Chisholm Trail Opens Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

An eight-hundred-mile route from southern Texas to Abilene, Kansas, the Chisholm Trail expanded cattle markets, opened the Midwest to transport, and closed open ranges. The trail’s importance began to wane with the arrival of the railroad through the region twenty years later.

Summary of Event

At the end of the Civil War (1861-1865), astute and ambitious Texans conceived a plan whereby the numerous herds of longhorn cattle overrunning the southern part of the state could be rounded up and driven north to markets where they would command a higher price. Foremost among these Texans was a former steamboat captain, Richard King, whose original tract of 75,000 acres increased to 500,000 acres by the time of his death in 1885. Chisholm Trail Cattle;and Chisholm Trail[Chisholm Trail] [kw]Chisholm Trail Opens (1867) [kw]Trail Opens, Chisholm (1867) [kw]Opens, Chisholm Trail (1867) Chisholm Trail Cattle;and Chisholm Trail[Chisholm Trail] [g]United States;1867: Chisholm Trail Opens[4010] [c]Transportation;1867: Chisholm Trail Opens[4010] [c]Trade and commerce;1867: Chisholm Trail Opens[4010] Chisholm, Jesse Clay, John King, Richard McCoy, Joseph Geating Russell, Charles

First introduced into California, New Mexico, and Texas by the Spaniards, the scrawny range cattle had been valuable mainly for their hides. For years, small herds had been driven every other year from Texas to New Orleans, St. Louis, or Kansas City by many south-Texas Mexican American ranchers. New England shippers frequented Pacific coast ports to gather hides for eastern tanneries. The Civil War, however, brought many changes to this area. Railroads Railroads;and Chisholm Trail[Chisholm Trail] began pushing westward across the Great Plains; the meat-packing industry was being consolidated by a few leading packers in urban centers such as Kansas City, Omaha, and Chicago, which dominated the national market.

Joseph G. McCoy McCoy, Joseph Geating , an Illinois stockman, assumed the leadership in working out a mutually satisfactory arrangement among the cattle owners, the railroads, and the meat packers. Cattle worth five dollars a head in Texas were to be driven northward, fattened on the nutritious short grass of the public domain en route, and then delivered to the railhead for shipment to eastern markets, where they would bring forty to fifty dollars each. McCoy chose Abilene, Kansas, the terminal town on the Kansas Pacific Railroad Railroads;and Chisholm Trail[Chisholm Trail] in 1867, as the initial shipping point. McCoy ordered lumber from Missouri and built stock pens stout enough to hold three thousand restless longhorns. He placed ten-ton scales that could weigh twenty cows at a time. Besides enlarging Abilene with a livery stable, barns, and an office, he also built the Drovers’ Cottage, an eight-room hotel.

The Chisholm Trail was the name given to the route by which the cattle were driven northward from southern Texas, entering the Indian Territory at Red River Crossing, and continuing into Abilene. Jesse Chisholm, a Scottish-Cherokee wagon driver, first marked this trail, which he used to trade buffalo robes with midwestern tribes. Chisholm, who never raised cattle, knew the need for grass and water on a cattle trail. In 1868, Chisholm Chisholm, Jesse died from eating bad bear grease, without ever completing a trip on the trail named for him. As the railroad moved farther west, alternative routes were made. The Shawnee Trail followed the route of the Chisholm Trail until it veered to Baxter Springs, Kansas. The West Chisholm Trail led into western Kansas and Ellsworth, Kansas. The Panhandle Trail fought its way across the arid mesas of western Texas. The original routes ran from the central part of Indian Territory to the railhead at Ellsworth.

The pressure of farmers taking up homesteads near the railroads Railroads;and Chisholm Trail[Chisholm Trail] forced the cattlemen to relocate their long drives ever farther to the west. Construction of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad provided a shorter drive along the Great Western Trail to southwestern Kansas, first to Newton and later to Dodge City, the recognized “cowboy capital” between 1875 and 1885. If the cattle market was overcrowded in Dodge City, some cattle owners drove their herds northward to meet the Union Pacific Union Pacific Railroad . After Kansas was closed to the cattle owners, ranchers developed the Goodnight-Loving Trail, which ran westward across Texas to the Pecos River country and then northward through eastern New Mexico and Colorado into Wyoming, where there was less competition.

The drives started early in the spring, immediately following the roundup. Usually a herd of twenty-five hundred to three thousand head of cattle was placed in the charge of the trail boss, who hired a dozen cowboys accompanied by a chuck wagon. The cattle were moved along the trail between ten and fifteen miles per day at a pace that would permit them to gain flesh off the rich, nutritious short grass of the Great Plains. Cowboys preferred driving the longhorns. The span of the long horns kept the cattle spaced farther apart, preventing excess body heat and flesh loss. Before leaving on a drive, owners would brand their animals, so separating them at the terminal was simplified.

Numerous dangers were encountered along the trail, including American Indian attacks, stampedes, Quantrell’s Raiders, jayhawkers, swollen rivers that had to be crossed, and attacks from farmers who did not want the herds crossing their lands and spreading the dreaded Texas fever to their own stock. This fever was caused by ticks, but it was attributed mistakenly to causes ranging from thorny shrubs scratching infected animals to deliberate sabotage.

Despite these hazards, between 1868 and 1871 almost 1.5 million head of cattle were loaded on the trains in the Abilene yards. From 1872 to 1875, Newton, on the Santa Fe line, received 1.5 million animals, and Dodge shipped 1 million of them to the eastern markets during the succeeding four years. No business was more widely advertised and romanticized. Tales of cattle kings building large estates and herds, cowboys engaging in the roundups and long drives, lawbreakers congregating in the cow towns to challenge authority and each other, and sheriffs’ and marshals’ attempts to maintain law and order were legion.

By 1880, the cattle industry was firmly established throughout the Great Plains. Rumors had circulated about the enormous profits that were available, with estimates running as high as a 40 percent return on capital in a single year. Investors in the East and abroad, primarily in England and Scotland, organized mammoth companies that bought acreage in New Mexico, Texas, and Colorado totaling eight thousand square miles with herds numbering more than 150,000 head.

Between 1881 and 1885, the British invested approximately $45 million in the cattle business and employed John Clay Clay, John to oversee their interests. In the process, a mad scramble ensued to obtain land strategically located to control the essential and limited water supply. Some companies resorted to leasing American Indian reservation lands and to enclosing sections of public domain that alternated with those areas that they had purchased from the western railroads. The aggressive and sometimes illegal activities of the cattle barons made them unpopular with farmers and small ranchers, as well as with the federal government.

In an attempt to bring order to the industry, southern and Great Plains cattle owners organized regional and territorial associations to supervise roundups, organize detective bureaus to prevent cattle rustling, institute inspection systems to oversee joint shipments of cattle from range to market, and lobby for political concessions. The collective efforts of these associations led to the creation of the Bureau of Animal Industry by the federal government. The boom could not last. Northern ranges were overcrowded, and steps were taken to shut off the long drives from Texas. Even so, overproduction caused prices on the domestic market to tumble steadily between 1884 and 1887.

To make a bad situation worse, climatic conditions in 1885 and 1886 were disastrous. The summers were hot and dry, reaching 110 degrees. One Fourth of July, there was a hailstorm that killed jackrabbits, yearlings, and antelope, and left cowboys with frozen and scarred faces and hands. In Montana, fifty thousand acres of good grassland burned. In the winter of 1886, three-fourths of some herds were destroyed. In November, a blizzard left snow up to the eaves of cabins. In January, a chinook caused the snow to melt, then on January 28, 1887, the temperatures dropped to fifteen degrees below zero, with winds of sixty miles per hour. More snow fell, isolating men and animals for six weeks. Small animals smothered in the drifts; Texas cattle froze, unaccustomed to severe winters; heartier cattle could not break the ice to get grass. Some animals resorted to eating tar paper off shacks and the wool off the bodies of dead sheep. Charles Russell Russell, Charles , the famous western artist, did his first watercolor, Waiting for a Chinook, depicting a humped-up cow circled by wolves, during this winter storm.


The basic economic law of supply and demand on the open range and the whims of the weather dramatized the Chisholm Trail’s end. Cattlemen reduced the size of their herds, fenced their ranches, made plans for feeding their animals during the winter months, and concentrated on improved breeding. Even with the number of cattle reduced, the market price did not rise during the 1890’s. The industry struggled for survival in the decade of transition. The true story of cowboys and ranches has, over time, evolved into Hollywood fiction for the general populace.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adams, Ramon F. The Old-Time Cowhand. 1961. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989. A western historian gives insight into the everyday life of cowboys, stressing the differences in geographical locations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Drago, Harry Sinclair. Great American Cattle Trails: The Story of the Old Cow Paths of the East and the Longhorn Highways of the Plains. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1965. Discusses the development of famous national trails, specifically addressing the business of driving stock.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fuller, John H. “Ben Kinchlow: A Trail Driver on the Chisholm Trail.” In Black Cowboys of Texas, edited by Sara R. Massey. College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2000. A chapter on African American cowboys of the West.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCoy, Joseph G. Historic Sketches of the Cattle Trade of the West and Southwest. Kansas City, Mo.: Ramsey, Millett, & Hudson, 1874. A contemporary narrative of the cattle trade by the developer of Abilene, Kansas, the Chisholm Trail’s endpoint. Available on the Web site of the Kansas Collection. Accessed January 18, 2006.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Neal, Bill. Cattlemen vs. Sheepherders: Five Decades of Violence in the West, 1880-1920. Austin, Tex.: Eakin Press, 1989. Discusses the sheep wars that covered a large part of the West in the period after the drives to shipping points further developed the livestock industry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pirtle, Caleb, and Texas Cowboy Artist Association. XIT, Being a New and Original Exploration, in Art and Words, Into the Life and Times of the American Cowboy. Birmingham, Ala.: Oxmoor House, 1975. Discusses cowboys, trails, ranchers, and their legacy. Informally written, covering the period when the cattle industry was at its peak. Heavily illustrated, with an extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sanford, William R. The Chisholm Trail in American History. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow, 2000. A historical overview of the Chisholm Trail, written especially for younger readers. Includes maps, a bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sherow, James E. “Water, Sun, and Cattle: The Chisholm Trail as an Ephemeral Ecosystem.” In Fluid Arguments: Five Centuries of Western Water Conflict, edited by Char Miller. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001. Examines the environmental impact of the trail, in the context of the struggle for water in the West.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stiles, T. J. Warriors and Pioneers. New York: Berkley, 1996. A collection of primary sources, including “Up the Chisholm Trail” by John Wesley Hardin. Part of the In Their Own Words series. Includes maps and a bibliography.

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Categories: History