The Chisholm Trail is possibly the most famous route in the southern USA along which cattle were driven from Texas ranches where they were reared to Kansas railheads where they were sold and transported away to feed the growing population of the North. It was named after the Scottish-Cherokee trader Jesse Chisholm who used it for his trade supply wagons and marked it out in 1864.
The Trail was in use for 17 years, from 1867 to 1884, converting some 5 million Texas cattle from a worth of $4 a head to $40 a head at their destination. It’s usually considered as starting at Red River Station, and it finished at Abilene in the early days. However from the early 1870’s onwards, other towns were gradually becoming the more usual finishing point.
The Trail was well-marked and well-known in its day but parts of the exact route are nowadays somewhat of a matter for conjecture. As it passed through what was to become the State of Oklahoma, it more-or-less followed the route of modern-day Highway 81. The towns of El Reno, Duncan and Enid, where there was a natural spring, lie on the Trail.
Cowboys could be 2 months on the Trail, living out of their War Bags and spending all day and every day in the saddle. They were sometimes in danger from their charges themselves, longhorns being very ‘tickle’. At the drop of a hat (quite literally, perhaps) they might stampede and scatter themselves over an immense area.
The cowboys had to get the cattle across rivers and creeks which might be swollen and unpredictable, and through badlands and canyons. They had to be on the alert for rustlers, and on occasion they had confrontations with Native Americans who were trying to levy a toll of 10 cents per head of cattle to cross their lands.
The Chisholm Trail is the subject of songs and movies. It was a challenge with a tremendous aura of romanticism in its time, but it also had a very serious commercial role in the re-establishing of an impoverished Texas following the Civil War.