The Chisholm Trail and the Overland Cattle Trade

The Chisholm Trail and the Overland Cattle Trade

During the Civil War the state of Texas became separated from the rest of the Confederate States when the Federal forces occupied Arkansas, Louisiana and the Indian Territory. Texas, which was as yet but sparsely peopled, was largely given over to the range cattle industry. When it became separated from other states of the Confederacy by the Federal lines of occupation, it had no market for its surplus stock, so the herds of cattle had greatly increased by the time the war was ended. Cattle were scarce and high in price in the North and East, while in Texas they were very plentiful and cheap. Efforts were made to drive Texas cattle through the Indian Territory to Missouri, Illinois and other western states. Always such ventures ended in loss. All might go well until the herds had arrived in Kansas or Missouri, when it was noticed that the native cattle of those states immediately contracted a strange disease, which was called Texas fever, and which was very destructive among the native cattle. For this reason, the farmers along the way became very much opposed to the passage of the herds from Texas through the country and the drovers were mobbed and their herds were stampeded and lost.

An Illinois cattle feeder, by the name of Joseph G. McCoy (see Biographies of Prominent Men in Oklahoma History), who had had considerable experience and loss in attempting to take Texas cattle to his home state to be fattened for market, conceived the idea of driving cattle slowly northward from the ranges in the central and western portions of Texas to a shipping point on the Kansas Pacific Railway in Kansas. He believed that by slowly grazing the cattle northward during the season that the grass was growing, they would arrive at the shipping point in good condition and that they might thus be shipped to the packing houses at Chicago. In order to avoid trouble with the settlers, it was his plan to have the moving herds keep well to the west of the settlements. After much effort, he finally succeded in persuading some of the railway managers to back the enterprise. He personally visited the Texas cattle ranges and urged the ranchmen to make an experimental drive. This first drive was made in the spring and summer of 1867.

In the spring of 1865, Jesse Chisholm (see Biographies of Prominent Men in Oklahoma History), a mixed-blood Cherokee trader who had long been engaged in trade with the Comanches, Kiowas and other Indians of the Plains and who had been a refugee in Kansas during the Civil War, started south from Wichita, Kansas, toward the old Indian agency at Fort Cobb, on the Washita River, with several loads of goods. In doing so, he merely followed the faint traces of the trail which had been made nearly four years before by the retreating Federal troops after they had abandoned the military posts in the Indian Territory at the outbreak of the war. The trail which was thus followed was always afterward known as the Chisholm Trail. The line of this old trail was followed very closely by the Rock Island Railway from Wichita to El Reno. In due time it became the road over which much freighting was done and was followed by the mail and passenger stages to Darlington, Fort Reno, Anadarko and Fort Sill.

When the first drive of Texas cattle was made, under the direction of Mr. McCoy, to Abilene, Kansas, in 1867, The Chisholm Trail was followed from a point in Kingfisher County a few miles south of the Cimarron River to the crossing of the Arkansas River, at Wichita, Kansas. Thenceforth, the name of the Chisholm Trail was extended to include the route followed by the herds from Texas, from the Red River crossing clear through to the end of the drive at Abilene, Kansas. Afterward, when the shipping points were located farther west and new routes were selected, each was still called the "Chissum" Trail, in the language of the drovers.

During the first season (1867), 35,000 head of cattle were driven northward across the Indian Territory from the ranges of Texas to the shipping point at Abilene, Kansas. The next year the season's drive was 75,000 head; in 1869, the number was doubled, as it was again in 1870. After 1871, the number of cattle driven northward to the shipping points in Kansas averaged over 500,000 each year.

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This information has been compiled from various resources, and through much research. If you would like to add any information please contact me, Ann Maloney, Bartlesville, OK, at the address below.