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Chisholm Trail

The Chisholm Trail was not the longest cattle trail but probably became the most famous because of the song “The Old Chisholm Trail”:

”Come along boys and listen to my tale, I'll tell you of my troubles on the old Chisholm Trail. Come a ti yi yippee, come a ti, yi, yea."

LonghornAs the longhorns slowly moved from pasture lands near San Antonio, Texas to the railhead in Abilene cowhands passed time by singing songs such as ”The Old Chisholm Trail”. The drive was slow, allowing the steers to graze along the way. With plenty of time to sing, each cowboy must have added to the song because experts today have found as many as 1,000 verses. 

Cattle drives from Texas started as early as 1836 with some ranchers using this method to get their cattle to railheads so they could sell them for beef, hides and tallow.  During the Civil War, the demand for beef didn't lessen but there was no way to get the cattle to the east coast. Throughout most of the Civil War, the Union troops had blocked shipping along the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi River.  Therefore people in the eastern portion of the United States couldn’t get the needed beef. During the war, the unattended longhorns had multiplied on the Texas plains.  After the war, cattle which sold for $2 a head in Texas could bring as much as $40 each in Chicago. 

Texas ranchers once again began to drive cattle. The first drives went to Sedalia, Missouri, because the railroad had arrived there.  Sedalia could have gone on to become a large shipping point, if it were not for a Missouri law forbidding Texas cattle within the borders. The Texas longhorns carried a tick which infected the local shorthorn breeds.  In some areas 100 percent of the local cattle died after being exposed to Spanish fever from the ticks.  This led to the banning of the Texas longhorns from Missouri.

In 1861 Kansas also had prohibited the driving of cattle from Texas, however, by 1867 the legislature repealed portions of that law to allow cattle to be driven into the state west of the sixth principal meridian. This allowed cattle to be driven as far north as near the area of present day McPherson and west to Colorado. This area was less inhabited than the eastern portion of the state and therefore had less shorthorn animals to be infected.

Joseph McCoyAn entrepreneur, Joseph McCoy, took advantage of the change in the Kansas law to start campaigning for cattle drives to the small town of Abilene. First McCoy had to convince the Kansas Pacific Railway to build a spur to Abilene to accommodate the shipping of Texas cattle. He then built a hotel, stockyard, office, and bank in the small town. McCoy advertised the availability of the Abilene shipping point throughout Texas. The first cattle drive reached Abilene in August 1867. On September 5, 1867, the first load of cattle were shipped via rail from Kansas.

The trail would eventually be called the Chisholm Trail. Named for Jesse Chisholm, an Indian trader, the Chisholm Trail was so named because a portion of it followed Chisholm's trade routes. Chisholm built a number of trading posts in Oklahoma Territory and became known as a trader, guide, and interpreter, but not a cattle drover.

A cattle drive had between 2000-3000 head of cattle with approximately ten cowboys, a chuck wagon cook, and horse wrangler.  They would leave Texas in the spring and arrive at the railhead about two months later.  Averaging 8-10 miles a day allowed for grazing along the way which could mean an average gain of 80-100 pounds per head by the time the longhorns reached Abilene.

Life of a cowboy was not easy, many problems could occur during the long drive.  Cattle had to be driven across rivers and flooded streams, through prairie storms, and even encounters with thieves. Still the profit at the end of the drive was worth more than the problems along the way. In the five years that Abilene was the main Kansas cowtown (1867-1871) more than 3,000,000 head of cattle were shipped East from McCoy’s pens.

Driving cattle through a rain stormAbilene, like later cowtowns, developed the reputation of a very rough place due to the actions of some of the cowboys after they arrived in the town.  Upon receiving their pay for the drive, many would spend their money in the saloons, but just as beneficial to the town was the clothing, boots, and other items they purchased. As the population of the town and the area around it began to grow conflicts developed between the farmers and cattlemen.  Finally in 1872, the town notified drovers that their herds could no longer be driven to Abilene.

This did not mark the end of cattle drives to Kansas.  Throughout this time the railroad had continued to move west.  Ellsworth, which was not on the Chisholm Trail, became the next important shipping point.  Newton and Wichita (both on the Chisholm Trail) eventually became well-known cowtowns.  Caldwell, Hunnewell, and Dodge City were also well-known cowtowns.

Longhorns being driven through Dodge City streetThe Western Cattle Trail that led to Dodge City became the most utilized of all the trails. Hundreds of thousands of cattle were shipped from Dodge City in the decade from 1875-1885. In 1885, the Kansas legislature once again made it unlawful to drive Texas cattle into Kansas, this time due to both Spanish fever and the dreaded hoof and mouth disease. These diseases along with the development of barbed wire which prevented the mass drives and pasturing of cattle on the open prairies ended the cattle drives to Kansas.  By this time, railway lines had reached Texas so the movement of beef to the east continued.

Entry: Chisholm Trail

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: June 2011

Date Modified: June 2018

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.