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The Chisholm Trail aka The Abilene Cattle Trail


Group of men on hoseak with chuckwagon and a group of horses.
Cowboys readying themselves for the Chisholm Trail at Red River Station in Texas, 1872. Notice the remuda (group of surplus horses) and the chuckwagon! (UT Arlington).

Take a road trip along the southwestern cattle trails in my book!


Three cattle trails crossed the Red River during the 19th century: the Shawnee, the Chisholm, and the Great Western Trail. While purists continue to argue the names for the trails and some parts of their routes, they are nonetheless an integral part of the Red River's history. Mosey on up with the Red River Historian as we explore some of the history and places where you can enjoy your own historic road trip!


First, let's go up the Shawnee Trail.

Next, we went up the Chisholm Trail.

Lastly, the trail ended with the Great Western Trail..

The Chisholm Trail / Abilene Cattle Trail

Before the Civil 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. 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 believed 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 a tick that resided on longhorn cattle but did not affect them. Missouri farmers 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.


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 by cowboys who reminisced about their work for the WPA's Federal Writer's Project during the 1930s. During its actual life, this trail was called the Abilene Cattle Trail.


While the Abilene 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.


The Chisholm/ Abilene Cattle 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.


Survey map of Chisholm and Abilen cattle trail.
An 1887 map shows the Abilene Cattle Trail paralleling the Chisholm Cattle Trail, proving that cows go where they want to go (LOC).
Three markers at the end of the Chisholm Trail.
The end of the Chisholm Trail in Abilene, Kansas, is commemorated by several markers. The parking lot was once a cattle lot.

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