Chisholm Trail

1873 Map of Chisholm Trail with Subsidiary Trails in Texas (from Kansas Historical Society)

The Chisholm Trail was a trail used in the post-Civil War era to drive cattle overland from ranches in Texas to Kansas railheads. The trail was established by Black Beaver, a Lenape (Delaware) guide and rancher, and his friend Jesse Chisholm, a merchant. They collected and drove numerous cattle along the trail to Kansas, where they could be shipped East to garner high prices.

The southern terminus was Red River Station, a trading post near the Red River, along the northern border of Texas. The Northern terminus was a trading post near Kansas City, Kansas. Chisholm owned both these posts. In the years of the cattle drives, cowboys would drive large herds from ranches across Texas to the Red River Station, and then north to Kansas City.


Texas ranchers using the Chisholm Trail had their cowboys start cattle drives from either the Rio Grande area or San Antonio. They joined the Chisholm Trail at the Red River of the South, at the border between Texas and Oklahoma Territory. They continued north to the rail head of the Kansas Pacific Railway in Abilene, Kansas, where the cattle would be sold and shipped eastward. The trail is named for Jesse Chisholm, a multiracial trader from Tennessee of half Cherokee descent. Together with scout Black Bear, he developed the trail to transport his goods from one trading post to another. The two men were the first to drive cattle north along this route.[1]

Business aspects

By 1853, Texas cattle were being driven into Missouri. Local farmers began blocking the herds and turning them back because the Texas Longhorns carried ticks that caused diseases in other types of cattle. Violence, vigilante groups, and cattle rustling caused further problems for the drovers. By 1859, the driving of cattle was outlawed in many Missouri jurisdictions. By the end of the Civil War, most cattle were being moved up the western branch of trail, being gathered at Red River Station in Montague County, Texas.

In 1866, cattle in Texas were worth only $4 per head, compared to over $40 per head in the North and East. Lack of market access during the American Civil War had produced an overstock of cattle in Texas. In 1867, Joseph G. McCoy built stockyards in Abilene, Kansas. He encouraged Texas cattlemen to drive their herds to his stockyards. The stockyards shipped 35,000 head that year and became the largest stockyards west of Kansas City, Kansas.

That same year, O. W. Wheeler answered McCoy's call, and he along with partners used the Chisholm Trail to bring a herd of 2,400 steers from Texas to Abilene. This herd was the first of an estimated 5,000,000 head of Texas cattle to reach Kansas over the Chisholm Trail.[2][3]

The construction of the Union Pacific Railway through Nebraska eventually offered a cattle drive destination that was an attractive alternative to the Kansas Pacific Railroad. The Texas Trail emerged as an alternative to the Chisholm Trail. Between 1876 and 1884 some drives went along the Texas Trail instead of the Chisholm Trail.[4]


Chisholm Trail crossing through modern-day Duncan, Oklahoma
Chisholm Trail historical marker in Kingfisher, Oklahoma

In Texas, hundreds of feeder trails headed north to one of the main cattle trails. In the early 1840s, most cattle were driven up the Shawnee Trail. The Chisholm Trail was previously used by Indian hunting and raiding parties; the trail crossed into Indian Territory (present-day west-central Oklahoma) near Red River Station (in present-day Montague County, Texas) and entered Kansas near Caldwell. Through Oklahoma, the route of US Highway 81 follows the Chisholm Trail through present-day towns of El Reno, Duncan, Chickasha, and Enid.[5]

Northern end of trail

From 1867 to 1871, the trail ended in Abilene, Kansas, but as railroads incrementally built southward, the end of the trail moved to other cities. The end of the trail moved to Newton, Kansas, and soon afterward to Wichita, Kansas. From 1883 to 1887, the end of the trail was Caldwell, Kansas.

Southern start of trail

Historians consider the Chisholm Trail to have started either at Donna, Texas or San Antonio, Texas.[citation needed] In 1931, George W. Saunders, then president of the Old Trail Drivers Association and an authority on Texas livestock history, wrote: "The famed Chisholm Trail, about which more has been written than any other Southwestern Trail, cannot be traced in Texas for the reason that it never existed in this State." Pioneer cattlemen knew that they would strike the Chisholm Trail at Red River Station, at the mouth of Salt Creek in Montague County, where they left Texas and crossed into the Indian Territory.


On the long trips—up to two months—the cattlemen faced many difficulties. They had to cross major rivers such as the Arkansas River and the Red River, and innumerable smaller creeks, plus handle the topographic challenges for their herds of canyons, badlands and low mountain ranges. The major drives typically needed to start in the spring after the rains stimulated the growth of green grasses for the grazing cattle. The spring drives, with those rains and higher water levels with the runoff, always meant more danger at the river crossings, which had no bridges.

The days of longest sunlight, near mid-June, were also an important consideration in the timing of drives. In addition to natural dangers, the cowboys and drivers encountered rustlers and occasional conflicts with Native Americans. The cattle drives disrupted the hunting and cultivation of crops in Indian Territory. Tribal members demanded that drovers, the trail bosses, pay a toll of 10 cents a head to local tribes for the right to cross Indian lands (Oklahoma at that time was Indian Territory, governed from Fort Smith, Arkansas). The half-wild Texas Longhorn cattle were contrary and prone to stampede with little provocation.

The only woman known to run her own cattle drive traveled from Texas to Wichita, Kansas using the Chisholm Trail. Margaret Borland took her family, hired hands, and 2,500 Longhorns through the trail in 1873 in search of profit for her cattle, which was worth triple in Kansas over Texas prices. She died from what was called trail fever just after arriving in Wichita, after an otherwise successful journey .

Representation in other media

The cattle drives have been a popular topic among Western genre movies. At least 27 movies have portrayed fictional accounts of the first drive along the Chisholm Trail, including The Texans (1938), directed by James P. Hogan and starring Randolph Scott and Joan Bennett; and Red River (1948), directed by Howard Hawks and starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift. Walter Brennan co-starred in both films.

The trail is the subject of at least two pop songs: "The Last Cowboy Song," written and recorded by Ed Bruce, also performed by The Highwaymen; and the song "The Old Chisholm Trail." Among those who have covered the song are Gene Autry, Girls of the Golden West, Woody Guthrie, Michael Martin Murphey, Tex Ritter, and Roy Rogers. Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter) also covered this song, although his version was titled "When I Was A Cowboy".


In 1964, Texas rancher Charles Schreiner, III, founded the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America. The next year, he conducted a cattle drive from San Antonio to Dodge City with a stop at the LBJ Ranch in Gillespie County, home of U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson. The drive was promoted as a centennial commemoration of the original Chisholm Trail drives.[6]

Many schools in this region have been named after the Chisholm Trail, including:

The Chisholm Trail Heritage Center, located in Duncan, Oklahoma, is an interactive museum dedicated to the history of the trail. It has a large monument depicting a scene from the Chisholm Trail cattle drive, as well as a trail walkway.[10]

Lockhart, Texas, in Caldwell County, holds a four-day festival on the second weekend of June, to celebrate its place on the Chisholm Trail. Newton, Kansas also holds a three- to four-day Chisholm Trail Festival, combining it with the annual Fourth of July celebration.

On September 26, 2009, a historical marker on the Chisholm Trail was unveiled at the site of Red River Station in Montague County. The 5.5-foot concrete marker is the last of 12 erected in Montague County as part of a joint project of the Texas Lakes and Trails and the Montague County Historical Commission to define the Chisholm Trail in this area (as said in Wichita Falls Times Record News).

In 2014, the North Texas Tollway Authority constructed a 26-mile-long toll road named after the trail, the Chisholm Trail Parkway. It connects downtown Fort Worth to the nearby city of Cleburne in Johnson County.

In 2017, the Texas Historical Commission released The Chisholm Trail: Exploring the Folklore and Legacy, an online tour and mobile app.[11] The tour includes audio tracks and short videos that retell the history of communities and local heritage in towns and cities that line the route of the former Chisholm Trail.


  1. ^ C., RICHARDSON, T. (12 June 2010). "CHISHOLM, JESSE". Retrieved 4 April 2018.
  2. ^ Worcester, Donald E.: "Chisholm Trail" from the Handbook of Texas Online. Retrieved December 23, 2008.
  3. ^ Dortch, Steven D. "Chisholm Trail". Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture - Oklahoma Historical Society. Archived from the original on November 19, 2012. Retrieved November 11, 2012.
  4. ^ "The Texas Trail".
  5. ^ Oklahoma Map of Chisholm Trail Oklahoma State University Digital Library Collections
  6. ^ Douglas Martin (April 29, 2001). "Charles Schreiner III, 74, Dies; Colorful Texas Rancher Fought to Save Longhorn". The New York Times. Retrieved October 16, 2015.
  7. ^ "Chisholm Trail Middle School". Retrieved 4 April 2018.
  8. ^ "Home - Northwest Independent School District". Retrieved 4 April 2018.
  9. ^ "Chisholm Trail Elementary / Homepage". Retrieved 4 April 2018.
  10. ^ Chisholm Trail Heritage Center Chisholm Trail art, culture, and history - Duncan, Oklahoma
  11. ^ "The Chisholm Trail: Exploring the Folklore and Legacy". Texas Travel. Retrieved 4 April 2018.

Further reading

  • Guide Map of the Best and Shortest Cattle Trail to the Kansas Pacific Railway; Kansas Pacific Railway Company; 1875. (Read Online)(Map)
  • Morality and Money: A Look at how the Respectable Community Battled the Sporting Community over Prostitution in Kansas Cowtowns, 1867-1885; Jessica Smith; Kansas State University; 2013. Read Online

External links