Editor's Note: This is the first of a four part series written by Margaret and Gary Kraisinger of Halstead.
The Sesquicentennial anniversary of the Chisholm Trail ended this last year, a rejoicing which echoed from various locations from south Texas to Abilene. This 150th celebration, hosted by towns, museums, famous watering holes and camps along this cattle trail touted about how Texas drovers trailed longhorn herds north to Kansas starting in 1867 to a little-known spot called Abilene. Since the early 20th century, there have been misunderstandings about this trail. Written errors have been compounded, and even after a concentrated effort by historians to set the record straight in the 1930s, falsehoods still prevail. The public is being told myths, and as a historian of Texas cattle trails that bothers me.
In this article and three upcoming ones, glaring falsehoods will be explained. Oh, I know that some of you will want to cling to the romanic paradigm that has entrenched us for more than 100 years, but stay with me and read the rest of the story.
The Chisholm Trail did not go into Abilene. The name “Chisholm Trail” derived from a tradesman, Jesse Chisholm, who navigated over a beaten road in Indian Territory from trading post to trading post. His main wagon route ran from the Arkansas River in Kansas (later to be Wichita) down to the South Canadian River, on the northern boundary of the Chickasaw Nation in Indian Territory. He did not blaze a trail for Texas cattlemen — he never went into Texas with his trade goods — and he died in the spring of 1868, never knowing that a cattle trail would be named after him.
The name "Chisholm Trail” was not used during the early glory days of Abilene as a cattle terminal on the Kansas Pacific Railway. When cowboys with their herds first trailed into Abilene in 1867, they probably referred to their pathway as the “Abilene Trail” because that was their destination. Early government BLM 1872 survey maps of Indian Territory labeled that route as the “Abilene Trail.”
Drover Jonathan Baker referred to his route in Kansas as the “Abilene Trail” in an 1869 diary entry, and Joseph McCoy, the promoter who established Abilene as a famous cattle depot, wrote the in his 1874 book: the principal trail now traveled is more direct and is known as Chisholm Trail," (page 91) because until 1871, that trail was the Abilene Trail. In 1871, when Texas cowboys trailed north, the largest number of longhorns in histor(y a record 600,000 head) and Abilene was in its last year as a cattle town, newspaper men were desperate to find another name for that now famous trail, for soon the name “Abilene Trail” would no longer be appropriate. Earlier news accounts had mentioned that Texas cowboys were using Chisholm's Wagon Road north of Fort Arbuckle in Indian Territory. So newspapers changed the route's name to the “Chisholm Trail.”
North of Jesse Chisholm's trading post on the Arkansas River, the route was surveyed and marked to Abilene by Joseph McCoy. That portion of the trail was never used by the trail's namesake. When the cattle trail moved to Ellsworth and Newton in 1872, and a year later to Wichita, McCoy continued to promote the cattle industry to Kansas. Yet, his name was ignored by the papers.
Thus, the name "Chisholm Trail” into Abilene, Kansas, is not 150 years old. The route, which was partially marked by Joseph McCoy, was a pathway to Abilenethe Abilene Trail. The name Chisholm Trail was actually only in use in Kansas from 1871 through 1876. The Kansas Legislature quarantined the eastern rail heads from accepting Texas cattle in 1875. When Caldwell received the AT & SF in 1880, and Hunnewell acquired the Kansas City, Lawrence and Southern Railroad the same year, these two border towns revived the Chisholm Trail in Indian Territory for a short time. However, the pathway in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) is not what history books tells us either.
Next in Part 2: The Abilene Trail (Chisholm Trail) across Indian Territory (Oklahoma) is not what you see on maps today.
— Margaret Kraisinger. Margaret and husband, Gary, whose research spans more than 45 years, have published three books and numerous trail maps. They continue to lecture on the various south-to-north Texas cattle trails.