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March 1st, 2012
Bartee Haile: Texans drive longhorns to market along Chisholm’s trail

This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE

Jesse Chisholm’s Indian dinner guests survived the main course of bad buffalo meat cooked in a copper kettle, but the grizzled trader came down with a fatal case of food poisoning on Mar. 4, 1868.

Chisholm’s premature passing happened less than a year after the first drive of Texas steers to Abilene, Kansas. Over the next couple of decades, millions of the cantankerous creatures followed the route blazed in part by the well known pioneer, whose sole concern was generating business for his trading posts on the North Canadian and Arkansas Rivers.

Post-war problems on the Plains forced cattlemen in the Lone Star State to find another way to move their four-legged product to market. Angry farmers in Kansas and Missouri threatened to reenact the Civil War, if the Texans did not keep their distance.

The reason for the ruckus was so-called “Texas Fever,” a scourge spread by infected ticks that hitched a ride on the hardy Longhorn. The fact that the carrier was immune to the pestilence, which had their own cows dropping like flies, enraged Midwesterners, and in 1866 they resorted to stampeding herds and sniping at innocent trailhands.

Texans had no choice but to retaliate. Economics and the lack of adequate transportation demanded that the Kansas connection be maintained at any cost.

The same stringy steer worth a paltry six dollars in Dallas brought an easy $20 up north. As for transit systems, the overland drive was the only viable alternative at the time. To repair the damage done during the war to the railroads would take years, and Gulf Coast ports could shoulder only a small share of the Longhorn load.

So, if it was a fight the sodbusters wanted, Texans were happy to oblige.

Joseph G. McCoy, a real go-getter from Illinois, came up with a solution. Touring the tiny towns that had sprung up along the Union Pacific far removed from the hysterical farmers, he selected the sleepy hamlet of Abilene as the new shipping point. After making the necessary arrangements, McCoy informed Texas ranchers that their annual trek no longer required running battles with rural guerrillas.

Confused historians and careless fiction writers have called every cow path from Lubbock to Longview the Chisholm Trail. Officially beginning at San Antonio, the bovine boulevard passed through Austin, Waco, Fort Worth and Decatur en route to the Red River and the Indian Territory.

From the very start, drovers recognized the wagon ruts in a 200-mile section of the northbound artery as old Jesse Chisholm’s and among themselves gave him the credit due. Not until the mid-1870’s, however, did the term “Chisholm Trail” ever appear in newspapers in Texas and Kansas.

Unpredictable spring rains and the equally unpredictable herds, which contained as many as 10,000 head, made the countless water crossings a test of skill and courage. Downpours transformed tranquil tributaries into raging torrents, and the stubborn Longhorn had a nasty habit of coming to a dead stop in midstream.

When the cowboys hit Abilene after two tough months in the saddle, they were understandably rowdy, a mite mean and hostile toward any infringement of their inalienable right to let off a little steam. For the real-life Matt Dillons of the Kansas cow towns, law enforcement boiled down to riot control.

As for the Miss Kittys, rarely were they refined young ladies fresh out of finishing school who struggled to keep the free-spending Texans at arm’s length. To accommodate the flood of cattle-trail tourists, entrepreneurs provided no fewer than 11 saloons, dozens of dance halls and a bevy of hard-hearted prostitutes.

After five years of windfall profits at the expense of the cowpunchers, the suddenly respectable citizens of Abilene invited the Texans to take their business elsewhere. At Wichita, Ellsworth and Dodge City, the notorious “Gomorrah of the Plains,” less pretentious Kansans put out the welcome mat.

By 1873 Longhorns could be shipped by rail from Dallas, yet most owners stuck to the cheaper Chisholm. Though hard and hazardous, the herds arrived in better shape which meant more bucks for the beef.

Time was running out, though, for the independent cattle raiser, and the open range was effectively closed in 1884 by the barbed barrier. From the stockman’s point of view, the wicked wire he so violently opposed had done its evil work.

With Texans in the forefront, ranchers from several western states joined forces to lobby congress for a National Trail to run along the Colorado River. In Washington the unpopular proposal was tabled indefinitely, and subsequent appeals fell on deaf ears.

And that turned out to be that. In an age before daylight savings, there was simply no way to turn back the clock.

Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 or haile@pdq.net.

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One thought on “Bartee Haile: Texans drive longhorns to market along Chisholm’s trail

  1. Nice story. I must say I am a little disappointed neither you nor the mercury would mention Texas Independence Day.

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