When I opened Finding the Great Western Trail by Sylvia Gann Mahoney, I anticipated an academic text, history, and dates. What I did not expect was all of that, wrapped within a personalized journey of determination, mystery, deceit, and the best of community—spanning Mexico, the United States, and Canada. I did not expect the personality and cultures of 150 years to rise from the page, nor did I expect to cheer for the accuracy of history. I was along for the ride!
Mahoney's meticulous historical research and clear expertise in ranching lay a rock-solid foundation for this book. But it was her decision to include "the journey of the journey" that sets this book apart and engages the reader. Personal vignettes, historical intrigue, and attention to time and place bring to life the mystery of the trail and its complex history and emergent re-discovery.
Finding the Great Western Trail details the re-discovery and honoring of a two-thousand-mile trail that has been lost to history chiefly through both an unintentional and deliberate confusion with the Chisholm Trail. Seven years, two hundred trail markers, countless volunteers, and celebrations in three countries and several states later, the GWT lives once again.
Mahoney honors the reality of the GWT and this era. Too often, the trail days of cattle drives have been diminished to the mythic white cowboy, fighting marauding Indians and Mexicans. Mahoney opens the book by naming the realities of ranching in the West. She makes it clear that trailing millions of cattle and horses is possible because of the tragic, violent removal of Native Americans and Mexicans from their ancestral homes to create "open range."
Mahoney's fine work is a testimony to the unique people, culture, and places along the trail. My own ranching experience in several states in the West and Mexico (especially Arizona, Chihuahua, Wyoming, and South Dakota) made it a pleasure for me to feel the distinct and familiar rhythms of people and place reflected in her story. The honoring ceremony in Matamoros, Mexico highlights this interweaving of cultures and countries along the Great Western Trail:
[The Trail holds] special historical importance for us as Mexicans. Given the time to reminisce, we must not forget that we are literally connected by geography that forever joins us, creating bonds of brotherhood as much from our location as from our cultures.
Photos and maps provide spatial and human context to the story. I pored over each, studied the exact routes and tracing them with my finger on the page, and looked up the landscape of terrain that was unfamiliar.
In Finding the Great Western Trail, Mahoney honors a lost past and re-discovered present. The trail came alive again with great herds, rain, dust, and mud, showing us what those years might have been like--and how dedicated people across Mexico, the U.S., and Canada gave the trail its voice once again.
And, oh what a voice!
Sylvia Gann Mahoney was an educator for thirty-three years at community colleges in Texas and New Mexico, working as an administrator, teacher, and rodeo team coach. In 2015, she was named a fellow of the West Texas Historical Association. She became interested in the Great Western Trail project through her involvement in the rotary Club of Vernon. She now lives in Ft. Worth.
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