In 1872, the city of Abilene, Kansas, known as the Queen of Cowtowns, told Texas cattleman they were no longer welcome in their town due to the unruly conduct of the cowboys, the destruction that the big herds did to local land, and the tick fever the Longhorns carried. As a result, a number of Ellsworth residents went down the old Chisholm Trail to urge drovers to bring their herds to their town, which was situated about 60 miles southwest of Abilene.
The previous year, Ellsworth attracted some cattle drovers and about 30,000 head of cattle shipped. In 1872, Ellsworth began to thrive as a new shipping point when about 220,000 Texas Longhorns came up the Chisholm Trail.
A new offshoot of the trail was surveyed by the Kansas Pacific Railway Company, led by William M. Cox, General Livestock Agent for the railroad. The new route saved the cattle drovers about 35 miles, leaving the original trail in Indian Territory, halfway between the Salt Fork of the Arkansas River and Pond Creek.
The trail then crossed the Arkansas River at Ellinwood, Kansas before making its way to Ellsworth. The new route was sometimes called Cox’s Trail or the Ellsworth Trail, but, most of the time it was referred to as the middle branch of the Chisholm Trail.
In 1867, a Kansas law had established a quarantine, prohibiting southern cattle in the state due to outbreaks of “Texas Fever.” However, because of the high demand for cattle, Joseph G. McCoy, who had established the cattle market in Abilene several years earlier, had convinced the state not to enforce the rule.
Ellsworth thought itself safe, outside the line of quarantine. However, it was actually a few miles inside the line. The town promoters assured the Texans that they would be exempt from the law and this proved to be the case, but mainly because it was not enforced. Like other Kansas cowtowns, Ellsworth earned a wicked reputation with its many cowboys. But the prosperity wouldn’t last and its shipping pens were finally closed in 1875.
© Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated January 2021.