On April Fools’ Day 1868 cattleman M.A. Withers rode north out of Lockhart, Texas, with a herd of 600 Longhorn steers, eight hands and a cook. They were bound for the railhead at Abilene, Kansas, which had opened the previous summer. Just south of a trading post on the site of present-day Wichita, Kansas, Withers rode several miles ahead of the herd and stopped at a lake to water his horse and slake his own thirst. His horse suddenly jerked to attention, and the cattleman looked up to see seven mounted Osages galloping straight at him. As the lake hemmed him in, he had no choice but to face them.
The Indians, all well armed, raced right up to Withers and reined to a stop. After an uncomfortably long pause the leader held out his hand and asked for tobacco. Withers, thinking perhaps his time on earth was about to expire, handed over all the tobacco he had. Much to his relief, the Indians abruptly whirled and raced away. Withers rejoined the herd and continued the slow trek north. A little farther up the trail toward Abilene he came across a human skull with a bullet hole in the forehead. The events that led to its appearance on the Kansas plains were just as mysterious as the identity of the skull’s previous owner, but there was no doubt about his fate. Withers took the events in characteristic stride. His matter-of-fact recollections and those of fellow cattlemen are recorded in the 1924 book The Trail Drivers of Texas.
Over the last 20 years or so attention has again shifted to the Chisholm Trail, a route that purportedly originated somewhere in Texas and ran north to central Kansas
Over the decades misconceptions about the cattle drive era have wormed their way into the historical narrative. More sensational writers have glamorized trail life, embellishing factual accounts to elevate drovers to mythical status. Fiction and hearsay have forever altered public perceptions of the cowboy, the West and the cattle trails. Over the last 20 years or so attention has again shifted to the Chisholm Trail, a route that purportedly originated somewhere in Texas and ran north to central Kansas. Many Plains communities marked the sesquicentennial of the trail in 2017. But questions remain. For one, was the northbound cattle trail known as the Chisholm in its heyday, or did the name come into use well after the drives had ended?
Historians and everyday folk, especially in Texas, have debated the name and route of the Chisholm Trail since its founding. According to popular accounts, it began somewhere in south Texas and led generally north across Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) to Abilene. As waves of new settlers arrived and railroad construction continued, the trail branched out to new railheads in central Kansas. Eventually, herd traffic shifted west along the Western Trail (aka Fort Griffin Trail or Dodge City Trail) to Dodge City, Kan., and Ogallala, Neb.
The name “Chisholm Trail,” though applied periodically to other routes, is most commonly associated with a trail leading from around San Antonio north through Austin, Waco and Fort Worth before crossing the Red River at Red River Station in Montague County, then roughly paralleling present-day U.S. Highway 81 through Oklahoma and onward to Abilene.
Ask north of the Red River why the trail is known as the Chisholm, and the answers will likely refer to Jesse Chisholm, a guide and interpreter who operated several trading posts in Indian Territory and southern Kansas. Tennessee-born Chisholm, whose mother was Cherokee, was well established in Indian Territory by the time he opened a trading post near the mouth of the Little Arkansas River (the site of present-day Wichita) sometime in 1864. His route from the Little Arkansas south to his trading post on the North Canadian River at Council Grove (a timbered site just west of present-day Oklahoma City) was known informally as Chisholm’s wagon road, or Chisholm’s trail. When the railhead opened at Abilene a few years later, drovers followed part of Chisholm’s wagon road to reach the new cattle market at Abilene. As the story goes, they later applied his name to the entire route.
Ask the same question south of the Red River, however, and the answers will vary wildly. Some will affirm the trail is named for Jesse Chisholm, others will say it is named for cattleman John Simpson Chisum, while still others might mention cattleman Thornton Chisholm (no known relation to Jesse) as its namesake. Some will tell you the Chisholm Trail was struck north of the Red River and never entered Texas, use of the name south of the river arising from phonetic similarity and the marketability of the Chisholm moniker. One oft-related claim credits Texas cowboys with the Chisholm Trail appellation, but only when it fell into common parlance after decades of trail herding.
Some Texans will insist either folklorist J. Frank Dobie or San Angelo trail driver C.H. Rust had said the cattle trail northbound out of Texas was the Chisholm, thus it is so. Of course, such diehards will downplay or omit from the conversation that Dobie had also claimed the original Chisholm Trail did not extend south of the Red River, and that contemporary trail drivers such as George Washington Saunders had contradicted Rust’s statements. The sources for many such claims trace back to the 1920s and ’30s, when writers were conducting interviews and dashing off stories as aging drovers were reaching the ends of their own trails. While their firsthand accounts are accurate with regard to certain details, readers should consider how much of the narratives represent the sentimental recollections of a vanished lifestyle.
Thankfully, it is possible to crosscheck period recollections with documentation from the cattle drive era (generally 1867–87), cursory examination of which often reveals inconsistencies.
For example, several stories relate John Chisum’s alleged involvement in blazing the trail to Kansas. In one version Chisum supposedly drove a herd to Abilene in 1866, while others claim he drove his herd to a spot farther west along the Smoky Hill River. Complicating matters, some writers spelled the cattleman’s surname “Chis-holm”—perhaps seeking to reconcile his name with the Chisholm Trail, or maybe simply misspelling it.
First and foremost, John Chisum wouldn’t have driven a herd to Abilene in 1866, as the railhead wasn’t established until the summer of 1867. No railhead, no cattle market at that lonely site on the Kansas plains. Furthermore, during the Civil War the cattleman had moved his herds southwest from Denton County, Texas, to Coleman County and by 1866 was extending his ranching operation farther west to Lincoln County, New Mexico Territory. No one has offered supporting documentation or explained how the cattleman might have managed to blaze a trail hundreds of miles north through Indian Territory to Kansas at the same time he was establishing a ranch several hundred miles west in New Mexico Territory.
In the spring of 1866 enterprising Texas cattleman Thornton Chisholm rode north from DeWitt County, east of San Antonio, with 1,800 head of cattle bound for St. Joseph, Mo. Texas cowboys had driven cattle to Missouri along the well-established route for at least 20 years, and the drive should have taken about two months. Instead of making a beeline toward Grayson County, however, Chisholm followed the Brazos River northwest. After crossing the Red River near its North Fork in Wilbarger County, he angled back northeast across Indian Territory and Kansas to St. Joseph. His roundabout route took nearly seven months. According to a letter from Chisholm’s son cited in the 1959 book Memoirs of (the Late) Daniel Fore (Jim) Chisholm and the Chisholm Trail, “No one knew for sure just where to go, only that they must head north and east, hoping eventually to reach the railroad, which they had heard about.”
Thornton Chisholm’s circuitous route to St. Joseph did not pass anywhere near the endpoints of what came to be called the Chisholm Trail. Those central Kansas railheads didn’t even exist at the time of his 1866 drive. The cattleman himself was killed two years later in a freight wagon accident in Burnet County. While his name could be applied to the course of his monthslong ramble from DeWitt County to Wilbarger County past the site of present-day Parsons, Kan., and on into St. Joseph, the route and timing of his drive preclude any connection with the recognized Chisholm Trail due north to central Kansas.
The wagon trail Jesse Chisholm blazed was a means of travel between his trading posts and not intended as a cattle trail
Between 1847 and ’64 Jesse Chisholm established several trading posts, ranging across the region from the site of present-day Asher, Okla., to the site of present-day Wichita. While he likely traded in livestock to an extent, there is no evidence he drove cattle anywhere in any significant numbers. According to his adopted son Vincente George Chisholm, the wagon trail Jesse blazed was a means of travel between his trading posts and not intended as a cattle trail. When trail outfits left Cooke County, Texas, driving herds north across Indian Territory in 1867, the most direct route took them past Fort Arbuckle and the site of present-day Pauls Valley. The onward route across the North Canadian and Cimarron rivers toward Kansas happened to pick up the wagon road to Chisholm’s trading post at Council Grove. The cattle market in Abilene, some 240 miles farther north, opened in late summer 1867. Chisholm died on March 4, 1868, before the spring drives ventured north and before his wagon road became a known cattle trail.
Sometime around 1871 the trail shifted slightly west, as drovers took to crossing the Red into Indian Territory at Red River Station. The shift upriver was likely due to a tax passed by the Chickasaw Indians in 1869 on all livestock that entered the Chickasaw Nation east of Walnut Bayou, as well as the closing of Fort Arbuckle in 1870. The realigned route led north past Monument Hill into Kansas, more or less paralleling present-day U.S. Highway 81. Drovers used it primarily until 1876, when the trail again shifted west, this time bound for Dodge City.
Military and Interior Department maps of Indian Territory rendered between 1872 and ’87 refer to the trail north from Red River Station as the Abilene Cattle Trail, while the trail north of Fort Arbuckle and between the North Canadian and Cimarron rivers is labeled Chisholm’s Trail or Chisholm’s Cattle Trail—names that remain consistent throughout the era. Not until 1901 did maps label the trail past Monument Hill the Chisholm Trail. Someone, it seems, had extended the trail.
The Chisholm Trail appeared sporadically in headlines between 1911 and ’38, usually amid news related to the construction of the Meridian Highway from the Canadian border to the Gulf Coast of Texas. In the mid-1920s Oklahoman P.P. Ackley, an aging former drover, announced his intention to turn the old Chisholm Trail into a highway and install commemorative markers along the route. As a result, by 1930 the length and course of the Chisholm Trail had changed to largely match those of the Meridian Highway. That year the Texas Highway Commission approved a motion to allow the Chisholm Trail Association to map a course and install markers, pending approval of the route and marker design by the commission or state engineer. After the project fell by the wayside due to disagreements and the Great Depression, Ackley began his own private project and installed an unknown number of Chisholm Trail markers from Texas north to the Canadian border. Some of his markers, which bear a distinctive Texas Longhorn insignia, still remain, while others have been replaced or removed. Given Ackley’s meandering route far beyond the parameters of the original trail, his markers remain controversial.
For clues to the original route, one must scour the record a half-century earlier. Published between 1874 and 1905, the books Historic Sketches of the Cattle Trade of the West and Southwest, by Joseph G. McCoy; Report in Regard to the Range and Ranch Cattle Business of the United States, by Joseph Nimmo Jr.; Historical and Biographical Record of the Cattle Industry and the Cattlemen of Texas and Adjacent Territory, by James Cox; and Prose and Poetry of the Live Stock Industry of the United States, compiled by the National Livestock Association, are invaluable resources, containing more than 400 biographical sketches of cattlemen and other information regarding the cattle business. Given the claim the Chisholm Trail name had come into common usage during the period, one would expect to find mentions of it throughout these accounts. Just the opposite is true, with scarcely a mention of the Chisholm or any other trail by name. It seems cattlemen of the era tended to name a trail according to its point of origin or destination, if they named it at all.
It appears the Chisholm Trail name only fell into common usage after 1911, well after the cattle drive era and in keeping with the name change on period maps
It appears the Chisholm Trail name only fell into common usage after 1911, well after the cattle drive era and in keeping with the name change on period maps. Whether use of the name in news stories based on old-timer’s recollections also had an effect is uncertain. While some old drovers certainly used the term to describe the trail through Texas, as many if not more disavowed the Chisholm label on the Lone Star section of the trail. Regardless, use of the term during the early 1900s is at odds with the period tradition of naming a trail for its origin or destination.
Again, the aforementioned 1872–87 military and Interior Department maps of Indian Territory refer to the trail north of Red River Station as the Abilene Cattle Trail and that between Council Grove on the North Canadian to the Cimarron as Chisholm’s Cattle Trail. But surveyors and cartographers did not extend either name to interconnecting trails during the era. Although many popular maps show the Chisholm Trail stretching unbroken from some vague point in Texas to some point in Kansas, all were produced post-1920 and are subject to opinion and changing perceptions. On no known period map does a route in Texas bear the legend Chisholm Trail or Abilene Cattle Trail, nor do any depict the Chisholm extending north of the Cimarron River. The only known period map on which a cattle trail crosses the Red at Montague County is Map of Texas Showing Routes of Transportation of Cattle, 1881, published by the Interior Department for possible inclusion in an 1880 census report. It labels that section as the Eastern, or Fort Worth, Trail.
Turns out, a surprising amount of what we “know” about the old Chisholm Trail draws on information from the post-1920 period of reminiscence. While many interesting interviews and tales originated in those years, they were rife with inconsistencies and contradictions, especially concerning the name and route of the Chisholm Trail. One old trail driver said one thing, another something completely different. A reader often gravitated toward the account favoring his own opinion, swallowing it for no other reason than simply because an old cowboy said so. Thus the debate has dragged on for decades.
Although contemporary maps and other sources might have slipped the notice of past researchers and authors, recently rediscovered documents from the era bring new and relevant information to the discussion. Researchers can now reference such documents, rather than rely on imperfect recollections transcribed decades after the actual events, a surprising number of which are unsupported by period sources. Fortunately, maps from the 1870s and ’80s are remarkably consistent with regard to the location of Chisholm’s Trail.
If a story is unsupported, by definition it is folklore. There is certainly a place for folklore and legend; everyone loves a good yarn. In the myriad stories about the Chisholm Trail shared over the intervening decades, it pops up alternately as the Texas–Kansas Trail, Eastern Trail, Texas Trail, Kansas Trail, Abilene Trail, Ellsworth Trail, Beef Trail or just the trail. But as Texas rancher and historian Tom B. Saunders IV used to say, “What is more important than the trail name are the people that actually did all the work.” The drovers who faced the dangers, took the risks and got the job done deserve more than just a good story; they deserve to have their history recorded as faithfully as possible. WW
Fort Worth author Wayne Ludwig started researching the Chisholm Trail in 2011. His recently published book The Old Chisholm Trail: From Cow Path to Tourist Stop includes citations and a bibliography for this adapted article. For further reading he suggests The Shawnee-Arbuckle Cattle Trail, 1867–1870: The Predecessor of the Chisholm Trail to Abilene, Kansas, by Gary and Margaret Kraisinger; The Trail Drivers of Texas, edited by J. Marvin Hunter; The Chisholm Trail, by Wayne Gard; and The Chisholm Trail: Joseph McCoy’s Great Gamble, by James E. Sherow.