The Chisholm Trail in Texas

Cowboys

The first cowboys were the vaqueros of South and Central America, and the Cracker from Southeastern United States – so nicknamed for the “crack” of his stockwhip.

Welcome to our permanent exhibit, Ranching Heritage of the Guadalupe River Valley. Join us to explore the characters and stories we all thought we knew from Westerns: the cowboy, ranching, and life on the trail. Discover the local lore and history that link DeWitt County to the story of the Chisholm Trail in Texas.

The Chisholm Trail: A Great Migration of Men and Animals

In 1883, all the cattle in the world seemed to be coming up out of Texas. When I rode up on a little hill to look for the horses, I could see seven herds behind us. I knew that there were eight herds ahead of us, and I could see the dust from thirteen more of them on the other side of the river.
– Teddy Blue Abbott on the North Platte River, 1883

Nine million cattle were driven over trails from Texas to northern markets between 1867 and 1890. In the early years most of those cattle came from South Texas, where they were raised by ranchers who practiced a system of open-range ranching characterized by unfenced pastures, annual roundups of cattle, and long trail drives to markets. The cowboys who tended these cattle and drove them north became iconic American heroes in the 1880s and 1890s.

Map of the Chisholm Trail in TexasFeeding a Hungry Nation After the Civil War a huge market for beef opened in the northeastern United States. In 1867 cattle that could be bought for $4 a head in Texas sold for $40 a head at Eastern packing plants. That year entrepreneur Joseph G. McCoy built a 250-acre stockyard by the Kansas Pacific Railroad’s tracks in Abilene, Kansas and popularized the route of the Chisholm Trail, which ran north from South Texas, crossed the Red River at Red River Station in Montague County, Texas, and followed a wagon road laid out by Indian trader Jesse Chisholm across what is now Oklahoma to Abilene. As the line of settlement moved progressively west in Kansas, Abilene ceased to be a shipping point and the trail’s terminus moved westward to Ellsworth, Junction City, Newton, Wichita, and Caldwell. By 1879 a new trail, the Western Trail, which crossed the Red River at Doan’s Store in Wilbarger County and ended at Dodge City, Kansas, had supplanted the Chisholm Trail.

Life on the Trail Texas cattle were driven to northern markets to railheads in Kansas, then being shipped by rail to slaughterhouses and meat-packers in Chicago, from where the beef was distributed to cities on the East Coast. The cattle were moved north in herds of two or three thousand animals by contractors who specialized in trail-driving. Between 1867 and 1890 about nine million cattle walked from Texas to Kansas as trail herds. For the cowboy, trail drives meant weeks of grueling monotony and hardship interspersed with hours of very real danger. River crossings were dangerous; lightning storms and stampedes could be fatal.

A trail herd was moved by a trail boss and eight or ten cowboys and was accompanied by a horse herd, a cook, and a chuck wagon, which carried a two-month supply of groceries, cooking equipment, and the cowboys’ bedrolls. On the trail, the chuck wagon was the center of the cowboy’s universe.

By 1890 railroads had penetrated into Texas and there was no longer a need to drive cattle to Kansas in order to ship them to market. Combined with the introduction of pastures fenced with barbed wire, it meant the end of the era of the great trail drives. Even so, it was merely the beginning of the world’s fascination with the legendary Texas cowboy.