The Chisholm Trail

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The Chisholm Trail was a commercial route named for a cattle baron.

Jesse Chisholm had built a number of trading posts in the first half of the 19th Century. Once the Civil War fighting had ended, Chisholm rounded up large numbers of cattle and drove them northward, to Kansas cities that had large stockyards as well as links to the new transportation method of choice, the railroad. Among these Kansas cities were Abilene, Newton, and Wichita. In the years directly following the Civil War, Chisholm found that he could command a price for cattle in New England that was 10 times as high as what he could get in the Midwest.

Two major rivers, the Arkansas River and the Red River, and many other smaller waterways provided challenges for such cattle drives, as did rough weather, rustlers, and unfriendly Native Americans, some of which charged a toll for hassle-free passage. Herds numbered in the thousands and could get as far apart as a couple of miles in length along the rought-and-tumble Chisholm Trail. Ranchers generally hired trail bosses and cowboys to drive the cattle north, and these men (for men they invariably were) were generally armed, to protect against a variety of threats.

Historians estimate that in all, more than 5 million cows made the trip along the Chisholm Trail from ranches in Texas to stockyards in Kansas.

The Chisholm Trail was not an orderly, neatly kept pathway of refined dirt that led in a straight line from one place to another. On the contrary, cattle herds routinely spread out across the prairie, their accompanying cowboys attempting to keep them going in the correct general direction. Drives that closely followed other drives had quite a challenge sometimes to find grass or other edibles that hadn't been consumed by the drive that had gone before.

For three decades, cattle streamed northward on the Chisholm Trail. As the 19th Century came to a close, though, cattle drives had diminished greatly, for a number of reasons. One was an 1886 Kansas quarantine law that prohibited any Texas cows from crossing the border. A blizzard in 1887 devastated the cattle drive industry.

Many others drove cattle northward. Many other names were used to describe the route. Chisholm's name is the one that has stuck.

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David White