The Chisholm Trail: Beyond Cowboy Stereotypes
Cowboys of the Chisholm Trail are often depicted as American ranch hands played by the likes of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. However, the trail was a melting pot of Anglo Texans, Mexican immigrants or Tejanos and freed African American slaves, with one in three cowboys being either Mexican or African American. As the Civil War came to an end, many turned to the newly created Chisholm Trail to deliver cattle from Texas to Kansas, including soldiers who returned to destroyed farm lands and recently liberated slaves who needed work.
New freedom in the post-Civil War-era meant that millions of African Americans had the opportunity to seek employment for the first time. Many came to realize that job prospects were bleak and prejudicial attitudes remained, leading to industries that were hardly a step above slavery, such as sharecropping. The rise of the Chisholm Trail presented a different path for some African American Texans, who saw it as a far more prosperous opportunity. In fact, three-fifths of cowboys riding the trail were African American and many of them had a lasting impact on the cowboy legend.
For instance, Charley Willis,
born a slave in Austin in 1847 was a well-respected cowhand breaking wild horses in Bartlett, Texas. At the age of 18, Willis was a freed man would eventually become a drover on the Chisholm Trail. Praised for his cowhand skills, Willis was also a singer/songwriter and has been recognized by the Library of Congress for his song, “Good-bye, Old Paint
,” which provides a historical record of cowboy culture.
Mexican-American inhabitants of Southern Texas influenced many aspects of the cowboy culture along the Chisholm Trail. A majority of these men and women were mestizo (of Native American and Spanish ancestry) or came from various backgrounds including African American, criollo (a person of Spanish descent born in North America) or mixed race. Most notably, vaqueros – Spanish for cowboy, based on the Spanish word vaca meaning cow – inspired key pieces of the traditional cowboy attire.
Vaqueros donned large sombreros to protect wearers from the sun, along with bright scarves tied around the neck and leather chaps featuring intricate details with Mexican culture influences. Vaqueros were considered contractors, in which they weren’t bound to a ranching hacienda or a patron (boss or sponsor). These cowboys owned their horses, saddles and ropes to use in various jobs.
The abundant Texas Longhorns that fueled the creation of the Chisholm Trail were also influenced by the Spanish. Descendants of Spanish Andalusian cattle brought to the United States in the early-16th
century by explorers, missionaries and ranchers, the longhorns were abandoned with the change in government and left to roam free. These herds grew into the millions by 1860, outnumbering Texas residents six times.
Native Americans were involved in many aspects of the Chisholm Trail and are even associated with its founding and naming. The Chisholm Trail was first marked in 1864 for wagons by fur trader, Jesse Chisholm. Of mixed Scottish and Cherokee descent, Chisholm scouted and developed the trail to supply his various trading posts among what is now western Oklahoma. He also served as an interpreter and peacemaker amongst Texans and local Native American tribes.
Native Americans were also at the heart of the forging the trail, creating a trail system for settlers to follow. A Native American from the Delaware tribe by the name of Black Beaver is including in the those forging the trail. What made Black Beaver so infamous? Till today one of the largest disagreements is on who actually discovered the trail, with many believing that the trail was created by Black Beaver. The story is that in 1861, the Union Army called on Black Beaver to guide Colonel William H. Emory’s forces north to Kansas to escape invading Confederate troops. This path founded by Black Beaver through Indian lands to Kansas was followed four years later by Jesse Chisholm.
Overall, the Chisholm Trail created opportunities for thousands of men and women living in Texas and beyond, while also intertwining the cultures of African Americans, Mexicans, Europeans and indigenous peoples.