Chisholm Trail

Chisholm Trail

(Condensed from an Article, Courtesy Chisholm Trail Museum)

America is a very young country by comparison to those of Europe, Asia, and Africa, whose great civilizations date back thousands of years. Not so for the area in which we live.

The mid-west was a great and grassy plain, filled with wild animals and the native American people we have come to call "Indians". At the time of the Civil War, very few white settlers had yet come to this area of Kansas. Kansas had only become a state in 1861, and most of it's southern population was east of the Arkansas River. What lay west of the river was mainly populated by Native Americans and buffalo, with a few coyotes and bobcats sprinkled in. It was a vast grassland, with what few trees there growing near streams and rivers. The many trees here today were introduced by human beings.bison-bkg

Two key factors led to the creation of the great Chisholm cattle trail. One was the Civil War, and the other was the millions of wild long horned cattle that roamed over Texas. The cattle are thought to be the descendants of Spanish cattle first brought to Mexico in 1541 by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. The long horns were truly wild animals, and there were about six million of them roaming free over Texas.

When it (the Civil War) was over, those (Texans) who survived the ordeal would return to Texas to their homes and families, many of whom lived on ranches and tended long horned herds. But the long horned cattle they raised were not of great value in the sparsely populated Texas, with an over abundance of cattle. Prior to the war, on occasion, Texans had herded their cattle north and eastward across Indian Territory (we know today as Oklahoma). One of the earliest Kansas cow towns was Baxter Springs, prior to Kansas becoming a state. These early cattle drives were headed towards northern Missouri, and a few even went all the way to Chicago. The market was often at the first railhead, where the cattle were bought by dealers who shipped them east to slaughter houses.

There are many references in and around south central Kansas to the old Chisholm cattle trail of the 1860's and 70's. People in the area hear often of the Chisholm Trail, but most know little of it's actual history. Some may think that it's name had something to do with the Texas cattleman John Chisum. But John Chisum never traveled this trail, and in fact was moving to New Mexico about the time the first cattle herds began moving up this trail to the railhead in Abilene, Kansas (a closer marketplace for cattle than Chicago or northern Missouri).

The fact is, Jesse Chisholm for whom the trail was named, had already passed away in March of 1868 at the age of about 62, long before 1871, the best year for the trail when some 600,000 head of cattle passed northward along it, and several years before people started calling it, for lack of a better name, "Chisholm's Trail".

Born in Tennessee, Jesse Chisholm was neither a cowboy nor a cattleman. He was a trader between white men and the Indians in and around Wichita. He made trading trips and established a route southward into the Oklahoma Indian territory as early as 1865. This same route, which he had helped lead the first cattle drive up in 1867, became the cattle trail. In 1868, Jesse Chisholm fell ill and died. This was the second of only about ten years the cattle trail enjoyed before it was pretty well shut down by settlers fencing their land as they homesteaded south central Kansas.

The Chisholm Trail entered Kansas south of Caldwell, and passed directly through it.  Caldwell has a rich history as a cowtown, and many stories go with it.  There are markers along Caldwells main street detailing some of the exciting events that occurred in Caldwell's "Wild West" days.

The Chisholm Trail moved northeastward, passing Wellington about 7 miles to the west.  Some of the very first Wellington businessmen of the 1870's so badly wanted the trail to pass through Wellington that they got together and tried to plow up the route west of town in order to get drovers to veer eastward and pass through town. But they were unsuccessful.

By 1876, settlers who staked out their land and fenced it in, combined with a new railhead at Dodge City, veered the flow of cattle westward, and the Chisholm Trail was virtually abandoned. When the Santa Fe Railroad came to Caldwell in 1880 however, the old Chisholm Trail came to life once again.