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 portion of the trail marked by Jesse Chisholm went from his southern trading post near the Red River, to his northern trading post near Kansas City, Kansas.
Texas ranchers using the Chisholm Trail started on the route from either the Rio Grande or San Antonio, joined the Chisholm Trail at the Red River of the South at the border between Texas and Oklahoma, and continued to the railhead 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 half-Cherokee trader from Tennessee, who originally created the trail as a means to transport his goods from one trading post to another.
By 1853, Texas cattle were being driven into Missouri, where local farmers began blocking 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 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, because lack of market access during the American Civil War had led to over stock 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.
The construction of the Union Pacific Railway through Nebraska eventually offered a cattle drive destination which was an attractive alternative to the Kansas Pacific Railroad, and the Texas Trail emerged as an alternative to the Chisholm Trail. Some cattle drives in 1876 and up to 1884 went along the Texas Trail instead of the Chisholm Trail.
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 Chisholm Trail generally follows the route of US Highway 81 through present-day towns of El Reno, Duncan, Chickasha, and Enid.
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 then soon afterward moved to Wichita, Kansas. From 1883 to 1887, the end of the trail was Caldwell, Kansas. Ellsworth, Kansas, is also considered a major influence of the trail.
Historians consider the Chisholm Trail to have started either at Donna, Texas or San Antonio, Texas. 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." It was always understood by pioneer cattlemen 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 the topographic challenges of canyons, badlands and low mountain ranges. The weather was less than ideal but the major drives typically needed to start in the spring after the rains brought green grasses for the grazing cattle. The spring drives, with those rains and higher water levels with the runoff, always meant more danger for bridgeless river crossings. The days of longest sunlight, near mid-June, was in important consideration in the timing of drives, as well. In addition to natural dangers, rustlers and occasional conflicts with Native Americans erupted. The latter 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.
At least 27 movies have depicted a fictional account 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 in his usual grizzled-old-coot role.
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, Roy Rogers, and Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter), 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 then U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson. The drive was promoted as a centennial commemoration of the original Chisholm Trail drives.
Many schools have been named after the Chisholm Trail, including:
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.
On the second weekend of June, Lockhart in Caldwell County holds a four-day festival 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 outline the Chisholm Trail (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 connecting 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. 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.