Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Incomparable Jesse Chisholm (c. 1805-1868)

On their way north to railheads in Kansas, trail bosses followed a path through Indian Territory that was blazed by one of the most important traders and negotiators the West has ever known. Jesse Chisholm was a mixed-blood Cherokee Indian born in Tennessee around 1805. When he was still a young man, his family, personal interests, and natural talents combined with American expansion to move him west.

His father was Ignatius Chisholm, an adventurer of Scottish heritage. His mother was Martha Rogers, the daughter of a Cherokee leader. The couple became part of the Cherokee westward movement after the tribe was pressured to give up their lands in Tennessee in exchange for new lands in Arkansas. By 1816, the family lived along the Spadra River in northwestern Arkansas.

Once the federal government began relocating Indian tribes to the territory west of Fort Smith, Arkansas, Jesse Chisholm established several trading posts in that region. At one time, his extended family operated a store at Three Forks, Indian Territory, called the Wigwam Neosho. The store once belonged to Sam Houston and his Cherokee wife, Diana, Jesse Chisholm's great aunt, whom Houston abandoned on his way to Texas in 1833. Because Chisholm could speak a dozen or more languages, including those of the Kiowas and Comanches, officials stationed at Fort Smith and Fort Gibson sometimes used him as an interpreter in their treaty negotiations.

He also served as a mediator for Sam Houston following the Council House Massacre at San Antonio in March 1840. As historian Vernon R. Maddux tells the story, thirty-five Comanche women, warriors, and chiefs came to San Antonio under a flag of truce. But the Indians "were surrounded by a troop of heavily armed Texas soldiers, who . . . killed all the warriors and some women." For the next seven years, in sporadic waves of terror, Comanche raiders took vengeance. At Houston's request, it was Jesse Chisholm who accepted "the dangerous mission of seeking out the remote Comanche bands and trying to persuade them to come in and sign a peace agreement." After seven years of tireless effort, on December 10, 1850, Chisholm signed and witnessed the treaty at San Saba Mission, which was also signed by representatives of the Peneteka Comanches.

During the Civil War, Chisholm operated a ranch and trading post near present-day Wichita, Kansas. It was after the war that he blazed his trail along the 98th meridian, from his post in Kansas all the way to the Red River. This was the path that would eventually become the cattle highway connecting ranches in Texas to the railroad in Kansas. Chisholm died in 1868 and thus never witnessed what became of his trail. He lies buried at the old site that was known as Left Hand Spring, named for a Southern Arapaho leader, in present-day Blaine County, Oklahoma, about six miles northeast of Geary.


Gibson, Arrell M. "Chisholm, Jesse (1805-68)." In The New Encyclopedia of the American West, ed. Howard R. Lamar (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 208-09. A brief entry.

Maddux, Vernon R. "Chisholm, Jesse (1805-4 Apr. 1868)." In American National Biography, ed. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 4:820-22. A much longer article than the one by Gibson.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Chisholm Trail, 1867-1890

Of the great American cattle trails, the most famous and most significant was the one named for Jesse Chisholm. During its peaks years, from 1867 to 1884, the Chisholm Trail began with feeder trails south of San Antonio, traveled north to Fort Worth and Waco, crossed the Red River into present-day Oklahoma, and continued on into Kansas. The destination of the trail was a railroad terminal, first at Abilene, later Newton, and then Wichita, Kansas. More than eight hundred miles long, it was considered by people at the time "one of the wonders of the western world."[1]

Along the Chisholm Trail near Deanville, Texas
How did the Chisholm Trail get its start? Shortly after the Civil War, Texas cattlemen first drove their herds north and east along what they called the old Texas Road, and then into Indian Territory following the Shawnee Trail on their way to either Kansas City or Sedalia, Missouri. But the hills and woods that dotted the trail, not to mention Indians who demanded a fee for crossing their land as well as outright bandits, rendered this route virtually impossible. Because of these impediments, markets in the east as well as Texas suppliers of beef were missing an opportunity.

In 1867, Joseph G. McCoy, an Illinois farmer, recognized the problem. Beef markets in the eastern U.S. were under-supplied. Realizing the tremendous potential, McCoy bought an entire township along the Kansas Pacific Railroad and named the site Abilene. He then hired a team of promoters to travel through Texas with the news about a railhead in south-central Kansas, ready to load up Longhorns and ship them to Kansas City and beyond.[2]

Several factors conspired to bring the great cattle drives out of Texas to an end. First, railroad construction in Texas eliminated some of the need to drive cattle to Kansas. Second, ranching operations in the northern Great Plains expanded, creating new competition for Texas ranches. Finally, in 1884 Kansas legislators imposed a quarantine on cattle entering the state. As historian John R. Lovett noted, by 1890, the day of the cattle drives across Oklahoma was over.[3]


[1] Steven D. Dortch, "Chisholm Trail," The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, www.okhistory.org (accessed February 15, 2018). See also T. R. Fehrenbach, Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans. Updated ed. (New York: Tess Press, 2000), 557-58.

[2] John R. Lovett, "Major Cattle Trails, 1866-1889," in Historical Atlas of Oklahoma, 4th ed., Charles Robert Goins and Danney Goble, eds. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006), 116.

[3] Ibid. See also Edward Everett Dale, "Chisholm Trail," in Dictionary of American History, 3rd ed. Stanley I Kutler, ed. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2003), 2:158

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Origins of the Texas Cattle Kingdom

Meta Chestnutt's arrival in Silver City, Chickasaw Nation, in 1889 coincided closely with the end of the great cattle drives that began in central Texas and traveled north through Indian Territory and into Kansas. The story of Silver City had always been part of the saga of the cattlemen's empire and the fabled Chisholm Trail. What were the origins of the tremendous cattle industry that was centered in post-Civil War Texas?

Beginning with Christopher Columbus's second voyage, the Spanish brought to the Western Hemisphere both horses and cattle. Along with the animals, they also brought a culture of ranching and horse breeding. Their plan was to establish "husbandry on a European model in the Indies."[1] Centuries later, the enduring vocabulary of the American cowboy points back to the Spanish origins of his world. The terms are numerous: lariatlasso, remudacorral, chaparreras (chaps), rodeo, etc.[2]

As early as 1716, missions in Spanish Texas raised cattle. By 1770, the Mission La Bahia del Espiritu Santo, near Goliad, boasted herds totaling 40,000 head. Missions and private citizens in Texas became wealthy when cattle were driven east towards New Orleans, or south and west into modern-day Mexico. Those drives of the eighteenth century were harbingers of greater things to come.

During the Mexican War (1846-48), ranchers in Texas sold beef to the military and drove some of their cattle to New Orleans. In the 1840s and '50s, some cattlemen identified St. Louis as an excellent market. Following what they called the Shawnee Trail, they drove their herds north and east through Choctaw and Cherokee country in what is now eastern Oklahoma, into Arkansas and finally Missouri. Their destination was the livestock cars at either Kansas City or Sedalia, Missouri. But not until the after the Civil War did the Texas cattle kingdom emerge. During the war, the Union was eventually able to blockade the South, which prevented drives eastward. Consequently, by 1865 perhaps as many a 5 million cattle grazed on the Texas prairies, many of them unbranded and wild.[3]

Texans who served in the Confederate military and were fortunate enough to have survived the war returned home to find that during the years of conflict local herds of Longhorn cattle had grown. But great numbers drove down local prices for cattle and beef. In 1866, longhorns in the central part of the state sometimes sold for as little as $4 a head. But in major cities far to the north and east, those same cattle might bring as much as forty dollars and more. By driving their herds from Texas north through Indian Territory all the way to railroad terminals in Kansas, ranchers could get their cattle to those places where they would sell at a premium.[4]


[1] William D. Phillips, Jr., and Carla Rahn Phillips, The Worlds of Christopher Columbus (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 194. The authors cite Bartolome de Las Casas, Historia de las Indias, ed. Agustin Millares Carlo. 3 vols. (Mexico City, 1951), book I, chapter 82, I:346-49.

[2] I was reminded of this by T. R. Fehrenbach, Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans. Updated ed. (New York: Tess Press, 2000), 556. See also Robert V. Hine and John Mack Faragher, The American West: A New Interpretive History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 302-04.

[3] Joseph A. Stout, Jr., "cattle industry," in The New Encyclopedia of the American West, edited by Howard R. Lamar (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 176; David Dary, "Cattle Drives," The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, www.okhistory.org (accessed February 12, 2018); John R. Lovett, "Major Cattle Trails, 1866-1889," in Historical Atlas of Oklahoma, 4th ed., Charles Robert Goins and Danney Goble, eds. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006), 116-17.

[4] Randolph B. Campbell, Gone to Texas: A History of the Lone Star State. 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 296-99.