When the railroads moved west to the Great Plains, the Cattle Boom” began. Southern Texas became a major ranching area, raising longhorn cattle from Mexico. The cattle were branded by the rawhides who guarded them on horseback on the ranges. Before the Civil War, small herds of Texas cattle were driven by cowboys to New Orleans, some as far west as California, and some to the north over the Shawnee Trail.
This trail passed through Dallas and near the Indian Territory, ending in Sedalia, Missouri. In 1866, the Shawnee Trail presented some major problems for the cattle drivers. Farmers along the route did not like their fields being trampled and objected to the spread of tick fever. Longhorns carried the ticks but were immune to the fever.
A few farmers were so angry that they armed themselves with shotguns to convince the cattle ranchers to find another trail north. By the end of the Civil War, there was a large increase in cattle, with over 1,000,000 roaming the open range. At this time, people in the north had money to buy beef and cattle, which were in great demand. A cow that cost 4 to 5 dollars a head in Texas was going for 40 to 50 dollars a head in the east. Ranchers hired cowboys for the cattle drives north, realizing the great opportunity for a large profit if they could reach the railroads in Abilene, Kansas.
Joseph McCoy, a stock dealer from Springfield, Illinois, decided that a new trail was necessary west of the farms. In 1867, he chose a route that would reach Abilene and the railroads with the least amount of problems. This route became well-known as the Chisholm Trail. Jesse Chisholm was a half-breed, a Scotch Cherokee Indian trader, who drove a wagon through the Indian territory, now known as Oklahoma, to Wichita, Kansas, where he had a trading post in 1866. Cattlemen used the same trail in the years to come, following Chisholm’s wagon ruts to Abilene, Kansas, and the railroads.
The trail began below San Antonio, Texas and stretched north for about 1,000 miles. The main course then passed through Austin, Fort Worth, the Indian Territory, and Wichita to Abilene. Side trails fed into the Chisholm Trail. The cattle fed on grass along the trail.
Cattlemen moved about 1,500,000 cattle over the trail during a three-year span. The biggest year was in 1871 when 5,000 cowboys drove over 700,000 head of cattle along the trail from Texas to Abilene. The Chisholm Trail was the most popular route because of the good terrain. There were no hills or woods to impede the cowboys’ progress, nor were there towns or farmers along the way. The cattle trail route moved westward as the railroads across the plains moved west, and settlers soon followed.
Ellsworth and Newton, Kansas, on the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe Railroad, became the end of the trail for cattle drives between 1872 and 1875. They were the chief cattle markets for several years. These cowtowns” consisted of gambling halls, saloons, and brothels. It was a good place for cowboys to spend their pay at the end of a long drive. Eventually, the railroad moved even further west, and farmers homesteaded the land, putting up fences to bar cattle herds.
The Chisholm Trail ceased to be used by 1890, but it will be remembered in western stories and songs. This trail was very important to Texas. It helped the state recover from the economic blows of the Civil War, stock new ranches to the north, and meet the nation’s demand for beef. It is responsible in part for the rise of Chicago and Kansas as packing centers.
It also led to the expansion of western railroads and the development of refrigerator cars. Although Jesse Chisholm’s role in the Cattle Boom” is insignificant, the trail named for him played a major role in American history.