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Jesse Chisholm - Peacemaker on the Plains

Jesse ChisholmConfusion reigns over just who the Chisholm Trail, the one that headed north from Texas through Indian Territory and ultimately led to the Great Western Stockyards at Abilene, was named for. Disputes have arisen over Thornton Chisholm, a trail boss, who drove a herd from Gonzales northwest to Indian Territory and then northeast by way of Topeka into St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1866. John Chisholm of Paris, Texas has also been given credit for the origin of the name. Adding to the confusion is John Chisum who moved his ranch from Texas to New Mexico, trailing cattle between the two states and thus creating the "Chisum Trail." However, it is generally accepted that Jesse Chisholm, a trader and diplomat, is the man from whom the trail derived its name. It could have just as easily been dubbed the Black Beaver Trail for the Delaware scout who guided Captain R.B. Marcy and Colonel William H. Emory’s Union forces over the same path.

Jesse was born to a father of Scottish descent and a Cherokee mother in Tennessee. His date of birth is listed as 1805 or 1806.

When Cherokees began removing themselves from their homeIands to Arkansas, Jesse and his mother went with them. Later they moved to Fort Gibson, in Oklahoma. At Fort Gibson, Jesse’s aunt married the legendary Texan Sam Houston.

Jesse set up a trading post at Council Grove, Oklahoma on the north fork of the Canadian River. Here he traded with anyone and everyone, making forays into other regions to bring back buffalo robes and the like to stock his post. Cattle were sometimes included in the goods that he traded, and as such, Jesse Chisholm probably did trail cattle over at least a portion of the trail that would later bear his name.

Perhaps because of his mixed heritage and the fact that he was raised among the Cherokee, Jesse was frequently called upon as an interpreter during treaty negotiations with various Indian tribes. Jesse could speak several Indian languages fluently and was regarded as an one of the best guides on the Plains.

Jesse’s life encompassed extremely turbulent times for the young nation. National policy was frequently in direct opposition to the best interests of the Indian. In spite of all the bigotry that surrounded him, Jesse grew up to be a very fair man and earned the respect of both whites and Indians. His legendary diplomatic skills frequently called him away from his business and he found himself starting over several times.

Not all of the conflicts Jesse was called on to mediate were between whites and Indians. As eastern tribes were removed to Kansas and Indian Territory in Oklahoma, conflicts arose between tribes and even within tribes as various factions found they couldn’t agree. Jesse has been portrayed as a man who listened to all sides of a conflict before offering his advice. He was also aware of duplicity of the parties involved and while interpreting managed to couch his translations so as to be most agreeable to the parties involved.

Legend has it that when working out the conditions to stage the Medicine Lodge Peace Treaty negotiations, Jesse had warned General Harney that a show of force on the part of the U.S. would be unacceptable to the Indians. When confronted about producing a multitude of troops at the negotiations, Harney heartily explained that the troops were necessary because of the large numbers of news media, government personnel, foreign dignitaries and general spectators. He offered to withdraw the troops if the Indians were afraid to continue the conference. Jesse, the wise diplomat, emphasized the word "fear," attributing it the white men, when interpreting for Chief Ten Bears and Kiowa Chief Satanta. The Indians replied, "Let the troops stay—but out of our way."

Hostage situations were common during this episode of our history. It was common practice for Indians to take hostages of any race. Frequently, Jesse was compelled to buy the release of the hostages, especially when the people involved were children. His good judgement ruled however when he encountered situations in which a militant tribe was bargaining for guns for the release of their hostages.

In 1836 a gold mine was purported to exist at the mouth of the Little Arkansas, the site of present day Wichita, Kansas. Jesse guided a group of white men up the Arkansas to this locale but found no gold. However, Jesse liked the area and set up a trade business there. The portion of the Chisholm Trail that Jesse himself used was between the trading post on the Little Arkansas and his home on the North Canadian River.

During the Civil War, great demands were placed on the Plains Indians to take sides. It has even been reported that the results were disastrous for those that didn’t chose one side or the other. Apparently the old adage, "If you are not for me, then you must be against me" was firmly ingrained in the collective psyche of the time. Jesse, as a slaveowner, was inclined to side with the South while attempting to remain neutral for business purposes. In the end, he and his family joined the northern exodus with the refugee Indians that he frequently traded with.

Some of his more famous treaty negotiations involved the ill-fated Treaty of the Little Arkansas in the fall of 1865 and the more important Medicine Lodge Treaty negotiations of 1867. The spring of 1868 found Chisholm holding trade with Comanches, Kiowas, Cheyennes and Arapahos at their consolidated encampment on the North Canadian River. It was at this site that legend reports Jesse’s death from food poisoning attributed to rancid bear grease. When Jesse’s friends, James R. Mead and William Greiffenstein, two of Wichita’s founding fathers, along with others became aware of his death a few days later, they noted it with the help of a small keg of Kentucky’s finest, honoring their friend with a fitting wake ending with a salute from their guns.

A stone marker was later placed at Jesse’s grave that simply read:

Jesse Chisholm
Born 1805
Died March 4, 1868
No one left his home cold or hungry.

Jesse’s descendants still reside in Oklahoma and Kansas. Because of him, they can wear the name Chisholm with pride.



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