Cattle Trails of the Prairies

The movement was started, and 1868 saw a general friendliness for the new market among Texas stock owners, and a northward drive that exceeded 75,000 head. But the succeeding year, 1869, showed a greater increase, and 160,000 cattle came tramping up like a horned army from the ranches of the South.

Jesse Chisholm

Jesse Chisholm

By this time, well-defined trails had been located, and for two decades those trunk-lines connecting the great producing and consuming points held their supremacy. The most famous of these was the “Chisholm Trail.” It was named after Jesse Chisholm, an eccentric frontier stockman, who was the first to drive over it. Chisholm lived at Paris, Texas, was a bachelor, and had many thousand head of cattle on the ranges in the southern part of the State.

There was through Texas, reaching down from the Red River, the irregular “Southern Texas Trail,” ending at the north near Cooke County. From the Red River, Chisholm broke the way to Kansas, riding ahead of his herd and selecting what seemed the most favorable route. He forded the Red River near the mouth of Mud Creek, followed that stream to its head, kept northwest to Wild Horse Creek, to the west of Signal Mountains, and crossed the Washita at Elm Spring. Due north took him to the Canadian River, which, after leaving, he soon struck the Kingfisher Creek Valley. This was followed to the Cimarron River. Touching the head of Black Bear and Bluff Creeks, its next considerable stream was the Salt Fork of the Arkansas River, which was crossed at Sewell’s Ranch. Sewell was a Government post-trader, who was a favorite with the Indians, and had two large ranches in the Territory.

Caldwell, Kansas

Caldwell, Kansas

Coming into Kansas near Caldwell, the course was a little east of north, crossing the Arkansas River near Wichita. Here was the famous ‘‘First and Last Chance saloon, with its sign-board facing two ways to attract the cowboys coming up across the Territory and those returning from market. Then the trail turned northeasterly, striking Newton, and so on over the divide between the Smoky Hill River and the Arkansas River to the prairies south of Abilene. Following Chisholm’s track came thousands of herds, and the trail became a notable course.

From 200 to 400, beaten into the bare earth it reached over hill and through valley for over 600 miles (including its southern extension), a chocolate band amid the green prairies, uniting the North and South.

As the marching hoofs wore it down and the wind blew and the waters washed the earth away it became lower than the surrounding country and was flanked by little banks of sand, drifted there by the wind. Bleaching skulls and skeletons of weary brutes who had perished on the journey gleamed along its borders, and here and there was a low mound showing where some cowboy had literally “died with his boots on.” Occasionally, a dilapidated wagon-frame told of a break-down, and spotting the emerald reaches on either side were the barren circle-like “bedding grounds,” each a record that a great herd had there spent a night. The wealth of an empire passed over the trail, leaving its mark for decades to come.

Cattle Trail

Cattle Trail

Dividing honors with the Chisholm Trail was the “Old Shawnee Trail” This led to the lesser Northern shipping-point, opened about the same time as Abilene Baxter Springs. This city was on the then just completed Fort Scott & Gulf Railroad, and was located in the southeastern corner of Kansas. The trail left the Red River near Snivel’s Bend, about 40 miles east of the starting point of the older course, and ran nearly parallel with its rival for about 100 miles.

Here was a connecting trail running into the Chisholm at Elm Spring. The Shawnee Trail then bore northeasterly on the north side of the Shawnee Hills, crossed the Canadian and North Canadian Rivers near the Sac and Fox Agency, then passing through the Creek reservation and forded the Arkansas River west of Forts Davis and Gibson. Turning more easterly, it passed west of Vinita and so on to Baxter Springs. This trail, called from its passing through the Shawnee Indian country, became as well worn as the older one and was equally well-known. Both were barren as city streets and were marked by the whitening bones of four-footed travelers who had died on their weary journey.

Between the two main trails was the “Middle” or “West Shawnee Trail,” leaving its namesake near the Canadian River and going nearly due north until it struck the Arkansas River, up which valley it followed into Kansas. It then ran up the Whitewater Valley, then north and east, crossing the Cottonwood River and along the Neosho and Clark’s Creek valleys, ending at Junction City, Kansas, 25 miles east of Abilene. In later years, the Chisholm Trail gave off a western shoot which left it near Elm Spring, and passing near Fort Reno, Oklahoma, went on northwest into western Kansas, striking Dodge City on the Arkansas River and also northeast to Ellsworth, on the Smoky Hill River. With the settling up of the country, cattle were driven farther and farther west, until this “Western Chisholm Trail” came to be the chief thoroughfare for herds detained either for market directly or for maturing in the bracing air and pastures of Wyoming and Montana. Individual drovers often varied their course from the beaten roads, but for the most part, the traffic of the cattle days followed the greater lines as the bulk of commercial shipments was made over a few prominent railroads.

Along the trails, ranches were started, where lands could be secured on either side suitable for the purpose, and northern Texas, southern and western Kansas and later on, portions of the Indian Territory, rivaled the Gulf region in the production of marketable animals.

Vintage Abilene, Kansas

Abilene, Kansas

The number of cattle reaching Abilene in 1870 bounded to 300,000, and almost a continuous line of bovine travelers was pouring over the Chisholm Trail. In order to facilitate the herds’ movements, surveyors were sent out to straighten the trail from the point where it entered Kansas to the shipping station. Fresh mounds of earth were thrown up to mark the route, and the drovers found considerable saving in distance. They spread the news of the efforts being made to accommodate the cattlemen, and the Texas ranch owners, appreciating these advantages as well as the rapidly increasing prices of stock in the Eastern markets, prepared to send forward still greater supplies.

The ranches were, for the most part, in southern and southwestern Texas, and the hundreds of young men who, at the close of the Civil War had sought fortune in the far Southwest, were just coming into a position to put some of their salable stock on the market. In 1871 nearly a million cattle were driven north. Six hundred thousand came to Abilene alone, while Baxter Springs and Junction City received half as many. For miles around the chief shipping points the stock was herded awaiting a chance to sell or ship. From any knoll could be seen thousands of sleek beeves, their branching horns glistening in the sunlight and their herders watchfully riding in the distance. Several counties of central Kansas were practically turned into cattle yards, and it seemed that the industry would soon absorb the energies of the entire state.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *