Taming the Wild West while Rescuing the Old South
Although Texas and portions of tribal lands in Indian Territory formed the western-most boundaries of the Southern Confederacy, their
governments and economies were as deeply affected by Union victory as the more traditional Southern states. The federal army left
southern rail lines in shambles; railroad building had ceased in Texas during the war, and Indian Territory didn't have any railroads at all. Red
River traffic had been halted by the occupation of Shreveport. Although cotton was still a valuable crop, not much of it could make it to
As soldiers began pouring back into Texas and Indian Territory, they found their way of life
destroyed. Their fields had lain fallow for a long time, and whatever wealth they had accumulated
had been deemed worthless as the confederate government crumbled. For the liberated slave,
the new freedom came with trepidation: where to go? How to make a living? How to survive
and not be lynched?
Texas and Indian Territory, however, had considerable advantages over the other Southern states:
they could look West and South for answers.
The West Beckons
Before the war, Joseph McCoy, a merchant from Illinois, had dealt with longhorn cattle
that had been driven up from Texas and into Missouri on the Shawnee (or Texas) Trail.
These cows, he knew, still roamed untended in the southern reaches of Texas.
With long, curved horns and hardier than most bovine, the longhorns numbered in the
millions, a product of years of free range. Many weren't even branded and because
they remained wild, they were by nature tough and enduring. The added bonus was
that these cattle were cheap and - in some instances - free for the taking.
McCoy understood that the victorious north would be the perfect market for the longhorn. He also knew that the old Shawnee Trail was no
longer predictable, as new farmers had settled around the old trail, and they didn't like cows trampling on their crops or destroying their
own herds with Texas Fever, a disease carried by the longhorn. Many of these Missouri farmers,old, trusty Confederates, physically attacked
cattle drivers as they despised any northern economic activity, which they believed cattle driving to be.
McCoy set out to discover a new cattle driving route. As Tim Hersey surveyed a new trail, McCoy convinced the Hannibal- St. Joseph railroad
to set up a terminus at a stockade in a little town on the Kansas prairie named Abilene. Then, McCoy traveled to Texas to persuade ranchers
to herd their cattle and drive them to Abilene, Kansas, where they could sell the cows for 10x the amount of what they'd receive in Texas.
From Abilene, the cattle would be transported by rail to stations back east, then on to Northern markets.
McCoy must have been an excellent salesman, since the ranchers accepted the risky scheme on faith alone. They had no idea if Abilene
really existed or if cattle pens really had been built to accommodate the herds. But what did they have to lose? The ranchers signed on.
Indian Trail Blazers
Although the western parts of the Indian Territory were still primarily in Plains Indians hands,
the eastern portion had been settled by the "Five Civilized Tribes" (Cherokee, Choctaw,
Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole) in the 1830s. These immigrant Native Americans started to blaze
trails for settlers to come after them. Most notable of these were two well educated, kind, and
generous men: Black Beaver of the Delaware Indians and Jesse B. Chisholm, a Cherokee- Scotsman.
Black Beaver was a well known guide, forging the California Trail and living to see it become
one of the main western immigration routes. A prosperous farmer, he gave up all of his lands
to the Confederacy to guide Union soldiers through Oklahoma to Leavensworth, Kansas. The
route that he took comprised the northern edge of what would become the Chisholm Trail.
Jesse Chisholm never owned cattle - he was a trader who worked hard at achieving a reputation
of being honest and fair. An educated man, he could speak several Indian languages, a talent that
made him a peace negotiator and a sought-after guide. Chisholm laid out several trails, especially one
that would open up southwestern Indian Territory to Indian tribes and trade. This trail was named after
him by cowboys in honor of his basic decency.
Chisholm's Trail, which at first had accommodated only wagon trains, pioneers, and Indian tribes, became a cattle road under the wiles of
Joseph McCoy. While the trail never extended into Texas, Texas ranchers carved a network of smaller trails across Texas to drive the cattle
to Fort Worth. The cattle would then be driven to the crossing at Red River Station. After crossing the river, the drive would go in almost a
straight path through Chickasaw, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Cherokee lands into Kansas, where they'd meet the trains bound for Northern and
Eastern markets in Abilene.
Life on the Trail
The men on the trail worked long hours, traveling the 1,200 mile route at about 10-12 miles per day. Charles Goodnight explained in his
memoirs that the best cattle drivers forged the route according to the distance between watering holes. The herd, which ideally numbered
about 2,500-3,000 head, followed the trail in a wide berth, sometimes up to a mile wide. Traveling during the spring, summer, and fall, each
season brought with it its own perils. The cowboys had to contend with tornadoes, hail, flash floods and lightning. A freak Spring blizzard in
1874 at Hell Roaring Creek, Indian Territory, killed several animals. Cattle, men, and horses were lost in quicksand along the Red River,
where banks could become even more treacherous after a rain storm. Even the smaller creeks became swirling death traps after flash
More often than not, the real enemy of the men on the trail were other men, like cattle rustlers and Kansas and Missouri farmers. Texas
Rangers could help the drivers south of the Red River, but in Indian Territory the company had to rely on sporadic protection from the
soldiers stationed at the forts. At times, the men had to fight each other. In Cooke County, 1873, a cook beheaded four cowhands at the Elm
Fork of the Trinity River. Shootouts, though not too common, occurred between coworkers. This is the reason why alcohol was forbidden on
The drives were helpful to the Native Americans who lived near the trail, creating a commercial outlet for Indians as well as fostering
cooperation between them and the whites. The Kiowas and Comanches demanded payment for the use of their lands - usually in the form of
healthy steer. Sometimes, young Indian men would cause stampedes in order to take the outfit's horses. The outfits also had to pay tolls to
the civilized tribes for crossing and grazing on their land.
If there's one thing cowboys know how to do, that's to live it up. The prospect of walking cattle through miles of uncertain terrain for months
at a time gave them reason to carouse before setting off on the trail. Fort Worth, the starting point of the main trail, offered booze, gambling,
and other dubious entertainment - as well as supplies. By the end of the trail, they were more than ready to tie one on again - this time in
Abilene. The boss would sell the cattle for great profit - usually about $20 a head - pay the men, and after the cowhands sold their surplus
horses, they were free to spend. They'd return to Texas broke but ready for another drive.
The Trail Ends
The Chisholm Trail did not last long. When the railroad pushed further west, other trails opened up to meet stations in less populated areas.
But barbed wire really killed the trails. When first introduced, it served to keep cattle from grazing in cultivated fields. Then ranchers began
using it to separate the less desirous longhorn - with its tough, stringy meat - from the fattier, more tender mixed breeds. Northerners
quickly developed a taste for the softer meat, which pushed the longhorn off the market. The cattle drives trickled to a halt.
However, the Chisholm Trail, and those trails that came before and after it, did much more than just bring surplus beef to market. Not only
did they help Texas and Indian Territory economically, but they also helped forge western expansion. Prior to the Chisholm Trail, many
Americans believed that the West was too wild to settle properly, with bands of Plains Indians lurking everywhere and lands too scrappy to
cultivate. The Chisholm Trail proved that people could live well on the Plains. It also meant the end of a way of life for the western Indians.
Now, we can only share their history in museums, ghost towns, and on historical markers.
|Marker on the original Chisholm Trail.
These heritage markers, situated on
many sites along the trail, were the brain
child of Bob Klemme of Enid, Oklahoma.
|Learn the Language of a Cowhand
A little lesson in cowboy vocabulary.
beeve: mature steer
mixed breed: cows that are not longhorns
maverick: unbranded longhorns roaming the south of
prairie coal: cow/ buffalo chips used for fire fuel
chuck wagon: where the cook worked and tools were
son-of-a-gun stew: stew made up of the soft tissues of a
cow slaughtered on the trail. Since these pieces of meat
couldn't be preserved, the cowboys ate this stew for the
first few days. Thereafter, they could have steaks.
Pecos strawberries: beans
mill: cluster of cows. When formed in a river, it could lead
to panic. Milling was used by the cowhands as a form of
curtailing stampedes, although it wasn't the favorite
solution, since it caused the cows to loose weight.
stampede: cattle panic, making them run amok
remuda: the surplus horses that the wrangler would look
|Explore more Chisholm Trail
|The Tarrant County
Courthouse sits right in the
middle of the Chisholm Trail
|Trail Driver Monument outside of Caldwell, Kansas.
|Jesse Chisholm, translator, trader, and
|Other States were Carved and Born
Texas grew from Hide and Horn.
Berta Hart Nance
|Driving Up the Chisholm Trail
|While trail bosses would pay
the toll to cross the Waco
suspension bridge and thus
stay dry, the cowboys would
ford the Brazos river below
with their cattle.
On the Job
Like with any other job, a strict hierarchy ruled the outfit. The boss was always
an experienced trail driver who had proven himself patient, quick witted, and
no-nonsense. He usually rode ahead of the herd, spotting for danger, grazing
land, and water. Second in line of command was the cook, who no one dared to
make upset because the food might end up tasting a little funny. The cook would
either be a cowboy who had learned the trade on previous drives or, in a few
cases, a woman out looking for adventure. The menu consisted of biscuits-
biscuits with beans, biscuits with bacon, biscuits with steak. During the long
journey, the company's diets could be greatly supplemented by game and wild
berries. Sometimes, a troublesome cow was slaughtered, and the cowhands
could look forward to steak and roast.
The cowhands numbered from 12 to 18 men. They practically lived on their
horses. They would station themselves at every corner of the herd and gently
nudge the cows to the north. Their strategy was to make the cows feel as if they
walked voluntarily, which made the herd much easier to manage. At night, the
guards on duty would softly sing their cowboy songs, which calmed the herd
The wrangler made up the rear of the brigade. Usually a younger, less
experienced cowhand, his job was to take care of the extra horses, help the
cook, and take good natured abuse from the cowhands.