The great Chisholm Trail turns 150

The Chisholm Trail was finally closed because of the proliferation of barbed wire that closed  the vast grazing lands in Texas and became a barrier to following original trails… Its legacy, however, lives on. South Texas, its large and small landowners and its vaqueros proved to be crucial to its success and to the color and heritage that is now associated with Texas.


If ever there was such a thing, these were the “good old days.” — jtl, 419

By Ramiro Molina & Manuel Flores, Tejano Talks in Caller Times

The cattle industry flourished in South Texas after the Civil War. Cattle drives to faraway states to deliver meat on the hoof were part of it. The Chisholm Trail, which turns 150, was the major route out for Texas livestock. Texas A&M University-Kingsville

Cattle drives were as much a part of South Texas lore in the 19th century as the prickly pear patches of nopal and mesquite groves.

After the Civil War, a variety of cattle trails evolved as ranchers had their vaqueros take the hardy Longhorn cattle 1,000 miles north to faraway places like Kansas, Wyoming and Missouri.

In the decades following the Civil War, more than 6 million — some accounts say 10 million — cows and bulls were led out of Texas to northern cattle markets.

There were many cattle trails. All started in Texas and all had cattle from South Texas where tens of thousands of head of cattle roamed the Wild Horse Desert as freely as a horned toad on a hot summer night.

The trails started in the lower Rio Grande Valley and the Brush Country of modern-day Jim Hogg and Webb counties and meandered up what is now U.S. Highway 281, Interstate 35 and U.S. 77 toward San Antonio and points north.

The King Ranch Kineños and the Kenedy Ranch Kenedeños vaqueros were also involved in the massive migration of Texas beeves that would feed a nation. Some of those original drives from what is now the Kenedy and Kleberg counties area meandered up what is now 6th Street in Kingsville. There is a citizen’s agenda to add the name Kineños Trail to the street in commemoration of those drives that brought economic vitality and fame to the area.

Among the cattle trails used by South Texas ranchers — small and big — were the Great Western Trail, the Matamoros Trail, the Shawnee Trail, and the Sedalia Trail. But it was the Chisholm Trail that was the major route out of Texas for livestock. This year, the Chisholm Trail celebrates its 150th anniversary and its impact on South Texas, the state and nation must be recognized.

From 1867 to 1884, the Longhorn cattle driven north along it provided a steady source of income that helped the impoverished state recover from the Civil War.

Ranchers and banking entrepreneurs realized there was a growing demand for beef in the United States. With the development of the railroad up north, markets in the Eastern and Western coasts could now be reached.

The Chisholm Trail started with simple banking negotiations by Joseph G. McCoy of Illinois. In the spring of 1867 he persuaded Kansas Pacific Railroad officials to lay a line in Abilene, Kansas. He began building pens and loading facilities and sent word to Texas ranchers that a cattle market was available. That year he shipped 35,000 head; the number doubled each year until 1871, when 600,000 head glutted the market.

Besides Abilene, other cattle drive destinations were Dodge City, Kansas; Sedalia and Kansas City, Missouri; Pueblo and Denver, Colorado; and Cheyenne, Wyoming.

The first herd to follow the future Chisholm Trail to Abilene belonged to O.W. Wheeler and his partners, who in 1867 bought 2,400 steers in San Antonio. The cattle came from the San Antonio River ranchos and the Goliad-Victoria area.

On average, a single herd of cattle on a long drive (for example, Texas to Kansas) numbered about 3,000 head. To herd the cattle, a crew of at least 10 cowboys was needed, with three horses per cowboy. The drive could take 14-18 weeks, depending on weather and even Indian raids.

Organizers of the original cattle drive planned to winter on the plains, then trail the cattle on to California, a treacherous journey through desert and mountain terrain. But the vaqueros who were leading the drive found tracks that would lead them to Kansas. The tracks were made by Scot-Cherokee Jesse Chisholm, who in 1864 began hauling trade goods to Indian camps about 220 miles south of his post near Wichita, Kansas. At first the route was merely referred to as the Trail, the Kansas Trail, the Abilene Trail, or McCoy’s Trail, according to historical documents.

Texas cowmen soon gave Chisholm’s name to the entire trail from the Rio Grande to central Kansas.

Today, a map of the Chisholm Trail clearly shows its start in the South Texas triangle starting at San Antonio with Del Rio to the west and the south Houston area to the east and meandering down to the Rio Grande Valley and Brownsville.

It was there where millions of cows fed on the leg-high grass that would grow in the spring and sustain the beeves through the harsh winters and blazing hot summers.

According to the Texas State Historical Association, the earliest known references to the Chisholm Trail in print were in the Kansas Daily Commonwealth of May 27 and October 11, 1870. On April 28, 1874, the Denison, Texas, Daily News mentioned cattle going up “the famous Chisholm Trail.”

The trail drives started from various points and led up to San Antonio, Austin, and Waco, where the trails split. The Chisholm Trail continued north to Fort Worth, then passed east of Decatur to the crossing at Red River Station. From Fort Worth to Newton, Kansas, U.S. Highway 81 follows the Chisholm Trail. The trails from the Rio Grande Valley came up just east of what is now U.S. 281 and led to San Antonio. The Kingsville area trails started at the King Ranch and meandered on up what is now U.S. 77, crossing the Nueces River and wandering toward Lockhart, Temple and Waco before getting to Fort Worth.

A map of the Chisholm and other trails is like a series of tree limbs arching out through Central and North Texas and up to the Midwestern United States. But the trunk that kept it steady and sending cattle to feed America was from San Antonio on down.

Once in Kansas, Wyoming or Missouri, the cattle would be shipped by rail to other markets.

The Chisholm Trail led to the new profession of trailing contractor. A few large ranchers such as Capt. Richard King in Kingsville and Abel “Shanghai” Pierce in Wharton delivered their own stock, but trailing contractors handled the vast majority of herds.

The Chisholm Trail was finally closed because of the proliferation of barbed wire that closed  the vast grazing lands in Texas and became a barrier to following original trails. A tick outbreak also led to a quarantine of Texas cattle around that time.

Its legacy, however, lives on. South Texas, its large and small landowners and its vaqueros proved to be crucial to its success and to the color and heritage that is now associated with Texas.

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