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Across the Fence: On the Old Chisholm Trail

 

"Woke up one mornin' on the Old Chisholm Trail, with a rope in my hand an' a cow by the tail ... come-a ti yi yippy yippy yay ..." And so goes another of the hundreds, some say a thousand, verses that tell about the troubles on the old Chisholm Trail.

Jesse Chisholm was of Scottish and Cherokee parentage and likely never heard the trail that he blazed called The Chisholm Trail. Like Thomas Fitzpatrick, who is credited with discovering South Pass, Jesse Chisholm merely recognized the presence of a natural trail that had been in use for untold centuries before.

The core of The Old Chisholm Trail follows a path carved by time and the forces of nature. An early survey of this now famous trail was made long before it was given the Chisholm name by Captain R.B. Marcy, sometime between 1849 and 1852. Many of the trails then surveyed were within an area known as Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. The maps drawn from Capt. Marcy's survey note that the trail, that would later be called The Chisholm Trail, simply incorporated the natural topography of the region which provided the easiest path through the territory-a path that had long been used by the Native Americans of the region.

The trail was there long before Capt. Marcy conducted his official survey, before Jesse Chisholm's steel-rimmed wagon wheels cut parallel ruts in the prairie landscape and before columns of blue-coated Cavalrymen rode its path in stiff-backed columns of twos. The trail was there before countless thousands of Longhorn cattle plodded northward out of Texas to the railheads of Kansas. And the trail was there when Spaniards followed its beaten path of migrating bison and probed deep into the heart of the continent in search of mythical cities of gold.

Jesse Chisholm was born in the early years of the 1800s and though no birth record exists it is generally believed that it was about 1805. Jesse's father, Ignatius Chisholm, was of Scottish birth, a merchant and slave trader in Tennessee, and history records only that his mother was a Cherokee woman from the Hiwassee region. Ignatius and the Cherokee woman had three sons, Jesse being the eldest and sometime before 1810, Ignatius abandoned his wife and sons. Jesse was then taken by his mother to Arkansas in 1810 as part of the Cherokee removal from their homelands in Tennessee.

By 1836 Jesse Chisholm had established himself as a trader, guide and interpreter near Fort Gibson in Oklahoma Territory. His marriage to Eliza Edwards, the daughter of a Creek trader, helped to further Jesse's business along the North Canadian River where he established trading posts near present day Asher and Oklahoma City.

During the 1840s Jesse Chisholm served as an independent agent of the Republic of Texas and the United States in bringing together Indian leaders and U.S. Government officials for several treaty councils. In the spring of 1843 Chisholm was recruited by Sam Houston, the president of the Republic of Texas, to bring together the several tribes in the region at the first treaty council on Tehuacana Creek. It was Jesse Chisholm, who spoke 14 different native languages, who served as interpreter for the 1846 Treaty of Comanche Peak and in 1867 it was Chisholm, along with Delaware leader Black Beaver, who persuaded the tribes of the southern plains to meet with the U.S. government at the historic Medicine Lodge Treaty in Kansas Territory.

In the early years of the Civil War Jesse served the Confederacy as a trader with the Indians but apparently switched his allegiance during the final years of conflict and served as an interpreter for the Union. During the war Jesse established a trading post at the confluence of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas Rivers. It was Chisholm's trading post that was the seed of an ever-growing community that would be named Wichita, Kansas.

In 1865 Chisholm and a partner, James R. Mead, loaded up a train of freight wagons on the high bluffs of the western banks on the Missouri River at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. From Fort Leavenworth they drove their teams southwesterly along the Santa Fe Trail to Council Grove, Kansas , then due south to the trading post on the Arkansas. From there, Jesse and James headed their wagons across the southern border of Kansas, into Indian Territory until they reached the North Canadian River. They then proceeded on a southeasterly course to another Chisholm trading post that would one day become Oklahoma City. In that same year, 1865, Chisholm gathered a herd of about 3,000 cattle that were grazing along the banks of the Arkansas River and drove them south along the trail to fill government contracts in New Mexico.

So it would appear that the first cattle drive along Chisholm's trail was from north to south, not from Texas to the railheads in Kansas territory. It was this route, approximately 220 miles from the trading post on the Arkansas River to the post on the Canadian, along the ancient path of migrating buffalo that was the beginning of an important and historic trail that would bear the name of The Chisholm Trail.

In 1867, the glut of longhorn beef on the Texas plains could not be driven north because of the dreaded "Texas fever" that decimated the small domestic cattle herds of Kansas farmers. Recognizing the need for a shipping point farther west of the growing Kansas settlements, Illinois farmer Joseph G. McCoy convinced the Union Pacific Railroad to build a spur at Abilene and attracted investors to build stockyards at that location. McCoy then launched an expansive advertising campaign to alert Texas cattlemen of the new facility and to bring in beef buyers from Chicago and other eastern cities. McCoy recruited men to start at Chisholm's trading post in Wichita and build a trail from there to Abilene. It is said that men used shovels and piled up small mounds of dirt to mark the extended trail. When word came that herds were again moving north, McCoy sent out riders to intercept the drovers when they reached Indian Territory, guide them toward the trail and on to Abilene.

The first herd of Texas Longhorns to arrive in Abilene was delivered by a Mr. Thompson, who sold the herd to cattle buyers while still in Indian Territory. The buyers, Smith, McCord and Candler, then took possession of the herd and drove the cattle from there, up along Chisholm and McCoy's trail to the railhead in Abilene.

In that first year 75,000 head of cattle were shipped east out of Abilene. And each successive year beginning in 1868 saw the numbers increase, until 1871 when 600,000 head of Texas beef was delivered to the stockyards in Abilene.

In its early days the trail was simply called "the trail." Some referred to it as the Kansas Trail, others called it the Abilene Trail or McCoy's Trail. However, over time the trail began to extend south from the Canadian, through the Oklahoma Territory and into the Texas plains where it spread out like the branches of a growing tree.

The earliest known documented reference to the trail as The Chisholm Trail came in print in the May 27, 1870 edition of the Kansas Daily Commonwealth newspaper and in 1874 the Denison Daily News contained an article that told of cattle on "the famous Chisholm Trail."

By that time the trail extended from multiple points across the Texas plains from The Gulf of Mexico to Abilene, Newton, Caldwell and Dodge City, Kansas. The trail became a part of the cowboy legacy and legend until 1885 when barbed wire was stretched across the trail and ended the drives. During nearly 26 years, six million head of cattle had been driven along The Old Chisholm Trail.

In 1892, Kansas author Charles Harger wrote of the Chisholm Trail: "From two to four hundred yards wide, beaten into the bare earth, it reached over hill and through valley for over six hundred miles, a chocolate band amid the green prairies, uniting the North and the South. As the marching hoofs wore it down and the wind blew and the waters washed the earth away it became lower than the surrounding territory, and was flanked by little banks of sand, drifted there by the wind. Bleaching skulls and skeletons of weary brutes who had perished on the journey gleamed along its borders, and here and there was a low mound showing where some cowboy had... died with his boots on."

Jesse Chisholm never saw the first large herd of Texas Longhorns pass by his trading post on the Canadian. The drives had not yet started when Jesse was trading with the Indians at Left Hand Spring on Salt Creek near present day Geary, Oklahoma. It was there, on March 4, 1868 a clear, crisp day between the bitter winds of winter and the fresh breezes of spring that Jesse Chisholm died.

But his legacy lives on in a thousand simple rhymes. So, "come along boys and listen to my tale, while I tell of my troubles on the Old Chisholm Trail."

M. Timothy Nolting is an award winning Nebraska columnist and freelance writer. To contact Tim, email; acrossthefence2day@gmail.com

 

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