Chisholm Trail

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For other uses, see Chisholm Trail (disambiguation).
1873 Map of Chisholm Trail with Subsidiary Trails in Texas (from Kansas Historical Society)

The Chisholm Trail was a trail used in the post-Civil War era to drive cattle overland, from ranches in Texas to Kansas railheads. The portion of the trail marked by Jesse Chisholm went from his southern trading post near the Red River, to his northern trading post near Kansas City, Kansas.


Texas ranchers using the Chisholm Trail started on the route from either the Rio Grande or San Antonio, joined the Chisholm Trail at the Red River of the South at the border between Texas and Oklahoma, and continued to the railhead of the Kansas Pacific Railway in Abilene, Kansas, where the cattle would be sold and shipped eastward. The trail is named for Jesse Chisholm, a half-Cherokee trader from Tennessee, who originally created the trail as a means to transport his goods from one trading post to another.[1]

Business aspects[edit]

By 1853, Texas cattle were being driven into Missouri, where local farmers began blocking herds and turning them back because the Texas Longhorns carried ticks that caused diseases in other types of cattle. Violence, vigilante groups, and cattle rustling caused further problems for the drovers. By 1859, the driving of cattle was outlawed in many Missouri jurisdictions. By the end of the Civil War, most cattle were being moved up the western branch of trail at Red River Station in Montague County, Texas.

In 1866, cattle in Texas were worth only $4 per head, compared to over $40 per head in the North and East, because lack of market access during the American Civil War had led to over stock of cattle in Texas. In 1867, Joseph G. McCoy built stockyards in Abilene, Kansas. He encouraged Texas cattlemen to drive their herds to his stockyards. The stockyards shipped 35,000 head that year and became the largest stockyards west of Kansas City, Kansas.

That same year, O. W. Wheeler answered McCoy's call, and he along with partners used the Chisholm Trail to bring a herd of 2,400 steers from Texas to Abilene. This herd was the first of an estimated 5,000,000 head of Texas cattle to reach Kansas over the Chisholm Trail.[2][3]


Chisholm Trail crossing through modern-day Duncan, Oklahoma
Chisholm Trail historical marker in Kingfisher, Oklahoma
Marker of the end of the Chisholm Trail in Donna, Texas

In Texas, hundreds of feeder trails headed north to one of the main cattle trails. In the early 1840s, most cattle were driven up the Shawnee Trail. The Chisholm Trail was previously used by Indian hunting and raiding parties; the trail crossed into Indian Territory (present-day west-central Oklahoma) near Red River Station (in present-day Montague County, Texas) and entered Kansas near Caldwell. Through Oklahoma, the Chisholm Trail generally follows the route of US Highway 81 through present-day towns of El Reno, Duncan, and Enid.[4]

Northern end of trail[edit]

From 1867 to 1871, the trail ended in Abilene, Kansas, but as railroads incrementally built southward, the end of the trail moved to other cities. The end of the trail moved to Newton, Kansas then soon afterward moved to Wichita, Kansas. From 1883 to 1887, the end of the trail was Caldwell, Kansas. Ellsworth, Kansas, is also considered a major influence of the trail.[citation needed]

Southern start of trail[edit]

Historians consider the Chisholm Trail to have started either at Donna, Texas or San Antonio, Texas.[citation needed] In 1931, George W. Saunders, then president of the Old Trail Drivers Association and an authority on Texas livestock history wrote: "The famed Chisholm Trail, about which more has been written than any other Southwestern Trail, cannot be traced in Texas for the reason that it never existed in this State." It was always understood by pioneer cattlemen that they would strike the Chisholm Trail at Red River Station, at the mouth of Salt Creek in Montague County, where they left Texas and crossed into the Indian Territory.[citation needed]


On the long trips—up to two months—the cattlemen faced many difficulties. They had to cross major rivers such as the Arkansas River and the Red River, and innumerable smaller creeks, plus the topographic challenges of canyons, badlands and low mountain ranges. The weather was less than ideal. In addition to these natural dangers, rustlers and occasional conflicts with Native Americans erupted. The latter demanded that drovers, the trail bosses, pay a toll of 10 cents a head to local tribes for the right to cross Indian lands (Oklahoma at that time was Indian Territory, governed from Fort Smith, Arkansas). The half-wild Texas Longhorn cattle were contrary and prone to stampede with little provocation.


At least 27 movies have depicted a fictional account of the first drive along the Chisholm Trail, including: The Texans (1938), directed by James P. Hogan and starring Randolph Scott and Joan Bennett, and Red River (1948), directed by Howard Hawks and starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift. Walter Brennan co-starred in both films in his usual grizzled-old-coot role.

The trail is the subject of at least two pop songs: "The Last Cowboy Song" written and recorded by Ed Bruce, also performed by The Highwaymen, and the song "The Old Chisholm Trail." Among those who have covered the song are Gene Autry, Girls of the Golden West, Woody Guthrie, Michael Martin Murphey, Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers, and Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter), although his version was titled "When I Was A Cowboy".

In 1964, Texas rancher Charles Schreiner, III, founded the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America. The next year, he conducted a cattle drive from San Antonio to Dodge City with a stop at the LBJ Ranch in Gillespie County, home of then U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson. The drive was promoted as a centennial commemoration of the original Chisholm Trail drives.[5]

Many schools have been named after the Chisholm Trail, including:

Chisholm Trail Heritage Center, located in Duncan, Oklahoma, is an interactive museum dedicated to the history of the trail. It has a large monument depicting a scene from the Chisholm Trail cattle drive, as well as a trail walkway.[9]

On the second weekend of June, Lockhart, Texas in Caldwell County holds a four-day festival to celebrate its place on the Chisholm Trail. Newton, Kansas also holds a three- to four-day Chisholm Trail Festival, combining it with the annual Fourth of July celebration.

On September 26, 2009, a historical marker on the Chisholm Trail was unveiled at the site of Red River Station in Montague County. The 5.5-foot concrete marker is the last of 12 erected in Montague County as part of a joint project of the Texas Lakes and Trails and the Montague County Historical Commission to outline the Chisholm Trail (as said in Wichita Falls Times Record News).

In 2014, the North Texas Tollway Authority constructed a 26-mile-long toll road named after the trail, the Chisholm Trail Parkway connecting downtown Fort Worth, Texas to the nearby city of Cleburne.

Further reading[edit]

  • Guide Map of the Best and Shortest Cattle Trail to the Kansas Pacific Railway; Kansas Pacific Railway Company; 1875. (Read Online)(Map)
  • Morality and Money: A Look at how the Respectable Community Battled the Sporting Community over Prostitution in Kansas Cowtowns, 1867-1885; Jessica Smith; Kansas State University; 2013. Read Online


  1. ^
  2. ^ Worcester, Donald E.: "Chisholm Trail" from the Handbook of Texas Online. Retrieved December 23, 2008.
  3. ^ Dortch, Steven D. "Chisholm Trail". Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture - Oklahoma Historical Society. Retrieved November 11, 2012. 
  4. ^ Oklahoma Map of Chisholm Trail Oklahoma State University Digital Library Collections
  5. ^ Douglas Martin (April 29, 2001). "Charles Schreiner III, 74, Dies; Colorful Texas Rancher Fought to Save Longhorn". New York Times. Retrieved October 16, 2015. 
  6. ^ Olathe School's website
  7. ^ [1]
  8. ^ USD 259: Chisholm Trail website
  9. ^ Chisholm Trail Heritage Center Chisholm Trail art, culture, and history - Duncan, Oklahoma

External links[edit]