Friday, May 20, 2011

The Chisholm Trail

For 20 years following the end of the Civil War, from 1865 until 1885, three million Texas Longhorns were driven north from Texas to points in Missouri and Kansas. There they were gathered and shipped north to Chicago or back east by rail to easterners hungry for meat.

The impetus for this phenomenon was simple - cattle in Texas were cheap, a few dollars a head, or if you were adventurous and mischievous and lucky, you could rustle up a herd and hightail it north.In Missouri and Kansas cattle fetched $30 and $40 dollars a head. For an enterprising cowboy who collected a herd of 3,000 head, the average size of a herd, this represented a staggering profit. The cowboy who did the grueling trail work, often a teenager seeking adventure; well, he collected his dollar a day and at the end of the trip was paid $100 or so for his efforts, which he often wasted on gambling, alcohol, and women.

There were many cattle trails heading north out of Texas, but the most famous was the Chisholm Trail, named for Jesse Chisholm.The Chisholm Trail connected the numerous Texas trails with the famous Kansas Cowtowns of Abilene, Ellsworth, Wichita, and Caldwell. In the first four years of its use as a cattle trail, over a million cattle beat down the green prairie into a dusty brown.

Views of the Past, a blog by Matt.

Finding the Chisholm Trail today is not easy. Farms, towns, and highways have replaced the open prairie of yesterday. Consider for example the following description of the Chisholm Trail:

From two hundred to four hundred yards wide, beaten into the bare earth, it reached over hill and through valley for over six hundred miles, a chocolate band amid the green prairies, uniting the North and the South. As the marching hoofs wore it down and the wind blew and the waters washed the earth away it became lower than the surrounding territory, and was flanked by little banks of sand, drifted there by the wind. Bleaching skulls and skeletons of weary brutes who had perished on the journey gleamed along its borders, and here and there was a low mound showing where some cowboy had literally "died with his boots on." Occasionally a dilapidated wagon frame told of a break down, and spotting the emerald reaches on either side were the barren circle-like "bedding-grounds," each a record that a great herd had there spent a night.
Charles Moreau Harger, writing in 1892.The Chisholm Trail by John Rossel.

Life is for the most part routine, a monotony of the same activities day in and day out. So to change things up a little, I decided to follow the Chisholm Trail south from Wichita to Caldwell, Kansas, on the Oklahoma border. The trip involves only two Kansas counties, Sedgwick where Wichita is to be found, and Sumner, the self-described Wheat Capital of the World and home to Caldwell. The trip is short - a distance of about 60 miles. It is not even a Day Trip unless you want to visit the museums in Clearwater and Wellington or the Opera House in Caldwell. In a pinch, you can drive it in an afternoon.

Do not drive south on I-35! ... You can be there in an hour, but then you would miss the adventure of the Chisholm Trail, which takes a less direct route through Clearwater and  Mayfield, west of Wellington past Wellington Lake which did not then exist, over the many creeks and rivers, through the rolling wheat fields of Sumner County to Caldwell.

Sumner County makes up most of the trip. These are the back roads though small communities that are untouched by mass transportation. And one gets a feel for the beauty of the Chisholm Trail by noting that the population of Sumner County today barely exceeds 25,000 friendly souls. The people living there now are the descendents of the hardy pioneers who came to Kansas in the 1870's and 80's.

Jesse Chisholm, for whom the trail is named was the son of Scotch and Cherokee parents. He was born about 1806 in the Cherokee Nation in eastern Tennessee. As a youth and prior to the forced migration of eastern Cherokees known as the Trail of Tears, he went to live with the western Cherokees in Arkansas. Thereafter, he lead many pioneering trips though Indian country, Texas and Kansas, learning about a dozen Indian languages.

Eventually, he established a trading post for the Wichita Indians at the confluence of the the Big and Little Arkansas Rivers. In 1865, Chisholm blazed a trail and hauled a wagon loaded with buffalo hides from his trading post near Wichita to a site near what is now Oklahoma City. Jesse Chisholm died in 1868, and over the next 20 years, the trail came to be called the Chisholm Trail. While it served as a trading route, it primarily became known for the millions of Texas cattle which were driven north after the Civil War to the rail heads in Kansas. It was extended south to the Texas Oklahoma border, a distance of 250 miles from Kansas and north another 180 miles to Abilene, Kansas.

Read more about Jesse Chisholm.

Joseph "Cowboy" McCoy, a.k.a. the "Real McCoy" was a cattle baron from Illinois. In 1867, McCoy, knowing that the railroads needed freight for their empty rail cars and that Texas cattlemen had no market for their millions of Longhorns, he established a hotel, stockyard, office and bank in a little village where the Union Pacific line ended in Kansas. The village would become Abilene, Kansas, one of the very first cow-towns. McCoy's job was to then convince Texas cattlemen to drive their herds north to the rail head in Abilene. While there were several cattle trails then in existence, McCoy's idea was to use Chisholm's trail which steered west of the homesteaders in eastern Kansas and western Missouri. Simultaneously, he avoided the white settlers and many of the Indian tribes who imposed bounties on the cattle driven on routes to the east.

On a handshake McCoy offered Texas cattlemen top dollar, $40 dollars a head, for their cattle and  made good on his promise when the cattle were delivered, earning him the moniker of the "Real McCoy".

By 1870 thousands of Texas longhorn cattle were being driven over the Chisholm Trail to Abilene. By 1871 as many as 5,000 cowboys were being paid off during a single day in Abilene. Due to their long legs and hard hoofs, Longhorns were ideal, even gaining weight on their way to market.

McCoy made huge profits in bringing cattle from Texas to Abilene. He also wrote a contemporary account of life on the cattle trail. The book was written in 1874 can be read online. Cattle Trade of the West and Southwest by Joseph G. McCoy, published by Kansas Collection Books. McCoy gives an idealized account of the cowboy's life, one which must have included flies, rattlesnakes, dust and poor food, in addition to the thunderstorms, tornadoes, and thousand other hazards to be found on the trail.
Few occupations are more cheerful, lively and pleasant than that of the cow-boy on a fine day or night; but when the storm comes, then is his manhood and often his skill and bravery put to test. When the night is inky dark and the lurid lightning flashes its zig-zag course athwart the heavens, and the coarse thunder jars the earth, the winds moan fresh and lively over the prairie, the electric balls dance from tip to tip of the cattle's horns then the position of the cow-boy on duty is trying far more than romantic.
From Chapter 6 of Cattle Trade of the West and Southwest.

Abilene's success would encourage other entrepreneurs. Then too, other Kansas towns would encourage the railroads  to locate closer to the Oklahoma border than Abilene. Thus, a railroad line was laid to Newton in 1871. The same year construction was started on a route to Wichita, a city which had only been incorporate in 1870. The line was completed in 1872 and Wichita became the new cattle capital, and was then nicknamed "Cowtown".

Image is C.M. Russell's classic image of the American cowboy. Wikipedia.

Delano, just west of the Arkansas River, was the point at which the cattle were gathered and processed to be shipped back east.Delano became the recreation area for the cowboys and their vices. Wyatt Earp was a Deputy-Marshall for Wichita before leaving for Dodge City in 1876. Likely though, he stayed out of the lawless Delano District.

It was not until 1880 that the railroad lines extended all the way to Caldwell, but by this time Wichita like so many other cattle towns was tired of cattle and ready to become "respectable" as a farming community.

Retracing the Chisholm Trail today is not easy.

What was then an exciting adventure for many young cowboys who rode the trail quickly was forgotten with the advance of civilization. In 1916 at a convention in Houston, Texas for old cowboys, the following exchange took place.
"Know what year the Chisholm Trail was blazed?"

"Must a been about in '68 or '69. I went up with a herd in '70 and the blazes were still bright on the trees then all through the Oklahoma timber country."

"Now this Chisholm Trail, where it started and where it ended and when it was blazed we're not plum sure of it and I'd like to find someone that is," said George W. Saunders, presiding.

Farms and communities have disturbed the natural prairie. Wheat fields replace the prairie. Highways cut more direct routes and gas stations replace the water holes of old .

There were several cattle trails that headed north from Texas to the northern markets, but the Chisholm Trail was the best for many reasons not the least of which was its directness to the cattle markets. As McCoy described it:

[The Chisholm Trail] is more direct, has more prairie, less timber, more small streams and less large ones, and altogether better grass and fewer flies -- no civilized Indian tax or wild Indian disturbances -- than any other route yet driven over, and is also much shorter in distance because direct from Red river to Kansas. Twenty-five to thirty-five days is the usual time required to bring a drove from Red River to the Southern line of Kansas, a distance of between 250 and 300 miles, and an excellent country to drive over. So many cattle have been driven over the trail in the last few years that a broad highway is tread out looking much like a national highway; so plain, a fool could not fail to keep in it.

One drives west on Kellogg to K-42 highway.  A feeder road takes you south to Clearwater and the Ninnescah River. Ninnescah is an Osage-Sioux name meaning "water clear". Before the cattlemen and the homesteaders, the Osage had crossed southern Kansas on their way to hunt buffalo. The passage of the river here in Clearwater is normally easy except in heavy rains.Abbie Bright, a 22 year-old school teacher, came from Indiana and homesteaded west of Clearwater, Kansas. On June 4, 1871 she wrote in her diary:

The heavy rains raised the river, and a heard (sic) of cattle stampeded and 15 or 20 were drowned. Every week 7-10 thousands of Texas cattle are driven north over the trail. If the cattle stampede, and don't want to cross the river, the hearders (sic) yell and fire off their revolvers. Sometimes we hear them here, and it sounds, as I suppose a battle does. It is the cattle that keep the trail worn so smooth.
For more information, contact the Clearwater Historical Society, P.O. Box 453, Clearwater, KS 67026, or (620) 584-2444, Skyways. this is an excellent site with many historical references.

It is fifteen minutes by car and a full day for a cattle drive to Slate Creek Crossing, south of US 160 and east of Mayfield, where a trading post was built in 1869.A marker donated by Fred Rose, who traveled the trail as a child marks the spot. Slate Creek is still there of course and a flavor of what it was once like can be seen if one travels north of Wellington City Lake.

For more information and a Google Map.

It is another 10 miles south to Caldwell.Today one sees rolling fields of wheat that have replaced the tall grass and short prairie grass that made the area of feeding ground for the millions of native American bison that once roamed the Central Plains.

Caldwell, which was established in 1871, was the last of the cow-towns. The better known cities of Abilene, Wichita, and Ellsworth all had the advantage of being first or, perhaps, having more colorful characters.

In any event, cowboys went wild in this wild "Border Queen City" after months on the dusty trail with nothing to do. Gunfights, showdowns, hangings and general hell raising were trade of the day. The city likes to boast that it experienced a longer cow-town period (1880 - 1885), a higher murder rate, and a loss of more law enforcement officers than the other more famous cow towns.

Caldwell History

This year Caldwell celebrates 140 years of cattle drive history as the city proudly looks forward to recreating the cattle drive down the center of  town. The image to the right can be viewed in Karl's Market, a friendly center of town grocery store. If you look closely at the photograph on the right, just left of dead center, you will see a next to the covered wagons a square covered structure which was a well in the center of town for watering the horses that lined up in front of the main street businesses. One can find many old photographs of Caldwell on the walls above the well stocked shelves at Karl's.

Until you go to a town that doesn't have a Walmart or a Dollar General, you forget how nice it is to have stores owned and run by locals. A place where everybody knows your name and if you are from out of town, they stop and talk to you.

The photograph is of Caldwell's other historical claim to fame, the Cherokee Strip Land Rush of 1893.

The town today is off the beaten path. I-35 is 20 miles to the east and travelers in a hurry don't take the time to stop and enjoy the history of Caldwell. But for the residents of this town history and community are still important.

The railroad created Caldwell and today it still serves the community by transporting its farming crops, even though the cattle are gone.Caldwell today is a farming community. Wheat and corn are its primary crops.

Friendliness is their greatest product.

Why does anything end? The trip from Wichita to Caldwell was a trip back in time. The city of Caldwell  gets ready to celebrate this Labor Day weekend the 150th anniversary of Kansas and 140th anniversary of the founding of Caldwell. The celebration will include a cattle drive down the main street of Caldwell.

Caldwell has managed to keep much of the charm of small town America. It is a small community that still bases much of it wealth on the wheat that has been farmed there since the earliest settlers came to Sumner County in the 1880's. It has a great newspaper, The Caldwell Messenger. The paper describes itself as "A good little newspaper in a fine little town", and that is an apt description. But what of the end of the cattle drives and the Chisholm Trail. Well, the Chisholm Trail ended for the same reason it was created. Farmers who settled in Sedgwick and Sumner counties wanted an end to the cattle drives just as the Missouri farmers did years before. Texas Longhorns and new breeds of cattle did not mix well. Moreover, the ranchers of Kansas, Iowa, and Missouri created their own cattle ranches which fed off the blue-stem grass of the prairies.Finally, the railroads which pushed west from Missouri into Kansas to collect the cattle continued to expand.Thus, the railroads made their way to Texas where they could gather the cattle directly, and, so ended the need for the cattle drives.

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