Cowboy Up for the Chisholm Trail 150th Anniversary
Explore the rich Texas history of ranch hands, cowboys and cattle as we celebrate the Chisholm Trail’s 150th
anniversary! The Chisolm Trail relocated cattle from south Texas through Oklahoma all the way to Abilene, Kansas – and is the greatest migration of livestock in world history. The first herd to make the journey using the Chisholm Trail set off in 1867 and continued until 1885, relocating more than five million cattle and a million mustangs. Revisit the tale of the Chisholm Trail, capturing a glimpse of the Texas cowboy way of life by visiting the Texas towns and countless museums that continue to pay homage to the trail and the cattle industry’s history.
CHISHOLM TRAIL CREATION
The initial creation of the Chisholm Trail was due to the abundance of livestock known as the Texas Longhorn, a descendant from Spanish Andalusian cattle brought to the United States in the early-16th
-century by explorers, missionaries and ranchers. As the decline of the missionaries and ranches began and the eventual change in government control occurred, the Longhorns remained to roam free throughout the land. The cattle eventually grew into the millions and by 1860 there was believed to be more than six times as many cattle as people in Texas.
Taking advantage of an opportunity to profit from livestock dealings, Joseph G. McCoy, an Illinois livestock dealer working with the Kansas-Pacific Railroad, established a cattle-shipping terminal in Abilene, Kansas. Now McCoy could take his recently purchased $2.00 Longhorns and sell them for nearly 10 times that amount throughout the North. In order to reach the shipping yard, cattle drivers used a route formed by trader Jesse Chisholm, forever linking his name to the trail that moved millions of Longhorns as Texas became the land of the American cowboy.
PEOPLE OF THE CHISHOLM TRAIL
Life on the Chisholm Trail wasn’t easy and few cowboys were able to live up to the rough trek that could take up to three months. Contrary to legend, the American cowboy wasn’t rowdy and rough as popularized in books, but instead a dependable, hard-working laborer with one in three being either Mexican or African American. Not to be outdone, a few adventurous cowgirls also made the journey up the Chisholm Trail, some even disguised as boys.
Individuals who were able to make the trek up the Chisholm Trail were distinguished from the average cowhand. Although many benefited from financial gain, the drives were both dangerous and grueling as obstacles included stampedes, crossing rivers, blizzards and predatory animals.
DRIVING THE CATTLE
Beginning in the spring, herds could sometimes number into the thousands and move at a pace of about 10 to 12 miles a day, allowing the cattle to graze and fatten on their way to market, sometimes reaching their destination in three to four months. Twelve men or more would herd the cattle. Many believed one of the most important members of the team was the cook and his chuck wagon, as he was often times second in charge behind the trail boss. Chili, biscuits, steak, beans and “ink-black” coffee could be found on the daily menu.
TEXAS TOWNS ALONG THE CHISHOLM TRAIL
Traditionally, the trail ran through over a dozen Texan towns, with feeder lines from southern Texas towns like McAllen and Brownsville, and forming the trail just north of San Antonio. Here’s how some Texas towns played a role in the Chisholm Trail:
Sitting on 825,000 acres, an area larger than Rhode Island, the King Ranch
established a “cow camp” and quickly became one of the most influential ranches in the world. Today, the King Ranch is a National Historic Landmark and offers daily tours featuring the history of the ranch.
Nueces County began flourishing with more than 56,000 head of cattle and 10 meat-packing plants, making the coastal town of Corpus Christi the prominent gulf port that shipped cattle to New Orleans. Today, visitors can tour the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History exhibits dedicated to their cattle and horse history.
Home to many cattle drivers that traveled the Chisholm Trail, Victoria was one of the largest producers of cattle and more importantly home to Margaret Heffernan-Borland, one of few women to ride the trail. In 1873, she drove 1,000 heads of Texas Longhorn cattle up the trail along with her three young children and a grandchild in tow. The only known woman to have led a cattle drive up the Chisholm Trail fell ill with “trail fever” shortly after completing her trek and passed away in Kansas. Her body was returned to Texas where she was laid to rest in the Victoria cemetery.
Like many towns that benefited from those traveling the Chisholm Trail, Yoakum did not sit on the trail itself, but is located about an hour from San Antonio. Due to its proximity, it quickly became used as a gathering ground for cattle to be driven up the Chisholm Trail and known as the “Leather Capital of the World.” The city now hosts the Land of Leather Days Festival every February, as a salute to the local industry; visitors can also learn about the city’s unique history at the Heritage Museum.
Lockhart was where two herding routes converged and on some days, five to six thousand heads of cattle passed through this outpost. Today, on the second weekend of June, Lockhart celebrates the Chisholm Trail by hosting the Chisholm Trail Roundup, a four-day festival.
San Antonio became a gathering location for many herders starting their long journey. Trail drives were extremely important to the local economy. A cow in San Antonio was worth $1.00, but if the herd was driven to Kansas, each was worth $10.00 a head. Now both the Witte Museum
and the Buckhorn Saloon and Museum
provide artifacts and exhibits that give visitors an idea of the beginnings of Texas cowboy life.
The fresh water springs from the San Marcos River were common watering holes for the thousands of cattle on their way up the trail. Visitors can drive by the Ragsdale-Jackman-Yarbrough Home, once owned by W. T. Jackman, former sheriff of Hays County and a legendary cowboy who led at least 11 cattle drives up the Chisholm Trail.
Although herds traveling the trail did not cross directly through Austin, they did cross the Colorado River near Austin. After spending time herding cattle north, Col. Jesse Driskill settled in the metropolis of Austin, eventually purchasing an entire block for $7,500, where he opened The Driskill Hotel
in 1886. As the cattle industry sometimes proved to be dangerous both physically and financially, the cattle baron lost 3,000 cattle in the freeze of 1888, eventually losing his fortune. The Driskill Hotel remains a legendary Texas landmark offering guests luxurious accommodations.
Herds typically continued north of Austin by crossing Brushy Creek in Round Rock near the famous circular limestone rock that marked the lower-water crossing for herders. Visitors to Round Rock can stop by Chisholm Trail Crossing Park, which includes various scenes of the city’s historical role in the Chisholm cattle drive.
Cattle herds crossed the Brazos River in Waco on their way to Kansas. In 1870, the newly completed Waco Suspension Bridge, a National Historic Landmark, provided a convenient, albeit costly, means for cattlemen to move herds across the Brazos. A sculpture near the Waco Suspension Bridge still commemorates the famous Chisholm Trail. The sculpture also captures the diversity of trail riders with one cowboy being Anglo, one being Mexican and another being African American.
Fort Worth, for many traveling the Chisholm Trail, was the last main stop to rest and refresh supplies along the route before heading into Native American territory. The city quickly became known as “Cowtown,” due to the amount of cattle that would pass through daily. Today, the Fort Worth Stockyards, provide visitors with a glimpse of the past and a reminder of the industry that provided financial gains and adventure to so many throughout the state. Visitors will be transported back in time when watching the Fort Worth Herd, the world’s only twice daily cattle drive, held every day at 11:30 AM and 4:00 PM in the Fort Worth Stockyards.
The Chisholm Trail was instrumental in cementing Texas’s place as part of the United States, which was granted just a few decades before, along with furthering the expansion and economic development of the Midwestern U.S. as a whole. While the trail and the days of cattle drives died out with the invention of the railroad, the cowboy’s legacy and the image of Texas as a destination for the strong-willed, has endured the test of time. These cities are a major part of this story. Join the celebration of 150 years of the Chisholm Trail by visiting one in 2017.