Chisolm Trail

The Chisholm Trail was a route used in the late 19th century in the Western United States to move of cattle overland for additional profit. Many of the legends of the American West are associated with the trail. It stretched from southern Texas across the Red River to Abilene, Kansas, and was used to drive cattle northward to the railhead of the Kansas Pacific Railway, where they were shipped eastward.

( See Below for Another History of the Chisholm Trail )


The trail is named for Jesse Chisholm who had built several trading posts in what is now western Oklahoma before the American Civil War. He never drove cattle on the trail and died in 1868.

In 1866 in Texas, cattle were worth only $4 per head, compared to over $40 per head in the North and East, because lack of market access during the American Civil War had led to increasing number of cattle in Texas.

In 1867, Joseph G. McCoy built stockyards in Abilene, Kansas and encouraged Texas cattlemen to drive their herds to his stockyards. The stockyards shipped 35,000 head that year and became the largest stockyards west of Kansas City, Kansas.

O. W. Wheeler and his partners used the Chisholm Trail to bring a herd of 2,400 steers from Texas to Abilene in 1867. This herd was the first of an estimated 5,000,000 head of Texas cattle to reach Kansas over the Chisholm Trail.

Today, most historians consider the Chisholm Trail to have started at the Rio Grande or at San Antonio, Texas. From 1867 to 1871, the trail ended in Abilene. Later, Newton, Kansas, and Wichita, Kansas, each served as the end of the trail. From 1883 to 1887, the end of the trail was Caldwell, Kansas.

In Texas, there were hundreds of feeder trails heading north to one of the main cattle trails. In the early 1840s, most cattle were driven up the Shawnee Trail. The trail was previously used by Indian hunting and raiding parties; it went north from Austin through Waco and Fort Worth. The trail crossed into Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) near Red River Station (in present-day Montague County, Texas) and entered Kansas near Caldwell. The trail through Oklahoma followed generally the route of US Highway 81.

By 1853, cattle were being driven into parts of Missouri, where farmers began blocking herds and turning them back because the Texas longhorns carried ticks that caused diseases in other types of cattle. Violence, vigilante groups, and cattle rustling caused further problems for the drivers. By 1859, laws were passed preventing the cattle from being driven through those areas. By the end of the Civil War, the bulk of the cattle were being moved up the western branch of the Texas Road, which joined the Chisholm Trail at Red River Station in Montague County, Texas.
The importance of cattle drives began to diminish in 1887 with the arrival of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad in Texas.

On the long trips the cattlemen would face a plethora of problems. The trips took about two to three months each. They had to cross major rivers like the Arkansas and the Red, and innumerable smaller creeks, plus the topographic challenges of canyons, badlands, and low mountain ranges. The weather was less than ideal. In addition to these natural dangers, there were rustlers, unpacified Native Americans (Oklahoma at that time was Indian Territory, governed from Fort Smith, Arkansas), and the natural contrariness of the half-wild Texas longhorn cattle themselves, which were prone to stampede with little provocation.

Red River (1948), directed by Howard Hawks, is a fictional account of the first drive, in 1865, along the Chisholm Trail. The trail is the subject of a country song, Old Chisholm Trail. Among those who have covered the song are Gene Autry, Girls of the Golden West, Tex Ritter, and Roy Rogers.

Another Histiry of the Chisholm Trail
by Kansas Heritage
Scot-Cherokee trader Jesse Chisholm first marked the famous Chisholm Trail in 1864 for his wagons. It started at the confluence of the Little and Big Arkansas Rivers and went to Jesse Chisholm's trading post, southwest of present day Oklahoma City.

Jesse Chisholm used the trail to trade with the U.S. Army and Native American tribes (Indians) from his trading post at the present site of the Twin Lakes Shopping Center in Wichita to his southern trading post in Indian Territories. The Wichita Indians used the Chisholm Trail when they moved from their native territory to the mouth of the Little Arkansas and also when they returned in 1868.

Joseph G. McCoy, a cattle buyer from Illinois, was instrumental in extending the Chisholm Trail from present day Wichita to Abilene, Kansas, to promote and establish cattle market for thousands of longhorn cattle from Texas. In 1867, McCoy built stockyards that he advertised throughout Texas. Approximately 35,000 cattle followed the Chisholm Trail during the first season to Abilene in 1867. Through Joseph McCoy's promotional and entrepreneurial efforts Abilene became a prosperous and famous cattletown from 1867 to 1870. In the five years from 1867 to 1872, more than three million head of cattle were driven up the Chisholm Trail from Texas to Abilene.

By 1870 thousands of Texas longhorn cattle were being driven over the Chisholm Trail to the Union Pacific (later the Kansas Pacific) Railroad shipping center at Abilene. By 1871 as many as 5,000 cowboys were often paid off during a single day. Abilene became known as a rough town in the Old West.

The Chisholm Trail in Kansas generally follows a true north route through or near the following communities in Central Kansas: Caldwell, Clearwater, Wichita, Newton, Goessel, Lehigh and Abilene.

As local interest waned in the cattle business in Abilene in the early 1870s, Ellsworth and other points along the Kansas Pacific Railroad established a market for the Texas cattle business. The cattle business on the Chisholm Trail moved south to Newton, Kansas in 1871 as the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad built to that point on the Chisholm Trail. Newton became one of the most notorious and violent towns from the cattle business in its one-year reign as a prominent cattle town.

The City of Wichita approved in 1871 the issuance of a $200,000 bond to build a railbranch from the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad to acquire the cattle business. With the completion of this branch in 1872, Wichita became the new terminus for the cattle business on the Chisholm Trail. The cattle business thrived in Wichita with the saying Anything Goes from 1872 - 1876.

In 1880, the cattle business moved further south along the trail to Caldwell, Kansas as it competed with Dodge City, the Cowboy Capital which promoted the Western Trail (ie., western branch of the Chisholm Trail -- also called the Texas Trail) for the Texas cattle. Dodge City held the cattle trade for 10-years, the longest of any cattletown. Although a 1885 Kansas quarantine law tried to stop the Texas cattle trade, only the well-known January 1886 blizzard, which killed all the cattle in southwest Kansas, would end it.

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