This enterprising cattle dealer drove Longhorns west out of Texas to new markets in New Mexico Territory.
Legend has it that in early March 1880 John Chisum faced down William H. Bonney in Beaver Smith’s saloon at Fort Sumner, New Mexico Territory. The rebellious adolescent firmly believed Chisum owed him wages for fighting on behalf of the cattleman’s lawyer, Alexander McSween, in the Lincoln County War. The newspapers had reported that Chisum was hiring fighters at $500 a head. Someone, probably McSween himself, had promised his men Chisum would stand good, but Chisum himself never promised them anything. According to one reliable account, Bonney demanded $500, and Chisum, after refusing, found himself staring down the barrel of a well-used Colt revolver.
Always a shrewd negotiator, Chisum raised his eyes to meet Bonney’s and calmly replied, “Let me get a smoke, Billy, for then I can talk better.” Chisum lit his pipe while Bonney held the Colt pointed at the cattleman, his finger on the trigger. “Now Billy, listen. If you talked about that money until your hair was as white as mine, you could not convince me that I owed it to you.” Chisum knew Bonney respected old men with white hair. “You couldn’t shoot an honest man, could you, while he was looking you in the eye?” Chisum pressed on. “You have killed several men, I know, but they needed killing.” Thus complimented, Bonney began to waiver in his resolve. Chisum reminded Billy that during the Lincoln County War the cattle dealer had allowed the Regulators open access to his ranch at South Spring River so they could help themselves to food and supplies, as well as horses. This too was a shrewd play, because everyone knew Bonney would not hurt anyone who had given him food and shelter or an invitation to share the campfire.
Bonney holstered the Colt but did not relinquish his claim. “All right, Mr. Chisum,” he said, “but only for the present. If you won’t pay me what you owe me I’ll steal from your cattle until I get it.” Days later, true to his word, Bonney cut out 10 steers, 10 bullocks and two cows from the Chisum family herd on the Canadian River, valued at $220 according to the complaint filed in Las Vegas on March 10, 1880.
John’s nephew Will Chisum heard the story a little differently at age 15 and repeated the story when he was 74. When Bonney demanded payment, Uncle John replied: “Billy, you know as well as I do that I never hired you to fight in the Lincoln County War. I always pay my honest debts. I don’t owe you anything, and you can kill me, but you won’t knock me out of many years. I’m an old man now.” Billy relented. “Aw, you ain’t worth killing.”
At 55 John Chisum had faced many challenges and overcome many dangers in his chosen career. But facing down the wild teenager who would become known as Billy the Kid must have been the closest call he ever had.
John Simpson Chisum was born August 16, 1824, in Hardeman County, Tennessee, the second child of 16-year-old Lucinda Armstrong, who had married a cousin twice her age, surveyor and farmer Claiborne C. Chisum, 33. The Chisums of western Tennessee were descendants of the Chisholms, who had migrated from England to the American colonies in the early 1600s. The family changed the spelling to Chisum in 1815. Claiborne’s father was also a surveyor, and they were frequently paid in real estate they would add to the family plantation. John and his siblings—including Nancy, born January 22, 1822; James, born September 25, 1827; Thomas “Jeff” Jefferson, born sometime in 1830; and Pitser (or Pitzer), born February 28, 1834—were all raised in affluence on their grandfather’s 1,280- acre plantation among grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, in-laws and slaves. As a youngster Chisum received the nickname “Cow John,” as he spent most of his time at the stables raising and managing livestock. From his father, he learned how to conduct business and manage a large estate.
In the early fall of 1837, when Cow John was 13, he may have accompanied his father on an exploratory trip to Texas. Claiborne Chisum wanted more space and land of his own. He liked what he saw in Lamar County, below the Red River on the extreme western frontier of the Lone Star State. On September 28 he appeared at the General Land Office in Austin, the capital, and filed on 2,078 acres in Lamar. By November he and son John were back on the plantation. Claiborne filled three Conestoga wagons with possessions and supplies and guided part of the extended family toward central Texas. John is said to have driven one of the wagons. As the family traveled in the winter of 1837–38, a pregnant Lucinda fell ill and died. The family pushed on, and that spring found them building a two-story log cabin on a hillside just west of what would soon become known as the township of Paris, Texas. Claiborne remarried, and as 10 more children were born into the family, the Chisum clan rose in prominence in Lamar County.
John would work at various jobs—an overseer on the building of a new road, a real-estate speculator like his father and a clerk in a dry goods store—and for a time serve as the Lamar County clerk in Paris. By 1850 John was thinking about entering the cattle business. He and his brothers, according to a persistent family tale, journeyed west into newly created New Mexico Territory that year but decided the region was too unsettled to start a ranch. In the spring of 1854 in Denton County he entered into a cattle partnership with New Orleans investor Stephen K. Fowler, who advanced him $6,000 to round up Longhorns, fatten them and find markets for them. Within a short time Chisum, based at his Bolivar ranch, became one of the most substantial ranchers in Texas. The partnership ended sometime after Texas seceded from the Union in the spring of 1861. Exempt from military service, Chisum, like other stock raisers, was designated a beef supplier to the Confederate army. For the next four years Chisum and hands drove his cattle to Vicksburg, Miss., and Shreveport, La., though John showed little interest in the Southern cause. Drought and Comanche raids also hampered cattle operations in the Denton area. In 1864 Chisum moved his Longhorns to Coleman County, near the junction of the Colorado and Concho rivers. At war’s end Longhorns were plentiful, but so were unsavory men who, according to an 1895 book on the Texas cattle industry, “turned their attention to stock and ran them off or slaughtered them for their hides, which were then worth more than the carcass.” Instead of dealing with all these Texas thieves, Chisum turned his sights on New Mexico Territory, and he and his brothers most likely made several forays there looking for markets for Texas beef.
In the spring of 1866 Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving drove their first herd of Longhorns from near Fort Belknap, Texas, to Fort Sumner, New Mexico Territory, established three years earlier to oversee the Navajo and Mescalero Apaches forced to reside on the nearby Bosque Redondo reservation. That August, Goodnight and Loving set out on their second drive up what would become known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail, this time departing from Trickham, Texas. With them on this trip was John Chisum, who had secured from a New York firm a supply contract to deliver beef to the soldiers and Indians. They reached the Pecos River near Horsehead Crossing, pushed about 1,000 cattle up the east side to Pope’s Crossing, forded to the west side of the river and then headed up the Pecos Valley to Fort Sumner.
The next spring John Chisum trailed his own Longhorns, as well as those entrusted to him by neighbors with much smaller ranching operations, west to New Mexico Territory in a series of drives. The route John and his brothers took west in 1867 and for half a dozen years afterward would come to be called Chisum’s Western Trail, or simply the Chisum Trail, though for much of its length it covered the same ground as the Goodnight-Loving Trail. The Chisums established a cow camp at Bosque Grande, some 30 miles south of Fort Sumner/Bosque Redondo. John made his headquarters at Bosque Redondo after buying two buildings and corrals from James B. Patterson, who along with Robert K. Wylie had come there from Texas before Goodnight and Loving’s famous 1866 drive. In 1868 Chisum formed a partnership with Goodnight (Comanches had killed Oliver Loving the previous year). That same year the Army sent the Navajos back to their homeland in Arizona Territory, and in 1869 the Army abandoned Fort Sumner. Regardless, there were other markets for cattle, including Fort Bascom, along the Canadian River north of Fort Sumner, and at ranches farther north in Colorado and Wyoming.
Because thieves kept taking their Longhorns, Chisum’s Texas neighbors grew increasingly eager to run their cattle in with his own and have John pay them when he found a market. Chisum was happy to oblige and, with the help of broth ers Pitser and James, drove these steers with various brands to the Bosque Grande. His own steers wore the “Long Rail” brand on their left side and the jinglebob, a deep slit in the ear that left the lower half flapping down. For the next several years, the Chisums brought thousands of head to this New Mexico Territory camp. By 1872 John was well-established at his new base, though he never became a citizen of New Mexico Territory and remained a Texas taxpayer. He controlled most of the cattle country up and down the Pecos River and found new markets, such as the Mescalero Apache Agency in Lincoln County and the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona Territory. Marauding Indians made moving cattle west a challenge, and rustlers also caused him grief. From 1867 to 1874 his stock losses amounted to $150,000.
By 1875 John Chisum’s stock had increased to 80,000 head. Settlers began to arrive and edge onto his range with small herds of cattle that would stray into his larger herds. Small ranchers complained that Chisum was stealing their cattle, while John countered that the newcomers had intruded onto his range and that the mingling of their cattle with his was the natural result. Realizing his control over the range was slipping away, Chisum moved his headquarters in 1875 to South Spring Ranch, near the Pecos River about four miles southeast of presentday Roswell. In November of that year he transferred his livestock holdings to the St. Louis cattle-contracting firm of Hunter, Evans & Co. Specifically, as The Las Vegas Gazette reported, Chisum sold to R.D. Hunter, for a consideration of $319,000, his operations at Bosque Grande, the Chisum brand and 30,000 head of cattle. Chisum would spend the next five years rounding up the cattle and delivering them to Hunter, Evans & Co. to fulfill his contract. He made the most of public domain land in the area for grazing. His range included all the land for 150 miles east of the Pecos River to the caprock escarpment, which served as a natural wall to keep his steers from straying, and the land west of the Pecos between Rio Feliz and Seven Rivers, 60 miles below South Spring Ranch. His dominance, without actually owning the land or the cattle, did not sit well with the Seven Rivers residents and smaller ranchers who often stole from Chisum. Soon variations on the Long Rail brand began appearing on cattle that Seven Rivers ranchers were delivering to the pens at Fort Stanton, near Lincoln, some 70 miles to the northwest. The fight between Chisum and these men (he called them “thieves”) is sometimes called the Pecos War.
The Seven Rivers ranchers had the support of L.G. Murphy & Co. (known as “the House”), run by James Dolan and John Riley, affiliated with Lawrence G. Murphy’s Flying H Ranch (northwest of Fort Stanton) and mortgaged to U.S. Attorney Thomas Benton Catron of Santa Fe. Dolan and Riley hoped to pay off the mortgage, buy the House and continue the economic monopoly in Lincoln (the town and the county). In its quest to control all beef contracts with Fort Stanton and the Mescalero Apache Agency, the House got backing from Catron and other powerful men in the territorial capital (the shadowy Santa Fe Ring). Chisum was the natural enemy of the House and the Ring. With the obvious purpose of stealing from Chisum’s vast herds, Dolan and Riley set up a cow camp on the east side of the Pecos between South Spring Ranch and Seven Rivers. No matter how many steers the House men sold, their “miracle herd” never grew any smaller, since Jessie Evans and other hired rustlers provided replacements from the cattle Chisum was grazing for Hunter, Evans & Co. But when Chisum sought help from troops at Fort Stanton, the commanding officers insisted it was a civil matter.
Chisum had unwittingly helped to fan the flames of war when he entered into a banking venture with the attorney Alexander McSween and McSween’s friend John H. Tunstall, an impressionable young investor from England. Their Lincoln County Bank opened for business in August 1876. Chisum appeared on the masthead as president, Tunstall as vice president and McSween as secretary-treasurer. They were headquartered in the new mercantile store Tunstall had built in the town of Lincoln down the street from L.G. Murphy & Co. Dolan and Riley saw the Lincoln County Bank as a threat to their survival. They considered the bank a declaration of war. “Chisum’s identification with it and its affiliate enterprises drew the fire of men who had previously been indifferent to Chisum and his cattle interests,” writes William Keleher in The Fabulous Frontier: 1846–1912.
Not that Chisum was at odds with everyone in the Pecos Valley. According to one account, Robert K. Wylie brought from Texas 9,000 head of cattle to a spot on the Pecos somewhere above Chisum’s ranch but lost track of most of the steers one night during a blinding blizzard. It seems his stock had drifted downriver and mingled with Chisum’s herd. When Wylie told his tale of woe, John rolled in the snow with laughter. But Wiley was clearly distraught, so Chisum asked him how much his entire herd was worth. Wiley replied $65,000, and the men closed the sale on the spot. Wylie later had a cow camp on the west side of the Pecos, south of Seven Rivers. One day in April 1877 Wylie, John and Pitser Chisum, and their cowboys rode north of Seven Rivers to surround the adobe ranch house of Hugh Beckwith, a known cattle stealer. The two sides exchanged fire, but no one was hit, and the besiegers finally withdrew. Such confrontations during the Pecos War led right into the much better known, and deadlier, Lincoln County War.
On February 18, 1878, Murphy Dolan men shot down Tunstall, triggering the Lincoln County War. Tunstall had been William Bonney’s benefactor, so Bonney served with the Regulators under McSween, in trying to settle the score. The war quickly escalated, with the Regulators now considered “outlaws” in the eyes of Lincoln lawmen (and officials in Santa Fe as well). At times Bonney found sanctuary at South Spring Ranch. How friendly he ever was with Chisum is uncertain. Billy’s relationship with Sallie Chisum, the 20-year-old niece of John and daughter of James, probably attracts more attention. Sallie was a lively, pretty, fairhaired girl, and young Billy is said to have had a healthy interest in the opposite sex.
Chisum managed to keep out of harm’s way in both the Pecos War and the Lincoln County War, but he became embroiled in several legal battles. As early as March 1876 Puerto de Luna resident Alexander Grzelachowski claimed Chisum owed him $3,000 plus interest and then brought suit, through U.S. Attorney Catron, against the cattle dealer (the District Court of San Miguel County ruled against Chisum). It would be the first of several minor and fraudulent debts that Catron would exploit. As livestock thefts and confrontations escalated during 1877, Hunter, Evans & Co. wanted the cattle removed from the Pecos, so Chisum drove large herds north to the Canadian River and west into southeastern Arizona Territory. Trailing steers to Arizona was nothing knew for Chisum. His practice was to graze herds on open range and have Mormon settlers he trusted care for them. Chisum also helped new ranchers like Henry C. Hooker and Walter Vail by supplying them with their first herds. At the end of 1877 and into 1878 Chisum spent eight weeks in the Las Vegas Jail for refusing to list his assets when ordered to do so by the courts. Upon his release Chisum hastened to the Canadian River country, far from the escalating violence in Lincoln County.
The climactic event of the Lincoln County War was the July 1878 Five-Day Battle in which Dolan supporters surrounded the Regulators in McSween’s Lincoln home, set it on fire and then shot down the owner. Up on the Canadian River, Sallie Chisum noted in her diary: “We’ve just been informed that McSween’s house has been burned and McSween has been killed. We can’t believe it. We don’t believe it.” Bonney, who had the face-off with Chisum over back pay in March 1880 at Fort Sumner, was better known as Billy the Kid by the time Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett shot him down in July 1881, also at Fort Sumner. The death of Billy the Kid is often considered the closing act of the Lincoln County War. Chisum, who never married but had plenty of family around him, was certainly glad to find a degree of peace. To fulfill his contract with Hunter, Evans & Co., he delivered more of their cattle to market. Among the projects he took on at his South Spring Ranch headquarters was to develop blooded Shorthorns, who had more meat on their bones than Longhorns and thus more market value. Chisum and his family had been living in the eight-room “Square House,” but in 1881 he spent more than $12,000 to build the “Long House.” This 150-foot-long adobe structure also had eight rooms, four on each side of a 10-foot-wide hallway. A “drinking ditch” ran beneath the hallway to a garden on the east side of the house. Chisum, whose face was scarred from a bout of smallpox in 1877, began to have other health problems. He slowed down considerably and then turned over operations at the ranch to brother James and Will Robert, who had married Sallie Chisum in 1880. Pitser Chisum got a healthy settlement and returned to Paris, Texas.
John Chisum developed a neck tumor and had to leave his beloved ranch, first to have surgeons in Kansas City remove the tumor and then to seek relief from the mineral baths in Eureka Springs, Ark. That was where the 60-year-old cattleman died on December 22, 1884. James took his brother’s body back to Texas for burial on Christmas Day in Paris. “The procession which followed his body to the grave,” read one account, “was the largest ever seen in that town, and numbers of his old friends from every portion of Texas helped to swell the sorrowing throng.”
Arizona author Richard Weddle, who wrote “Shooting Billy the Kid” in the August 2012 Wild West, assisted with this article. Suggested for further reading: Clifford Caldwell’s John Simpson Chisum: The Cattle King of the Pecos Revisited; and Harwood P. Hinton’s “John Chisum, 1877–84,” published in the New Mexico Historical Review, July 1956–January 1957.
Originally published in the August 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.