This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library License images from £2.99 Pay by PayPal for images for immediate download Member of British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA)

Cowboys drove thousands of cattle on the Chisholm Trail

Posted in America, Animals, Historical articles, History, Industry, Trade on Friday, 31 January 2014

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

This edited article about America first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 535 published on 15 April 1972.

On the Chisholm Trail,  picture, image, illustration

Cattle were driven up from Texas to Abilene on the Chisholm Trail

From the Rio Grande to Abilene, the Chilsholm Trail, named after a half-breed Indian trader, wound through 1,000 miles of dirt, dust and Indian country to become the premier route for the Texas cowboys driving their vast herds northwards to feed a nation.

“Point ’em North!” The year is 1866, and all over the great plains of Texas, thousands of long-horned cattle are moving slowly, like a great brown sea. They move in an endless column, flowing across the grass of the prairie, the dust from thousands of hooves rising high in the sky. On either side of the herd cowboys mill around on fleet-footed ponies, shouting, cracking whips, whistling – anything to keep the steers on the move.

“North! North! Point ’em North!”

North to the stockyards at Abilene, Kansas, by way of the Chisholm Trail.

Abilene exists today as a quietly prosperous country town, but the trail that brought it to life has long gone. It has vanished so thoroughly that even historians of America’s pioneer days cannot agree as to exactly where it ran. But that the Chisholm Trail existed is beyond question, for in a few short years it changed the whole pattern of the Wild West.

At the end of the Civil War, the Southern States were in ruins, yet thanks to the foresight of General Grant, the defeated Confederate soldiers were allowed to return home riding their horses and carrying their guns. This was not just a gesture of chivalry towards a gallant foe. So far as the president was concerned it was important to the country to remember that the Southerners were farmers and stockbreeders almost to a man. A horse and a gun were the tools of their trade, and without them it would take that much longer for one time rebels to become useful citizens again.

Few men of the Confederate army found that they could pick up their lives where they had left them at the outbreak of war in 1861. Towns had been shelled or burnt to the ground, and plantations had become overgrown. The State of Texas, too huge to be entirely overrun, posed very special problems. The homecoming Texans were not too concerned to find their ranches in a poor way, for they had built them in the first place and were prepared to do so again. What did cause alarm was the sight of thousand upon thousand of unbranded longhorn cattle running wild upon the open range.

The ranchers repaired their homes, then banded together to round up the tough, bad tempered cattle that were the descendants of the early herds imported from Britain and Ireland. Where a steer carried a brand there was no trouble: the owner took her back into his herd. But the bulk of the steers, born during the years of war, bore no distinguishing mark. Between them, the ranchers shared out the stock, and overnight found themselves owners of enormous herds.

Thousands and thousands of cattle. With, quite literally, nowhere to go. In Texas, where there was a small and very scattered population, the creatures were almost worthless. A lucky rancher might get five dollars a head at the most. The fact that in the meat hungry northern states beef cattle fetched 50 dollars each was neither here nor there. New York was 2,000 miles away, and with no railway to link it to Texas, the hard up ranchers might just as well have tried to sell their stock to the man in the moon.

A few of the more enterprising ranchers tried driving their herds through to Illinois, only to find their way blocked by raiders and irate Missouri farmers who suspected Texas cattle of carrying disease and in any case had no intention of putting up with the damage to the land that so many animals could cause.

Angry and frustrated, the Texans turned back. They were millionaires on paper, but in reality they had barely enough ready cash to pay their cow hands.

To Joseph McCoy the problem was one that had to be solved. A partner in a firm that specialised in shipping cattle to profitable markets, it seemed to him absurd that half the country should be short of meat while the other half was overrun with stock. In a moment of foresight that was to make not only his own fortune but that of Texas as a whole, McCoy began to look around for the nearest point to Texas that had both a railhead and sufficient open land that could be used as grazing ground. He found what he was looking for at Abilene, on the Kansas prairie, which he described as “a place of about a dozen log huts with dirt covered roofs.”

Lack of accommodation didn’t bother McCoy; hard work would soon change that. He bought 250 acres of land north east of the settlement and within three months had constructed stock yards large enough to take a thousand head of cattle at a time. Fired with his enthusiasm, others put up money for building a barn, livery stables, a bank and a hotel, while the Kansas Pacific Railroad authorities constructed feeding pens up the line at Leavenworth.

Now all that Abilene needed was cattle.

McCoy had gambled on his belief that once it was known that there were proper facilities at Abilene, the ranchers would somehow find a way of getting their cattle there. And the hard-headed business man was right. Two years earlier, a half Cherokee Indian called Jesse Chisholm had made his way up to Kansas from the Mexican border, marking his path across the empty prairie with little piles of earth. This, the cattle men decided, was the route they would follow.

There were a thousand miles of the Chisholm Trail. Starting down on the Rio Grande, the cowboys first had to swim their herds across the river and then head them up what was known as the Old Beef Trail as far as the town of Austin, stopping on the way at the Mexican frontier post of San Antonio, where riders could collect stores for the long, long trip ahead of them.

Then on to Austin and the Colorado River that lay beyond.

A long cattle drive was the cowboy’s ultimate challenge, and one of the toughest jobs in the world. All through the heat of the day they would ride continuously round the slowly moving mass of cattle, collecting up strays, heading the leading steers away from possible danger. At night the cow puncher was still on his horse, walking slowly about the quiet herd, kept tense by the knowledge that any sudden noise at night might well startle the sensitive longhorns into a wild stampede. Forty dollars a month and his keep was the standard wage for a cowhand, and it was money earned the hard way.

Once the Colorado River was reached, the herd had to be swum across, with the men riding extra miles to round up whatever cattle were swept away. Then north, always north, the drive would go on until it reached cottonfields and the Edwards Plateau. The San Bagriel, the Lampases and the swiftly flowing Brazos were all hazards to be faced before reaching the easy run to Fort Worth. There the ranchers rested their cowhands for a couple of days, letting the cattle graze at the edge of town. After that it was on and on to the valley of the Red River.

Fifteen miles north of the Red River was Indian territory. Sometimes the braves were on the warpath, at other they would approach the cattle drive to beg for a cow. Then came more rivers, more crossings, until the weary cowboys had a chance to hunt fresh meat along the banks of the Cimarron before facing open prairie once again. At last the trail entered Kansas at a point called Polecat Creek, and after that there was only the Arkansas River before Abilene, the stockyards and a riotous party. Their celebration over, the cowboys would then turn back along the Trail in search of a new boss who would hire them for forty dollars a month to start the whole, back-breaking two-month drive all over again.

It was September of 1867 by the time the first cattle arrived at Abilene and justified Joe McCoy’s gamble that the town would get back every penny it had invested. In a month, the population had grown from 500 to 7,000 and McCoy was made mayor by his grateful fellow citizens.

“Abilene,” they said gleefully, “is here to stay.”

It did stay, and for a while it even grew. In its first year as a cow town, 75,000 head of cattle were loaded on to trains, and between 1869 and 1871 this figure grew to 1,500,000. But within ten years the railroads had been extended south into the heart of Texas, making the long drives a thing of the past.

Year after year the new season’s grass grew over the hoof marks that identified the old trail, and the men who had rounded up the great herds grew old themselves or drifted away. The Chisholm Trail became first a memory and then a legend. Part of the folklore of the great days of the old West.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.