Who do we associate most with the Chisholm Trail? John S. Chisum? John Wayne? We’ve allowed ourselves to become a bit confused about this period of history and I think it’s time we sorted it out.
Here we go.
The first film I remember seeing that mentioned the Chisholm Trail was titled Red River (1948), whose list of Hollywood Stars was by itself significant: John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey, John Ireland, Noah Beery, and Shelly Winters. Two authentic Indian chiefs also had roles in the film. The film did quite well at the box office.
In 1970, Wayne starred in another film titled simply Chisum. It was another block buster with a good cast: Forrest Tucker, Christopher George, Ben Johnson, and Richard Jaeckel. There was almost nothing accurate about this western film, but it was loosely based on the events surrounding New Mexico’s Lincoln County War (1878). It was good entertainment, though, and yet the film did a disservice to actual history given the fact that most Americans today aren’t capable of differentiating between real or revisionist history.
The Chisholm Trail (which many people pronounce as Chisum Trail) was the major route out of Texas for livestock between 1867-84. Its significance is that the Texas Longhorn cattle driven north along the trail provided a steady source of income that helped Texas recover from the effects of the Civil War. The young men who participated in these cattle drives helped to cement the vision most people developed about Texas, the old west, rampaging Indians, back-shooting outlaws, and the Texas Rangers. The Texas cowhand became a romantic figure among young boys trying to imagine what it was like to live that adventure.
In any case, the Texas economy was effectively in shatters at the end of the Civil War, its only assets being tens of thousands of Longhorn cattle —for which there was no demand. Kansas and Missouri had closed their borders to Texas cattle in the 1850s because of the deadly Texas fever . Gradually, the demand for cattle increased in the East and this provided the impetus for such men as Joseph G. McCoy in Illinois to supply it. In 1867, he persuaded officials of the Kansas-Pacific Railroad to install a siding at the small town of Abilene, on the edge of the quarantine area.
Having constructed cow pens and loading facilities at the siding, McCoy sent the word to Texas cattlemen that a cattle market was emerging; come and get it. In that year (1867), McCoy shipped 35,000 head of cattle to eastern markets. The number of cattle shipments doubled each year through 1871, when 600,000 cattle managed to gut the market.
The first Texas herd to utilize what would become the Chisholm Trail belonged to Colonel Oliver W. Wheeler of San Antonio, Texas (and investors) . Initially, Wheeler planned to winter the cattle on the plains and then trail them to California. At the North Canadian River, deeply in Indian country, Wheeler’s point riders discovered wagon tracks and followed them. The tracks were made by Jesse Chisholm.
Chisholm (1805-1868), was the son of Ignatius Chisholm, a Scottish immigrant and Martha Rogers Chisholm, a Cherokee from the area of present-day Polk County, Tennessee. In the 1820s, he migrated with his mother to Oklahoma during a period when Cherokees voluntarily removed themselves to the western territories. At age 20, Chisholm joined a gold-seeking party that blazed a trail and explored the region of Wichita, Kansas. In 1830, he helped establish a trail from Fort Gibson, Oklahoma south to Fort Towson. In 1834 he became a member of the Dodge-Leavenworth Expedition, the first whites to make contact with the southern plains Indians as representatives of the US government.
In 1836, Jesse married Eliza Edwards and they established a homestead near her father’s trading post on the Little River near its confluence with the Canadian River. In these days, Chisholm made his living trading with the Indians. As Chisholm was fluent in the Indian tongue, he served as an interpreter between the Republic of Texas and local Indian bands. He did this for over twenty years (1838-58). Jesse stayed out of the way during the Civil War, but concerned about becoming targets of both sides who were attempting to exert their control over adjacent territories, he led a band of refugees to the western part of Oklahoma. It was not an easy decision, and the results were dismal because during the war, Indians withdrew into the western territories as well and trade with them dried up.
After the war, Chisholm settled near Wichita and reestablished his Indian trade. He built up what had been an Indian and military trail into a road capable of carrying heavy wagons; this trail became known as Chisholm’s Trail (later, The Chisholm Trail). Jesse passed away in 1868 from food poisoning.
Initially, the trail was simply referred to as “the trail,” “the Kansas Trail,” “The Abilene Trail,” or “McCoy’s Trail.” Originally, the trail only applied to the pathway north of the Red River, but Texas cowmen soon named it the Chisholm Trail, which included the entire trail from the Rio Grande to central Kansas. Its first reference as such in print was published in the Kansas Daily Commonwealth in 1870.
The Chisholm Trail was not the first (or best) of cattle trails. Texas cattle were herded up the Shawnee Trail from around the 1840s. It’s popularity fell off when Missouri ranchers blocked the passage of Texas Cattle owing to the (then) unknown disease that infected them. The Shawnee Trail passed through Austin, Waco, and Dallas, crossed the Red River near Preston, veered north along the eastern edge of Oklahoma, into Missouri ending variously at St. Louis, Sedalia, Independence, Westport, and Kansas City. Many called it simply, “The Texas Road.”
The cattle drives did not follow a clearly defined trail except at river crossings where fording was well established. The reason for this was that it was necessary in moving cattle to spread them out to find grass. It was important to keep the cattle as fat as possible en route to rail or market heads. Beyond this, cattle well fed and watered were unlikely to stampede. Generally, the stockmen rarely moved their cattle more than ten or twelve miles a day. After trailing techniques were well established, a trail drive would involve a trail boss, ten cowmen, a cook, and a wrangler (responsible for the horses). This small number of men could trail a herd of 2,500 cattle for three months.
The Chisholm Trail and demand for cattle after the Civil War led to the so-called cowboy profession. These were men contracted to move cattle for a rancher or several ranchers. A few large ranchers delivered their own stock, men such as Captain Richard King (King Ranch) and Abel (Shanghai) Pierce, but the majority of cattle drives were handled by professional drovers. John T. Lytle and his partners were responsible for diving 600,000 cattle. George Slaughter & Sons, Snyder Brothers, and the Pryor’s were also professional contractors. In 1884 alone, Pryor delivered 45,000 head of cattle in fifteen separate trail drives.
Once the plains Indians were subdued and the buffalo herds decimated, cattle ranches began appearing all across the plains. Most of these were stocked with Texas Longhorn and manned by Texas stockmen. Raising cattle on the open range (access to free grass) attracted investors from the East, who formed partnerships with such men as Charles Goodnight. Ranching syndicates appeared, such as the Scottish Prairie Land and Cattle Company, and Matador Land and Cattle. Texas attempted to outlaw foreign investors, but failed. There was simply too much opportunity for profit. Then, in a reversal, Texas granted the Capital Syndicate of Chicago three-million acres; it became known as the XIT Ranch. This was a deal that led to the construction of a new capital building in Austin when the original burned to the ground in 1881.
The Chisholm Trail was finally closed by barbed wire, which led to the range and fence cutting wars of the 1880s. In its time, however, more than five million cattle and horses were moved along the Chisholm trail, setting a livestock migration record in the entire world. And there was never a Chisum Trail.
- Hoig, S. Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. Oklahoma Historical Society.
- Rossel, J. The Chisholm Trail. Kansas Historical Quarterly, Kansas Historical Society, 1936.
- Cushman, R. B. Jesse Chisholm, Trail Blazer: Sam Houston’s Trouble-Shooter and Friend. Eakin Publishing, 1991.
- Skaggs, J. The Cattle-Trailing Industry: Between Supply and Demand, 1866-1890. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1973.
- Worcester, D. E. The Chisholm Trail. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980.
- Unknown to Texas cattlemen at the time, the so-called Texas fever was caused by blood-sucking ticks. This was a fact left undiscovered until the microbiologist Theobald Smith (1859-1934) discovered the causes of several infectious and parasitic diseases between 1888-93. This discovery and his research led to the later identification of mosquitoes as the primary spreader of malaria and yellow fever.
- Wheeler was born in Connecticut in 1830. While still a young man, he contracted consumption and left home seeking a better climate for his health. He came ashore in Panama, where he became infected with a tropical fever (malaria or yellow fever) which weakened him further. Finally arriving in California, Wheeler engaged in several jobs: prospecting and mining proved too strenuous for him, but mercantile sales and freighting seemed to be a good fit. Wheeler migrated into the livestock business with sheep, cattle, and horses. In 1837, Wheeler was 37 years old. He departed San Antonio with 2,400 head of cattle and 54 cowhands. The trail took him through Indian country into Kansas and made him the first man to drive cattle through hostile (Indian) territory. We aren’t sure why he was titled “Colonel.”