John Chisum

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Portrait of John Simpson Chisum from The Story of the Outlaw[1]

John Simpson Chisum (August 15, 1824 – December 23, 1884) was a wealthy cattle baron in the American West in the mid-to-late 19th century. He was born in Hardeman County, Tennessee, and moved with his family to Texas in 1837, later finding work as a building contractor. He also served as county clerk in Lamar County. He was of Scottish, English, and Welsh descent.[2]

In 1854, Chisum became engaged in the cattle business and became one of the first to send his herds to New Mexico Territory. He obtained land along the Pecos River by right of occupancy and eventually became the owner of a large ranch in the Bosque Grande, about forty miles south of Fort Sumner, with over 100,000 head of cattle. In 1866-67, Chisum formed a partnership with cattlemen Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving to assemble and drive herds of cattle for sale to the United States Army in Fort Sumner and Santa Fe, New Mexico, to provide cattle to miners in Colorado as well as provide cattle to the Bell Ranch.

A gambler, Chisum frequently played poker with John Horton Slaughter, a lawman in Texas and later the Arizona Territory.

Lincoln County War[edit]

Chisum was a business associate of Alexander McSween, an influential figure in the Lincoln County War. When Lew Wallace took office as Governor of New Mexico on October 1, 1878, he proclaimed an amnesty for all those involved in the bitter feud. When Billy the Kid surrendered to the authorities, he was told he would be charged with the death of Sheriff William J. Brady, violating the amnesty.

Chisum Ranch near Roswell, NM[3]

Billy the Kid escaped from custody and went to see Chisum to collect a $500 debt. Chisum refused payment, claiming that he instead had given the Kid horses, supplies, and protection over the years. The Kid promised to steal $500 worth of cattle from Chisum to make up this sum. The Kid's gang also stole from other cattlemen and became a serious problem in Lincoln County. Ultimately, Chisum, Pecos Valley rancher Joseph C. Lea, and James Dolan sought somebody capable of hunting down the Kid and either arresting or killing him. In 1880, they persuaded Pat Garrett, a former buffalo hunter, reformed part-time rustler, small rancher, and the Kid’s one-time friend, to run for the office of Lincoln County sheriff. His specific task, if elected, was to apprehend Billy’s gang, consisting of Dave Rudabaugh, Billy Wilson, Tom O'Folliard, and Charlie Bowdre.

In December 1880, Garrett shot dead O'Folliard and Bowdre. Billy the Kid, Rudabaugh, and Wilson were later captured or killed by Garrett.[4]

Death and legacy[edit]

Chisum died in Eureka Springs, Arkansas on December 23, 1884, aged 60, (He had repeatedly sought treatments in Hot Springs) due to complications from surgery to remove a growth from his jaw. He was unmarried and left his estate worth $500,000 to his brothers Pitzer and James. While living in Bolivar, Texas, he lived with a young slave girl named Jensie and had two daughters with her. The relationship is described in a book titled Three Ranches West.[citation needed] Chisum had an extended family living with him at the South Springs ranch in Roswell, and this family, along with hired help, often numbered two dozen at the main ranch headquarters. Chisum's niece Sallie, daughter of his brother James, became a beloved figure in the area, where she lived until 1934. Sallie kept a diary or journal that has historical importance because of its references to Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, both of whom she knew. She and John Chisum are honored by statues to their memory in Roswell and Artesia, New Mexico.[citation needed]

Media portrayals[edit]

Chisum's story has been portrayed on film by John Wayne in Chisum (1970) and James Coburn in Young Guns II (1990).

As a supporting character, Chisum has been portrayed in several television shows and movies, including 1953's San Antone (played by Roy Roberts); the 1960 episode of Bronco titled "Death of an Outlaw" (played by Harry Swoger); the 1965 episode of Death Valley Days titled "Paid in Full," (played by Michael Constantine); 1973's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (played by Barry Sullivan); and the 2011 UK film, Birth of a Legend: Billy the Kid & The Lincoln County War (played by David Morley).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hough, Emerson (1907). The Story of the Outlaw-A Study of the Western Desperado. New York: The Outing Publication Company. p. 198. 
  2. ^ History of New Mexico: Its Resources and People, Volume 2 By George B. Anderson, Pacific States Publishing Co page 1023
  3. ^ Hough, Emerson (1907). The Story of the Outlaw-A Study of the Western Desperado. New York: The Outing Publication Company. p. 330. 
  4. ^ Chamberlain, Kathleen P., In the Shadow of Billy the Kid: Susan McSween and the Lincoln County War, UNM Press (2013). ISBN 978-0-8263-5279-8