The movie industry has burned into our memories the image of nineteenth-century cattle drives. Movies such as Red River (1948) with John Wayne, or the TV series Lonesome Dove (1989) with Robert Duval each give a somewhat blurry picture of the cattle drive experience. Today tourists can have a taste of life on the cattle trail offered by companies that try to simulate the experience. The comedy City Slickers (1991) with Billy Crystal portrays the urge to play cowboy. The “blurry” part of the picture is the emphasis movies make on gun fights, Indian raids, and natural disasters. Most actual accounts tell of a long, dusty, hazardous trip on a very long trail. The raids and natural disasters occurred, but less often than the movies would have us believe.
The origin of trails from south Texas to central Kansas can be partly attributed to a sharp drop in cattle prices in the South. When the Union army advanced into the South, access to those markets was interrupted and a surplus of cattle in Texas south rose significantly. After the war cattle could not be sold for more than two dollars a head in Texas, and In 1866 there were an estimated 200,000 to 260,000 surplus cattle available.
At the end of the Civil War a new market opened when Philip Danforth Armour opened a meat packing plant in Chicago known as Armour and Company. With this expansion of the meat packing industry, the demand for beef increased significantly. In 1866 cattle could be sold in the north for as much as forty dollars per head, making it profitable for cattle from Texas to be herded long distances to market. To accomplish this they needed some designated routes to follow. The map shows several trails that developed at that time, and two of the most used were the Chisholm Trail and the Goodnight-Loving Trail.
The southern terminus of the Chisholm Trail was a trading post near the Red River in north Texas, and the northern terminus was a trading post near Kansas City, Kansas. Both trading posts were owned by Chisholm. The main source area for the Texas cattle was in the area south of San Antonio and Houston down to the Gulf of Mexico and the Rio Grande River.
The trail was established by a Delaware scout/cattle rancher named Black Beaver and his friend Jesse Chisholm, who was a merchant. Although the trail laid out and named by Black Beaver and Jesse Chisholm began at the crossing of the Red River into Indian Territory, present day Oklahoma, common usage often considers it beginning in south Texas and extending into Kansas. A trail certainly existed for the entire distance. The difference lies in deciding where to begin calling it the Chisholm Trail.
The first major effort to drive cattle from Texas to the nearest railhead for shipment to Chicago came in 1866 when Texas ranchers banded together to drive their cattle to the closest point with a railroad, which at that time was Sedalia, Missouri, eighty-five miles east of Kansas City. The route to Sedalia, called the Shawnee Trail, passed through farming land in Kansas and Missouri but resistance from farmers upset by tick fever brought with the cattle forced the cattlemen to use a more westerly route.
On typical drives lasting about two months, the cattlemen faced many natural obstacles. They crossed major rivers such as the Arkansas River and the Red River and many smaller creeks, yet often completely lacked water for long distances. The weather was also a major factor. The drives typically needed to start in the spring after the rains brought green grasses for the grazing cattle. The spring rains also created higher water levels in streams and thus more dangerous river crossings.
In 1867 cattle shipping facilities were built in Abilene, Kansas, by Joseph G. McCoy. Jesse Chisholm marked out a route through Indian Territory (Oklahoma) and the tribes allowed the cattle herds to pass for a toll of ten cents per head. Conflicts were few. Historians usually point out that only the trail north of the Red River and through Indian Territory is actually the Chisholm Trail. Generalists use the name Chisholm for the entire distance from south Texas to Abilene.
One of the earliest drives was made by cattleman M.A. Withers in April 1868. He rode north out of Lockhart, Texas (near San Antonio), with a herd of 600 Longhorn steers, eight hands, and a cook, headed for Abilene, Kansas where facilities had opened the previous summer. Withers rode several miles ahead of the herd and was near the site of present-day Wichita, Kansas where he stopped to water his horse. When his horse suddenly jerked to attention and Withers looked up, he saw seven mounted Osages galloping straight toward him. There was no chance of escape so he had no choice but to face them. The Indians, all well armed, raced right up to Withers and reined to a stop. After an uncomfortably long pause the Osage leader held out his hand and asked for tobacco. Withers, still thinking perhaps his time on earth was about to end, handed over all the tobacco he had. Much to his surprise and relief the Osages abruptly whirled and raced away.
Dodge City, Kansas became the chief shipping point for another trail west of the Chisholm Trail. This so-called Western Trail brought Dodge City to particular prominence as the typical western “cow town.” By 1877 Dodge City alone had shipped 500,000 head of cattle to Kansas City and Chicago.
A drive usually consisted of 1,500–2,500 head of cattle, a trail boss, ten to fifteen hands, a horse wrangler who handled spare horses for each hand, and a cook who drove the chuck wagon with food and carried the bedrolls. The chuck wagon provided meals of bread, meat, beans with bacon, and coffee. When the cattle were sold at the end of the drive each man received wages amounting to about forty dollars a month—about eighty dollars per man after a two-month drive. A typical pay for the trail boss was ninety dollars per month.
The men drove and grazed the cattle most of the day and shared watching them at night. The drive was held to ten or twelve miles per day to assure that the cattle had sufficient time to graze and maintain weight throughout the route. At the end of the drive, after months of monotonous days, uninteresting food, no alcoholic drinks, and no women, the cowboys were paid and free to do what they pleased. They usually started with a bath and shave, along with some new clothes and gear. The local businesses anticipated their needs and hardware stores, clothing stores, barbers, and prostitutes thrived when the cattlemen arrived. The saloons especially did a thriving business when drovers came to town. The traditional price for a twenty-five ounce bottle of cheap whiskey in a cowboy saloon was twenty-five cents. Whiskey was not sold in one-ounce shots, but typically in a four-ounce glass for five cents.
At the end of a long drive the cowboys’ celebration often involved rowdiness that could get them in trouble with the law. Their violence and ebullient spirits gave rise to the need for more law officers to help keep the peace—some of whom became famous. James Butler Hickok (in Hays, Kansas among other places), Wyatt Earp (in Wichita, Kansas), and Bat Masterson (Dodge City, Kansas) were among the best-known cattle town marshals. The TV series Gunsmoke was a popular depiction of the town marshal with Matt Dillon (Dodge City) as the lawman.
The cattle trails began to change after 1871 when Abilene lost its preeminence as a shipping point for Texas cattle. In 1883 an extension of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway opened to Caldwell, Kansas (south of Abilene near the Kansas border), isolating Abilene. This only lasted until the 1890’s when railroad lines were built to southern Texas near the main source area for cattle. These rail shipments brought an end to long cattle drives over dusty trails.
At the same time meat packing plants moved closer to major ranching areas and the railroads carried meat rather than cattle, with better profits for all. Another aspect leading to the end of cattle drives was that the trails had become over-used and grazing was inadequate. Also ranchers and other settlers began to move into the western plains and used barbed wire to enclose their land. Ultimately all these factors: overgrazing, barbed wire fences, and expansion of railroads brought the cattle drive era (1866-1890) to an end.
The drovers traveled the trails for two months or more every year of their working lives. These men worked day and night at very hazardous jobs, yet they returned every year for another cattle drive.
Hunter, J. Marvin. The Trail Drivers of Texas: Interesting Sketches of Early Cowboys. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1998. (original 1924)
Ludwig, Wayne. The Old Chisholm Trail: From Cow Path to Tourist Stop. College Station: Texas A&M University Press. 2018.