Chisholm Trail: The West’s Greatest Cattle Route
The Chisholm Trail is renowned for cattle, cowboys, chuck wagons, and nearly everything iconic about the Old West.
Used between 1867 and 1884, the Trail was the major thoroughfare for Texas longhorn cattle en route to markets north of the Lone Star State.
In those years, between six to eight million head of cattle passed up the trail and were sold for what would be worth billions of dollars today. On the Chisholm Trail, the immortal story of the cowboy was born.
Supply and Demand of Beef in Texas
After the Civil War, Texas had a cattle problem. As ranchers were away fighting for Confederacy, herds of feral longhorn cattle multiplied on the range like, well, cattle. David Danborn, writing in Born in the Country, states that there were between three to five million cattle roaming Texas after the war. Epicureans can calculate how many steaks or hamburgers this equates to.
There was no way Texans could use — much less eat — all these cattle, even if the Atkins diet was anachronistically introduced. Thus, Texas was the place to go if you wanted a good deal of fresh red meat.
Supply and demand being what they are, the inexorable forces of economics meant that the price of a head of longhorn cattle in Texas in 1866 dropped to four bucks per head. One account even says that a head of cattle could be sold for a buck, with the calves thrown in for a bonus.
Joseph McCoy, Cattle Entrepreneur
At about this time, cattle and mule entrepreneur Joseph McCoy had an idea. McCoy was from Illinois and knew that while Texans were neck-deep in cattle, people in the north and northeast demanded red meat. The demand was so much that a head of cattle could fetch $40 from the Chicago stockyards.
McCoy used this elementary knowledge of supply and demand as the motivating factor to develop a logistics system that would move these hoofed profits to the cities up north and east, where they were sold at the highest price.
McCoy faced a problem, however. Kansas had banned the shipping of longhorn cattle to prevent the spread of “Texas fever,” a bovine disease to which longhorns were immune, but other cattle breeds were susceptible. Unfortunately, the longhorns were carriers and could infect other breeds of cattle.
Luckily for McCoy, Kansas, in 1867, changed the law, permitting longhorns to be transported away from the state’s eastern cities. The Chisholm Trail was perfectly situated for this.
McCoy purchased a town named Abilene on the Kansas-Pacific railway and built stockyards. Abilene became, in effect, one of the first real “cow towns.” He then turned his attention to how to get all these Texas cattle up to the railhead where he could ship them off and turn a tidy profit.
Jesse Chisholm, Trader of the Plains
Jesse Chisholm was a plains trader of Cherokee and Scottish descent. Born in 1805 or 1806, he moved into the Oklahoma region as a child, where the Cherokee had been relocated after the Trail of Tears. In 1836, Chisholm became a trader and mingled among the various Plains tribes, learning their languages while exchanging goods.
He soon became highly demanded as an interpreter and often went to tribal councils to work between the different tribes. He also worked with the government of the Republic of Texas to act as an interpreter in their relations with tribes within Texas. He even served as interpreter for President Polk in 1846, who had been negotiating the Treaty of Comanche Peak.
During the Civil War, Chisholm offered his services to the Confederacy and the Union. Immediately after the war, he, along with a Lenape named Black Beaver, recognized the profits to be had from cattle.
They established a trail in the west of Texas to drive cattle up north. While they did bring some cattle, Chisholm did not see his trail fully blossom: he died of food poisoning in 1868, though his name would live on in the trail he had blazed.
Related read: 16 Iconic Landmarks on the Oregon Trail
The Length of the Chisholm Trail
While it may seem like a simple exercise to calculate the distance of the Chisholm Trail, it is, in truth, a very slippery subject. The route itself had changed during the time of its usage, and the path which Jesse Chisholm walked on in the late 1860s was different from the one of the 1880s.
Generally, the main Chisholm Trail was fed into by many smaller cattle trails which fanned out like a vast river delta throughout southern Texas. Several sources have it officially starting in San Antonio, before working northward to Fort Worth, through Oklahoma and Kansas. In Kansas after 1881, towns like Wichita and Dodge City replaced Abilene as significant cattle centers.
These details make measuring the length of the Chisholm Trail more art and less science, but it is generally thought that it ran about 800 miles from south to north. Since the herds generally moved about ten miles per day, it took about two to three months for a cattle drive to make it through the Chisholm Trail.
Working the Cattle Drives
A trail boss managed a cattle drive and was the overall supervisor of the operation. He contracted with ranchers to bring the cattle to market and recruited the men needed for a drive. Black Cowboys and Early Cattle Drives describes how the trail boss would usually either put payment in a bank or bring back the cash from the sold cattle to the rancher. His monthly compensation of $100 to $125 was commensurate with the responsibility.
Under the trail boss was a crew of ten to twenty cowboys, typically paid $30 per month, each with up to ten horses. Their job was to manage up to 3,000 head of cattle per herd, though the number of total cattle might exceed this figure when various herds were combined.
The other two positions in a drive were the wrangler, who managed the horses, and the cook. In cattle drive culture, the most crucial member of the crew (after the trail boss) was the cook, who earned a cool $60 a month (up to $75 if you were top flight) running the chuckwagon and keeping the men organized by being in charge of all provisions. His esteemed status was based on the fact he made life bearable.
What was remarkable for the time period is that the Chisholm Trail was a very equitable workplace. Black and white cowboys made the same wages. In fact, those who worked on the drives were a pretty diverse lot. It’s estimated that a quarter to a third of the 35,000 people who worked on the Chisholm Trail were Black or Latino, and some crews were entirely nonwhite.
A Day on the Chisholm Trail
For those who worked the great drives up the trail, the beginning of a drive entailed gathering thousands of cattle from different ranches and combining them into a single herd. All the cattle had to be marked with a special road brand while the cook prepared for the drive by stocking up with flour, cornmeal, cured pork, and beans.
The first few days of a drive were filled with frenetic movement as the drovers pushed the herds to cover twenty-plus miles in a single day, training the beasts for the long journey ahead. After the cowboys relaxed, eight to twelve miles per day was routine, and fifteen miles was exceptional. As the cattle streamed north, they grazed along the way, usually gaining weight and health. This is why all cattle drives started in the spring, when green grass — the cattle’s main source of food — was plentiful.
On most days, trail life was routine and, frankly, a bit monotonous. From before dawn, the cowboys rode on the herd’s flanks and in the rear to mind the herd as the trail boss went to scout ahead. During the day, cowboys would hardly have had a chance to socialize since the herds were spread out. Only at night, after the cattle had been gathered, could the cowboys mingle at the campfire while others rode night guard.
Night guard was done in shifts, and on the whole, cowboys were sleep deprived — if they complained about it, the trail boss would snarl that they could sleep in winter. At camp, stories and songs were shared along with grumbles about the food choices, which were only occasionally supplemented by bison meat or venison.
Related read: Daily Life on the Oregon Trail: What it Was Really Like
Rustlers and Native Americans
Even though much of the work on the Chisholm Trail moved to a slow rhythm, it was punctuated by dangerous episodes. Herds spooked easily and burst into stampedes, often killing cowboys. Cattle rustlers were also a present threat, and though the Rangers may have provided help in Texas, once north in Indian Territory, the drovers were mainly on their own.
In Indian Territory, cowboys had a certain paranoia that Native Americans would seize some of the cattle or horses — which did happen in a sort of way. There were also occasional attacks recorded in Wayne Gard’s The Chisholm Trail, which recalls how in one 1870 drive, Native Americans caused a stampede, allowing them to rustle horses.
But most of the time, the tribes usually demanded cattle as a sort of tax or toll to be paid in cash or kind for passing through the territory.
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Water and Lightning on the Trail
The primary dangers to cowboys were neither rustlers nor stampedes: the greatest danger came from nature. One hazard was at the river crossings where cowboys, as well as cattle, could drown in the water. The Chisholm Trail crossed two major rivers — the Arkansas River and the Red River — and numerous streams. Notably, the trail was forged over these since it had fewer rivers than other routes. The terrain also presented challenges as the trails passed through badlands, canyons, and other geographical difficulties.
Another danger was thunderstorms, which on the prairie electrified the air and produced “Fox Fire,” which James E. Sherow in The Chisholm Trail explains created phosphorescent lumination in the grasses and even balls of plasma. At times, it was reported that such electrical glows were seen between the horns of the cattle.
One account from trail driver G.W. Mills recalled:
“How we escaped death I have never understood. The storm hit us about 12 o clock at night. There was some rain, and to the northwest I noticed just a few little bats of lightning. Then it hit us in full fury and we were in the midst of a wonderful electrical storm. We had the following varieties of lightning all playing close at hand, I tell you: It first commenced like flash lightning, then came forked lightning, then chain lightning followed by the peculiar blue lightning. After that show it rapidly developed into ball lightning, which rolled along the ground. After that spark lightning; then most wonderful of all, it settled down on us like a fog. The air smelled of burning sulfur; you could see it on the horns of the cattle, the ears of our horses, and the brim of our hats. It grew so warm we thought we might burn up with it…”
The End of the Chisholm Trail
All trails must end, and for the Chisholm Trail, its heyday was over by the 1880s. By 1881 the number of cattle sent up the route had dropped considerably from its peak years in the early 1870s. Barbed wire fences went up, and with it, the glory of the open range vanished. In 1886, Kansas enacted laws that prohibited Texas cattle from being sent north out of fear of the spread of Texas fever. Then the winter of 1886-87 proved a disaster.
The prior summer was blistering, and grazing cattle were already bitterly lean from lack of grazing. Then winter rushed in with a vengeance. Bitter temperatures and blizzards killed untold heads of cattle in what has been called “The Great Die Up.” One terrible blizzard on January 9, 1887, plunged temperatures to under fifty below. The cattle industry was crippled as cows starved to death.
As a final punctuation to the Chisholm Trail, in 1889, central Oklahoma was open to settlement. The last of the open range, which was part of the trail, was fenced up, though by this point, there were no more great cattle drives, just the memories which became imbued in the American psyche of the freedom of the open range. Still, the Chisholm Trail has entered the historic lexicon with several preservation societies and museums devoted to its memory.
If you want to experience the old Chisholm Trail today, much of it is flagged with historical markers, though you’re more likely to see cars and trucks than longhorns and trail bosses.
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References & Further Reading
OldWest.org strives to use accurate sources and references in its research, and to include materials from multiple viewpoints when possible.
- Danbom, D. B. (2017). Born in the Country: A History of Rural America. Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Gard, W. (1994). The Chisholm Trail. National Historical Society.
- Hunter, J. M. (2016). The Trail Drivers of Texas: Interesting Sketches of Early Cowboys. CreateSpace.
- Knowlton, C. (2018). Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West. Mariner Books.
- Ridings, S. P. (2015). The Chisholm Trail: A History of the World’s Greatest Cattle Trail. Skyhorse Publishing Inc.
- Sherow, J. E. (2018). The Chisholm Trail: Joseph McCoy’s Great Gamble. University of Oklahoma Press.
- Williams, N. (2023). Black Cowboys and Early Cattle Drives: On the Trails from Texas to Montana. The History Press.
Joseph A. Williams is an author, historian, and librarian based in Connecticut. He has authored three books: The Sunken Gold, Seventeen Fathoms Deep, and Four Years Before the Mast.