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.

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