Western Heritage Center in Spearfish.
Cattlemen like Vaughn were significant in developing the open range and cattle operations in South Dakota and Wyoming.
Remembering a great American cowboy — "Tennessee" Vaughn
The High Plains Western Heritage Center will celebrate the Great Western Cattle Trail Event and the National Day of the American Cowboy on with a Western art show, saddle displays and American cowboy displays.
The Western Heritage Center is participating in the Great Western Cattle Trail Project, part of a nine-state effort by the Great Western Cattle Trail Association to identify the general route of that trail. The Great Western Cattle Trail ran from Texas to Dakota, Montana and Wyoming territories. Concrete markers on the High Plains Western Heritage Center’s grounds identify the trail’s route and an extensive floor display at the museum tells the trail’s story. Call the Western Heritage Center at (605) 642-9378 for more information about the Great Western Cattle Trail Event and the National Day of the American Cowboy.
In the years after the Civil War, from the 1870s to the early 1890s, Texas cattle outfits drove their herds north to summer pasture to finish them for eastern markets. According to historian and author Paul Higbee of Spearfish, the land in Texas was overgrazed and the High Plains area offered outstanding grass.
Economics were also a factor, he said. The cattle were used to satisfy federal contracts on the reservations.
As a trail boss, Vaughn was credited with bringing more longhorns up the trail than any other trail boss. One of Vaughn’s responsibilities would be to advance the herd to determine grass and water sources and report back to the drovers to set up night camp. A trail boss was responsible for the safety of the cattle and had to be skilled in working with both cowboys and the owners of the cattle outfits.
The usual trail drive formation was made up of 11 positions of riders. Some cowboys were in charge of the herd of horses from which cowboys selected their mounts. There was also a cook.
It took an average of 90 days to travel from Texas to the forks of the Grand River in South Dakota’s Perkins County.
While most cattle herds on the trail numbered 2,500, Vaughn sometimes trailed twice as many.
Vaughn was born on July 22, 1851, in Lebanon, Tenn. He went to Texas in 1866, at age 15, and was hired as a cowboy by the Ellison Brothers outfit at Lockhart, Texas.
Vaughn made the first of his nine trail drives in about 1873, driving cattle for the Driskill Cattle Company from Texas to Wyoming. He would be with the Driskill outfit for 18 years before working for A.J. “Tony” Day, general manager of the Turkey Track. Both the Driskill and the Turkey Track were large cattle outfits that had operations in western South Dakota. Vaughn later drove horses to Canada.
Vaughn married Ella Bacon Dorsett in Idaho on Christmas Day, 1887. The newlyweds moved to the Spearfish area, living with Ella’s adoptive parents, David and Amanda Dorsett. In 1904, the Vaughns moved into a house in Spearfish. They raised seven children.
His obituary stated that “Mr. Vaughn had the reputation of being able to take a herd of cattle over the long trail and have them arrive in better condition than any other trailboss on the range.”
An Old Timers’ Annual Picnic was started in 1925 as a way for cowboys to get together. Ed Lemmon wrote that Vaughn attended the Old Timers’ Picnic at Bixby, near the present-day town of Bison, in 1932 and called him an “outstanding figure.” Lemmon was an early-day cattleman after whom the town of Lemmon is named.
Vaughn was active in the Oddfellow Lodge, the Spearfish Social Club and the Congregational Church in Spearfish. He died at his home in Spearfish on Jan. 8, 1934.
“The present generation can scarcely conceive the life that these heroes of the plains lived and loved,” wrote Vaughn’s son, Ernest, in a 1976 article that appeared in Black Hills area newspapers. “Though ever flirting with danger, they blazed the trail, they opened the way and led the men ever on toward better things.”
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Note: This story was provided courtesy of the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, which is the nonprofit fundraising partner of the South Dakota State Historical Society. Photo courtesy of Larry Miller.