No history of the cattle industry can be told
without beginning with Texas and the Texas Longhorn. Texas was the original home of
ranching and became the major blending pot for the evolution of the history-making Texas
Longhorn breed of cattle.
The Spanish brought the first longhorn cattle to America in 1493. Descendants of these
longhorns formed the first cattle population in North America.
The first Anglo-American settlers of Texas came to raise cotton. However, they brought
with them a few cows, mostly of northern European breeds. These cows mixed with the
Spanish breeds already in Texas and soon grew into considerable herds. Most of the cattle
for the first stocking of the central and northern plains came from these herds.
The climate and range conditions were ideal for cattle raising in Texas. In addition, the
liberal land system made it easy to acquire large blocks of acreage. However, the size of
farms does not tell the whole story.
As the number of cattle increased in Texas, small acreage owners ranged their cattle
primarily upon unoccupied public lands. In fact, some cattle owners with thousands of head
of cattle did not even own one acre of land.
Other men who moved to Texas invested all their capital in cattle and then depended on the
open range for pasture. Some of those with no capital got their start by branding calves
"on share" for others. At that time men were employed to brand calves and
received one calf out of every four branded "on share."
During the Civil War, some Texas cattle were used to feed the Confederate troops. However,
due to the isolation of Texas, that number was small. Mostly, cattle continued to
multiple, mature, and grow fat wandering the ranges of Texas while able-bodied men fought.
It is estimated there were approximately five million longhorns in Texas by the end of the
These Texas cattle had long legs, lanky bodies, with legs and feet built for speed. It
took a good horse with a good rider to outrun a Texas Longhorn. Their narrow faces, sullen
expressions, and horns that swept out horizontally, gave these cattle a sinister look. And
indeed, they could be mean.
A century or so of running wild had make the longhorns tough and hardy enough to withstand
blizzards, droughts, dust storms, attacks by other animals, and Indians. They did not
require great amounts of water to survive. Their horns served for attack and defense. A
strong sense of smell made it easy for the cow to find her calf and she would ferociously
defend this calf.
And the bulls... There was probably no meaner creature in Texas than a Longhorn bull. The
provocation would turn him into an aggressive and dangerous enemy. The bull's horns
usually measured six feet or less from tip-to-tip, but could measure over eight feet long.
In addition, the sharpness of horns of any length, the speed and muscle power of the bull,
and the ease with which he could be aroused and enraged, made him a dangerous and
uncontrollable animal. When two bulls met, there was sure to be a fight, often to death.
And only a very well-armed cowboy had a chance against a Longhorn bull.
This abundance of cattle at the end of the Civil War had depressed the Texas market.
However, the prices of cattle and beef were still high in the north and east. So despite
the danger involved in a round-up, the hardy Texas cattle began flowing north. They
continued on the Chisholm, Loving-Goodnight, and Dodge City trails until that market was
saited and the ranges of the central and northern plains were fully stocked.
J. Frank Dobie, great teller of Texas tales, wrote in the Fort Worth Press in 1936,
"There is a widespread idea, even among people who should know better, that trail
driving originated after the Civil War, when a lone Texas herd headed for some vague point
'north of 36.' As a matter of fact, on the very day the Texans whipped the Mexicans at San
Jacinto, in 1836, a herd of Texas longhorns from Taylor White's ranch west of the Neches
River was trailing for New Orleans. Cattle had been trailed out of Texas before that.
Through the 'forties they were trailed north into Missouri and also to Louisiana markets.
There is a record of one herd's trailing to New York, about 1850, and through the 'fifties
thousands of steers were driven across the continent to California. The trailing business
attained volume and became well organized when in 1867 Abilene, Kansas, opened as a
The cattle conditions at the end of the Civil War are also given credit for the beginning
of cattle rustling. George W. Saunders, president of the Old Time Trail Drivers of Texas
explained, "During the war we
boys and a few old men tried to keep the cattle branded up, and we always branded for
absent soldiers and widows. Of course the range was only loosely worked and vast numbers
of cattle went unbranded. The scuffle for these mavericks, that began after the war was
over, started cow-thieving."
The toughness and endurance of the Longhorns made them well-equipped for the long trail.
They usually lost very little weight on the drive.
Charles Goodnight, Texas cowman who is credited with inventing the chuck wagon and who was
one of the originators of the Loving-Goodnight trail, said of Longhorn cattle, "As
trail cattle, their equal never has been known. Their hoofs are superior to those of any
other cattle. In stampedes, they hold together better, are easier to circle during a run,
and rarely split off when you commence to turn the front. No animal of the cow kind will
shift and take care of itself under all conditions as will the Longhorns. They can go
farther without water and endure more suffering than others."
Even in a stampede, the lead Longhorn steers often earned their salt. On the Shawnee trail
in 1873, a heard of over 1000 Longhorns stampeded within the town of Dallas. The Dallas
Herald, September 12, 1873, reported, "The two that didn't take fright had led the
drove from the time the owners started out with them. During the alarm for the rest of the
drove, they stood motionless. The drivers had the satisfaction of seeing the frightened
cattle eventually return and gather 'round the more composed leaders."
The longhorns did harbor ticks and certain diseases, however. Terry Jordan, author of
Cattle-Ranching Frontiers, wrote, "From the very first, a strong northern prejudice
against longhorns, based partly in the diseases they bore, was encountered, and through
the 1870s and early 1880s the amount of longhorn blood on the ranges of Texas Extended was
systematically reduced by crossbreeding, castration, and culling."
Regardless, Longhorns are a great part of the history and the influence of Texas. The
state of Texas maintains a herd of Longhorns in select states.
Baxter Springs, Kansas, seemed ideally situated to capitalize on the cattle industry.
Located just north of the Indian Nations in Kansas (and there was some debate at the time
whether it was in Kansas, or was actually in the Nations), Baxter Springs was also just a
few miles west of the Missouri border.
A military trail already led from Fort Gibson in the Nations through Baxter Springs and on
north to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas -- an ideal route for cattle to be driven. A man named
John Chisholm had already used the trail to supply Fort Scott -- the trail could very
easily have become known as "Chisholm's Trail," but that particular name would
go to another cattle route.
A man named John Baxter and his family had settled on 160 acres of land near where the
military road crossed the Spring River in 1849, and opened a general store called
"Baxter's Place." The Rev. Baxter, known as a gun-toting preacher, was gunned
down in a property dispute.
Residents in the area, remembering the 6-foot-7-inch-tall preacher, and noting the
numerous springs in the area, called their community Baxter Springs. Kansas. The community
built stockyards with corrals capable of holding 20,000 cattle at a time, with
plenty of grass and water. The town calls
itself the "First Cowtown in Kansas" and quickly developed the same sort of
reputation that the other cowtowns also would get: Here was a place for cowboys to unwind
after several months on the trail, with lots of flowing liquor, card games and available
women. At 10 miles per day, it took a cattle herd 100 to 110 days to travel from Texas --
by way of Preston and Fort Gibson in the Indian Nations. A typical herd would be strung
out for two miles, guided north by 15 to 20 cowboys.
Baxter Springs boomed, growing from 1,500 residents at the time of its incorporation in
1868 to 6,000 by 1872. The Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad arrived in May 12, 1870,
beating out the Missouri River Forst Scott and Gulf Railroad for the privilege. But when
the railroad pushed on south, the Baxter Springs cattle industry died. By 1876, the
community's population had fallen to 800. t wasn't until years later, when old soldiers'
reunions were held and the mineral springs were developed as a health spa that Baxter
Springs began to recover. Today, it has a population of about 4,400. (If you do visit
Baxter Springs, plan some time to tour the Oct. 6, 1863, Civil War battle ground where
Quantrill's Raiders massacred federal troops as they attempted to surrender. It's a pretty
Back in 1867, however, as frustrated cattlemen turned their herds away from Missouri and
toward Baxter Springs, the Kansas Legislature and an Illinois entrepreneur began to offer
them reasons to take a route farther west. The legislature passed a law in 1867 that eased
the quantine restricting Texas cattle from entering the state, but only west of "the
first guide meridian west from the sixth principal meridian" -- which runs about a
mile west of Ellsworth, Kansas. That opened an alternative route for the cattlemen to take
their herds north into Kansas, if only they could find some way to ship the herds back
east to St. Louis and Chicago.
The heyday of cattle drives began in 1867, the year Joseph G. McCoy set up a shipping yard
in the 6-year-old hamlet of Abilene, Kansas. By late spring that year, McCoy wrote in his
book, Historic Sketches of the Cattle Trade of the West and Southwest, Abilene was "a
very small, dead place, consisting of about one dozen log huts -- low, small, rude
affairs, four-fifths of which were covered with dirt for roofing; indeed, but one shingle
roof could be seen in the whole city." That was about to change.
McCoy set up a shipping yard that could hold 3,000 cattle at a time, a three-story hotel,
a bank and a livery stable. While these were under construction, he sent a man named W.W.
Sugg south into Indian Territory, then east to the cattle trail then in use to tell the
cattlemen that they now had an alternative destination: Abilene. No more worries from
Jayhawkers or Texas fever-fearing farmers. But wait a minute! What about that law
passed in 1867? While it allowed Texas cattle into the state, they had to remain west of
"the first guide meridian west from the sixth principal meridian," which ran
about a mile west of Ellsworth. That would place Abilene about 60 miles too far east.
However, the law allowed passage of cattle through the prohibited area to the railroad --
only if the drover posted a $10,000 bond to ensure payment of damages caused by the
cattle. Robert R. Dykstra, in his book The Cattle Towns, says McCoy promised area farmers
and ranchers that he would make good any losses caused by passage of the Texas cattle, and
in 1868 paid out about $4,500 for that purpose. he first herd to arrive in Abilene, McCoy
said in his book, was started from Texas by a Mr. Thompson, but sold in the Indian Nations
to Smith, McCord & Chandler.
But what should have been the very first, he said, was driven up by Col. O.W. Wheeler,
Wilson and Hicks, who had stopped to rest about 30 miles from Abilene. Their herd
"was really the first herd that came up from Texas and broke the trail,
followed by the other herds."
McCoy's shipping yard handled about 35,000 cattle that first year. Nestled between the
banks of the Washita River and Wild Horse Creek, with the Arbuckle Mountains to the south,
lay Fort Arbuckle, a remote outpost in the middle of Indian Territory. Established on
April 19, 1851, the fort was in operation for less than 20 years. But near the end of that
two-decade period, the fort helped launch the legendary Chisholm Trail.
The fort was intended to protect civilized Indian tribes -- forced to move here by
President Andrew Jackson's government from their own lands back East -- from depradations
of the "uncivilized" Indians who resented these latest trespassers. It was
abandoned to the Confederate forces during the Civil War, then was reoccupied after the
war by the U.S. Army's "Buffalo Soldiers."
In 1867, Col. O.W. Wheeler and his two partners, Wilson and Hicks, arrived at Fort
Arbuckle with a Wayne Gard, in his book The Chisholm Trail, said Wheeler and his
companions had "more than a hundred cow ponies, and fifty-four Texas trail hands
armed with Colt six-shooters and the new Henry repeating rifles ..." in addition to
the 2,400 longhorns. They were fully prepared for whatever they might face -- or were
Numerous trails criss-cross the West. Buffalo followed seasonal routes, north in the
summer and south in the winter. Indians, settlers, prospectors, military troops -- all had
their own trails and used those of others. The Dona Ana Trail, a route from Fort Smith,
Ark., to Santa Fe, reportedly crossed through the Fort Arbuckle region. Wagon trains had
already carried emigrants this way toward the gold fields of California. The route should
have been clear. Presumably the trio from California could have used that trail to head
west -- through Kiowa, Comanche and Apache territories, of course -- if they had wanted
to. They had ponies, weapons and men sufficient, one might think, to see them through.
By happenstance, William "Buffalo Bill" Mathewson was at Fort Arbuckle when the
herd arrived. He had rescued a couple of captives from the
Comanches and come south to return them to their parents in Texas. He agreed to show the
cattlemen the way to a trading post on the Canadian River, operated by a man named Jesse
From there, the herd could follow wagon tracks left by Chisholm's freight wagons, all the
way to a village on the Arkansas River in Kansas, called Wichita after Indians who had
camped there to avoid involvement in Civil War action farther south. The herd went from
there to Abilene following a trail Joseph G. McCoy had hired surveyors to mark.
Don Worcester, in his book The Chisholm Trail -- High Road of the Cattle Kingdom, says
Wheeler planned to winter the cattle in Kansas, then drive them west through South Pass to
California. But when they reached Abilene, his partners balked at the prospect of driving
the herd any farther, and the longhorns were shipped to slaughterhouses in Chicago for
consumption back East.
As word spread that there was now a relatively safe route to a dependable market, other
cattle herds were turned to follow the same route Col. Wheeler's herd used. The Chisholm
Trail was born.
As for Fort Arbuckle, the midwife so to speak, its days were numbered. Three years after
the 2,300 longhorns passed by, the fort was abandoned. Fort Sill had been established
farther west, and the troops were transferred there.
All that remains of Fort Arbuckle today is a chimney from the officers' quarters, now part
of a home built there later. A flagpole stands on the old parade grounds, and an old
historical marker is partially obscured on State Highway 7 nearby.
The Arbuckle Historical Museum in Davis, Oklahoma, has a scale model of the fort on
disesse Chisholm was part-Scottish, part-Cherokee. A trader, interpreter, guide,
businessman and, occasionally, finder of lost or kidnapped children, he had already
traveled the trail numerous times, hauling freight from Kansas to stock his trading post
-- or rather, trading posts. I've heard it said he was among the first to create a chain
of convenience stores.
James R. Mead also had a couple of trading posts along Chisholm's trail, Wayne Gard says
in The Chisholm Trail.
Some historians note with misplaced irony that Jesse Chisholm never drove cattle on the
trail that bears his name. Imagine! To have a cattle trail named after you -- the most
famous cattle trail on the planet -- and never to have driven cattle on it!
Yet Gard tells us that Chisholm, in April 1866, "returned to Kansas (from his trading
post on the North Canadian River)
Jumping off point on the famous Chisholm Cattle Trail (1867-87), Red River Station was a
main crossing and last place on trail to buy supplies until Abilene, Kansas -- 350 miles
During the cattle drive era of western history, millions of animals swam the turbulent
river here en route to Kansas railhead and markets. An abrupt bend in the river checked
its flow at this point, creating a natural crossing which had been used for years by
buffalo and Indians. Even so, the water was wide, swift and often clogged with sand bars.
Frequently cattle were so jammed cowboys could walk across on their backs.
Red River Station. ... Except for a few head of cattle preserved due to their familiarity
with the trail and their ability to lead the others, most of the cattle that passed
through here never returned. The longer distance prevailed, and it was a path that led to
their demise. Many of the cattle drivers never returned either, killed perhaps in river
crossings or stampedes, or dead as a result of illness or gunfire, or just content to
wander on in a search for that happiness and fortune that always lay somewhere over the
But beyond the crossing at Red River Station lies the old Chisholm Trail. There the legend
remains. You go about a half mile east of the old Fleetwood Store and Post Office, near
the top of a hill, you'll find a flagpole and more markers. One of the markers sent a
thrill through me. In front of me now was the Chisholm Trail.
The marker says:
Old Chisholm Trail Crossing Red River
Fleetwood Terral Indian Territory
Looking southeast is Red River Station in Texas -- the Chisholm Trail entered there and
came out in Indian Territory here at the Fleetwood Community. Millions of cattle crossed
here on their way from Texas to Abilene Kansas and other points off the Chisholm Trail.
The cattle were so thick at times in the river crossing that a cowboy could walk across
the river on their backs. Northwest of this site on the I.G. McGinnis land in a branch of
Fleetwood Creek are wagonwheel ruts in sandstone that are distinct When the cattle herds
crossed the Red River into Indian Territory, they weren't entering unexplored territory.
It had been fully explored; indeed, had even been named. Today, the first area they would
have entered is known as Jefferson County, but that isn't what it was called during the
two decades of the cattle drives.
Back then, the land was part of the Indian Nations, settled by native Americans forced to
relocate during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. (That particular episode in history is
known as the Trail of Tears.) Today's Jefferson County was formed at statehood in 1907,
from a part of Comanche County and a part of Pickens County in the Chickasaw Nation. It
was named after Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States of America.
Herds crossed the Red River at Red River Station, about 7 miles east of present day
Terral, Okla., and a mile or so south. In the later years that the Chisholm Trail was in
use, cattlemen had an opportunity to shop at the Fleetwood
Jesse Chisholm, after whom the cattle trail was named, is pictured on the south plaque.
"The wagon tracks of Jesse Chisholm across Indian Territory became known as
Chisholm's Trail, and Texas cowmen using this route gave his name to the entire cattle
trail from south Texas to Kansas. The Cherokee-Scot trader was known to Indians as an
honest and trustworthy man -- a reputation that served his country well in his activities
as an interpreter and peace negotiator with the Indians."
The west plaque depicts a cattle drive, stating, "Millions of longhorns were driven
northward across the plains to railheads in Kansas during the period 1867-1889. The great
cattle drives not only helped to feed a nation just after the civil war, they provided one
of the nation's most enduring heroes -- the cowboy. The brief era of the open range and
free grass generated the greatest cattle boom in world history. This hill was a landmark
for drivers who rode northward from the Red River to a campsite nearby."
The east plaque shows the negative side of the cattle drive: A stampede. Lightning forks
from the clouds and cattle run and cowboys try to hold the herd together, and the plaque
says, "Hardships tested the mettle of men on the trail. Severe weather at times made
conditions hazardous as well as miserable, and there was always the threat of stampedes
caused by a bolt of lightning, a loud clap of thunder or the trickery of raiders. The
scattering of cattle meant that there would be no rest for drovers until the strays were
Orndorff reported that Bill Willis of Willis Monument Works in Granite, Okla., made the
plaques -- 6 inches deep, 3-1/2 feet tall and 5 feet wide, weighing about 1,800 pounds
each. The monument was completed through the efforts of the Chisholm Trail Museum
Association. The Chisholm Trail Historical Museum, by the way, is located at Waurika, just
east of the U.S. 81-U.S. 70 junction.
Contrary to what one might have expected of a frontier figure like Jesse Chisholm, he
doesn't lie in an unmarked grave off in the wilderness somewhere. But his final resting
place is in no municipal cemetery either. When he died, his friends thought enough of him
to bury him on a bluff overlooking the river he'd settled on, and placed a marker on his
grave. Since that time, the marker has been improved upon -- so much that any interested
motorist can easily find it. Born in Tennessee in 1805 of Scottish and Cherokee descent,
Jesse Chisholm came to Indian Territory in the 1820s. For 40 years he operated trading
posts near Asher, Purcell, Watonga and Okla. City. Also a guide, freighter, interpreter,
salt works owner and peacemaker, few men in the territories were so well known by the
Indian. Due to this, part of his freighting route became known as the Chisholm Trail. He
died on March 4, 1868, after eating bear meat cooked in a copper kettle, and was buried
near Left Hand Spring, allotment of his old friend Chief Left Hand, NE of present Geary.
The inscription on his grave, "No one left his home cold or hungry," is a
tribute to the character of this rugged individual.
The trail roughly paralleled Cow Creek up the eastern side of where Duncan now exists,
until it reached the military trail. At that junction reportedly stood the general store
and post office owned and operated by the man after whom the city of Duncan was named,
Scotsman William Duncan.
The wagons then turned to follow the military trail to a location northwest of Duncan, at
which time the
military traffic continued west while the cattle traffic turned north again toward Kansas.
The survey maps show the Trail primarily staying on the high ground and, as much as was
possible, out of the trees. In present-day Duncan, the maps show the Trail.
This is just one of many stories of the true Cattle Drovers in the late 1800's.
Among those, Capt. Eugene Millett, is buried at the Ellsworth Cemetery and he also had a
large ranch in the area but conditions of the late '80s forced Capt Millet to sell or lose
everything he had. He died enroute to visit a son in Los Angeles California.
Information in part from Oklahoma History archives.
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