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
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
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.
|Marker on the original Chisholm Trail. These heritage markers, situated
on many sites along the trail, were the brain child of Bob Klemme of
|Explore more Chisholm Trail Traveling History!
|The Tarrant County Courthouse sits right in the middle of the cattle
trail that would, once it hit Indian Territory, become known as the
|Trail Driver Monument outside of Caldwell, Kansas.
|Jesse Chisholm, translator, trader, slave owner, Scots-Cherokee, and trail blazer
|Other States were Carved and Born
Texas grew from Hide and Horn.
Berta Hart Nance
|Driving Up the Chisholm Trail
|The photograph, taken in southern Texas, shows just how many cattle could be part of a drive. The first commercial cattle drives (meaning, the
drives that sent cattle to market) began in San Antonio. Early drives went eastward to New Orleans to be shipped up the Mississippi River. Later,
drives veered northward to steer clear of farmers and to meet up with railheads. The Chisholm Trail, while arguably the most famous of the
long-range drives, was neither the earliest or the last of the trails. And, it was not even really a Texas trail, as it originated from Abilene, KS
southward to the area around Kingfisher, OK.
|Many beef trails converged in Texas and crossed into Indian Territory via
Red River Station. US 81 now approximates the route through Oklahoma.
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 1820s - 1840s. These immigrant Native Americans
created a trail system for settlers to come after them. Most notable of these were Black Beaver of the Delawares and Jesse B. Chisholm,
a Cherokee- Scotsman.
Black Beaver was a well known guide, forging the California Trail with Randolph B. Marcy 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 was a store owner, trader (which included slaves as well as livestock) and translator. He could speak several Indian
languages, a talent that made him a peace negotiator and a sought-after guide. To bring his wares to market, bring his trade stuffs to the
store his wife maintained, and to assist in westward settlement that would bring in customers, Chisholm laid out several trails, especially
one that opened up southwestern Indian Territory to Indian tribes and trade. This would be called the Chisholm Trail.
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 trail.
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.
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 down.
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.
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.
|The central portion of an 1887 map of Indian Territory shows two cattle trails that made up the "Chisholm Trail" - the eastern route is marked
"Chisholm's cattle trail" and the western route as the "Abilene cattle trail." (Library of Congress). To see the full map, click here.