The Chisholm Trail looms large in the pantheon of cowboy history. The images evoked from those two words are the heart and soul of the American cowboy lore. Longhorn cattle, wild stampedes, perilous river crossings, clashes with Native cultures, and, ultimately, wild celebrations in some dusty, trail-terminus cow town.
As with most legends, historians and purists are quick to point out inaccuracies in how the current culture interprets and perceives what happened during those frontier times. In the minds of most fans of the West, the Chisholm Trail is the route that the old time cattle drives took in the years after the Civil War. While that’s not wrong, there’s so much more to the story. In recognition of the sesquicentennial of the first trail herds to be driven from Texas to Kansas and shipped by rail eastward, we present a brief sketch of the cattle drive era, a time that has come to define—and inspire—the American cowboy.
Nominally, the phrase “Chisholm Trail,” has come to be interpreted by today’s culture as any herd of cattle driven across the prairie. In reality, the Chisholm Trail was established as a freight trade route from Kansas to Texas, through the Indian Territory, by traders Jesse Chisholm and James R. Mead during the Civil War.
Chisholm was the kind of rare breed that only the American West can produce. His father was of Scottish descent and his mother a Cherokee. The date of his birth is unknown, but the best guesses are either in 1805 or 1806 in Tennessee. He was raised primarily by his mother in and around Arkansas and the Indian Territory and became fluent in the dialects of many of the area’s Native American tribes. He naturally fell into the trading business and established several trading posts to service the displaced tribes of the West.
Sam Houston, and others, called on Chisholm for his skills as an interpreter and guide in many of the early Native American councils prior to the Civil War. During the Civil War, Chisholm lived in Wichita, Kansas, and served both sides as a trader and interpreter. Though the famous route was named for him, he never had the chance to enjoy the notoriety. He died in 1867—the first year the herds began to follow his route.
From that point in history forward, it’s easy to understand why every cattle trail has come to be known as the Chisholm Trail. By legend, the first herd to make the trip from Texas to Kansas was bossed by Thornton Chisholm (it’s unclear if he and Jesse were related). Meanwhile, John Chisum was making a name for himself as one of the first cowmen to trail cattle from south and east Texas to west Texas and New Mexico. Later, he became a supporting character in the Lincoln County War and had dealings with Billy the Kid. In fact, John Wayne stars in a 1970 feature film called Chisum as the title character.
The final, and perhaps most influential, reason that popular culture refers to all cattle drives as going up the Chisholm Trail is the song born of those drives called, “The Old Chisholm Trail.” The lyrics date to the 1870s, and the tune to the 1600s. Gene Autry, Bing Crosby, Randy Travis, and Michael Martin Murphey have all lent their vocal stylings to the tune. By far the most popular song chronicling the trail drives, the Chisholm Trail moniker for all trails stuck. In truth, there were four main trails: the Shawnee, the Chisholm, the Western, and the Goodnight-Loving—and many other minor trails of various names.
Even before Jesse Chisholm blazed his namesake trail, or John Chisum made his trans-Pecos trips, or Thornton Chisholm took a herd to Kansas, or anyone sang about it, cattlemen in Texas were gathering wild cattle and trying to find outlets for them farther east. Prior to the Civil War, intrepid cowboys trailed cattle to New Orleans and Missouri. Those trails never sustained for a variety of reasons, most importantly lack of a market. Terrain not conducive for herding cattle, and local highway gangs looking to steal the herds—or at least keep out any competition—also were factors.
Despite the bravery of these early cattlemen, the real reason the cattle drives took off—and why 1867 marks the true beginning of the cattle drives—was due to an Illinois businessman named Joseph McCoy.
Seeing a demand for beef in the east and a supply of beef in the south, he worked with railroads to establish freight contracts from Kansas to eastern markets. He also established Abilene, Kan., as the transition point for the cattle from grass to rails. Legend even attributes the phrase, “The Real McCoy” to him.
He wrote a book of his experiences developing the “Western” cattle markets in Kansas called Historic Sketches of the Cattle Trade of the West and Southwest. In it, he extolls the virtues of the Chisholm Trail.
“So named from a semi-civilized Indian who is said to have traveled it first. It is more direct, has more prairie, less timber, more small streams and less large ones, and altogether better grass and fewer flies—no civilized Indian tax or wild Indian disturbances—than any other route. So many cattle have been driven over the trail in the last few years that a broad highway is tread out looking much like a national highway; so plain, a fool could not fail to keep in it.”
The first year, 1867, of the cattle drives from Texas to Kansas was actually a disaster. The rains were plentiful—too much so—and as the herds arrived in Abilene, the grass was “soft and washy” according to McCoy. When the hot weather set in, the grass became inedible for the cattle, meanwhile, constant storms resulted in regular stampedes. Poor feed and too much exertion led to skinny beeves. No one—cattlemen, drovers, traders, or buyers—were happy. In the end, neither McCoy nor the cattlemen made much money that year. Undeterred, McCoy ramped up for 1868 with promotions for buyers (he captured four wild bison and sent them east as a marketing gimmick) and sellers, sending riders to Texas to advertise the improved infrastructure and promise plenty of willing buyers for their cattle. It worked, and in 1868 the wheels set in motion the previous year began to turn in earnest.
The earliest herds which stretched from south Texas to the Red River, traveled on the Shawnee Trail. There, those herds picked up the Chisholm Trail through Indian Territory and on to Abilene. As settlement moved farther west, so did the railheads, and obviously, so did the trails. Some maps show the next trail to the west being called the Chisholm. Others show the Chisholm branching farther west after exiting Indian Territory. Most agree that the final years of the cattle drives occurred on the Western Trail, and probably didn’t actually use the original Chisholm Trail.
Cattle weren’t only being trailed northward. Some intrepid cattlemen began trailing cattle westward through Texas for sale to the Army or miners in the Rocky Mountains. John Chisum was the earliest drover to go west toward the New Mexico Territory. The other two legendary names taking cattle this route were Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, and eventually the trail was named for them. Loving was killed by Comanches in 1867, but Goodnight went on to become partners with Chisum.
No matter which direction the drives took, they all faced roughly the same set of perils: stampedes, river crossings, and Indian attacks.
In Texas, stampedes were the first danger. Wild cattle thrown together from the thickets were not yet “trail broke,” and a cowboy’s nighttime cough or an unfamiliar scent on the wind could send 2,000 cattle running blind through pitch-black darkness. The best accounts of these adventures come in the 1920 publication of The Trail Drivers of Texas, by J. Marvin Hunter.
“A severe thunderstorm came up and rain fell in torrents,” remembers A. Huffmeyer from his trip up the trail in 1878. “While it was in progress I could see the lightning playing on the brim of my hat and the tips of my horse’s ears. Suddenly a terrific bolt of lightning struck right in our midst and killed nine of our best cattle. It stunned my horse and he fell to the ground, but was up in an instant and ready to go. The cattle stampeded and scattered and it was all that we could do to keep ahead of them. After running them for a mile or more, every man found that he had a bunch of his own to look after, they were so badly scared and frightened. I managed to hold 236 head the balance of the night, and when daylight came we worked the bunches back together and made a count and found that we had lost over three hundred head, which meant some tall rustling for the boys.”
Huffmeyer lived to tell the story but many didn’t. Horses running in the darkness were known to stumble and fall, leaving their riders to be trampled by a thousand running steers. And by the time the herds were trail broke and settled, drovers faced a new danger: crossing large rivers. The most meaningful crossing was the Red River, out of Texas and into the Indian Territory.
“When we arrived at old Red River Station, where the old Chisholm Trail crossed, we found the river up and several herds waiting to cross,” writes G.W. Mills of his 1877 trip up the trail about prowling panthers, whose screams would run steers off. “Next morning we told the boss that we had rather swim Red River (then 300 yards wide in swimming water) than to stand guard assisted by panthers ready to spring man or beast. We hit the water about 10 o’clock and crossed our herd first, four other herds following. Of course, the outfits assisted one another in this hard and dangerous work. In this crossing one of the boys had a horse which refused to swim, and the man had to jump off onto a wild steer’s back, but with pluck made a safe landing on the other side.”
Today, of course, wild crossings of the Red River are a distant memory as irrigation has all but dried it up. The early herds generally crossed at Red River Station, but as more farms encroached westward, the cattle crossing moved farther west to a place called Doan’s Store—and followed the Western Trail. The original 1881 store remains standing at Doan’s Crossing, as do some abandoned residences and a historical marker. The Red River Station crossing also bears a marker, but it’s not easily found.
Once across the Red River, the cowboys were in Indian Territory, where the perils were no less severe. L.D. Taylor went up the trail in 1869 and relates a chilling story of a scrape with the natives.
“As we were traveling along we saw ahead of something that looked like a ridge of timber, but which proved to be about four hundred Comanches who were coming our way,” he wrote. “When they came up to our herd they began killing our beeves without asking permission or paying any attention to us. They killed twenty-five of our beeves and skinned them right there, eating the flesh raw and with blood running down their faces. Here I witnessed some of the finest horsemanship I ever saw. The young warriors on bareback ponies would ride all over the horses’ backs, off on one side, standing up, laying down, going at full speed and shooting arrows clear through the beeves. We were powerless to help ourselves, for we were greatly outnumbered. These Indians had ‘talked peace’ with Uncle Sam, that is all that saved us.”
The end of the trail was as predictable as it was depressing. As settlers moved West, they strung up barbed wire to keep passing herds off their land. By the 1890s, the nation’s network of railways was ever expanding as well, making long drives unnecessary.
Remarkably, this brief stretch of history, about a quarter century, has, in some ways, come to symbolize not only the cowboy and the West, but the American ethos. It’s no wonder why: expanding frontiers, bravery in the face of danger, and the building of empires coalesce in the uniquely American phenomenon of the cattle drive.