The Chisholm Trail was the major route out of Texas for livestock. Although it was only used from 1867 to 1884, the longhorn cattle driven north along the trail provided a steady source of income that helped the impoverished state recover from the Civil War. Youthful trail hands and herds of mustangs gave a Texas flavor to the entire cattle industry of the Great Plains and made the cowboy an enduring folk hero.
The first herd to follow the future Chisholm Trail to Abilene belonged to O. W. Wheeler and his partners, who bought 2,400 steers in San Antonio in 1867. They planned to winter them on the plains, then trail them on to California.
At the North Canadian River in Indian Territory they saw wagon tracks and followed them. The tracks were made by Scot-Cherokee Jesse Chisholm, who hauled trade goods to Indian camps about 220 miles south of his post near modern Wichita.
At first the route was merely referred to as the Trail, the Kansas Trail, the Abilene Trail, or McCoy’s Trail. Though it was originally applied only to the trail north of the Red River, Texas cowmen soon gave Chisholm’s name to the entire trail from the Rio Grande to central Kansas.
The herds followed the old Shawnee Trail by way of San Antonio, Austin, and Waco, where the trails split. The Chisholm Trail continued on to Fort Worth, then passed east of Decatur to the crossing at Red River Station. From Fort Worth to Newton, Kansas.
It was, as Wayne Gard observed, like a tree—the roots were the feeder trails from South Texas, the trunk was the main route from San Antonio across Indian Territory, and the branches were extensions to various railheads in Kansas. Between 1871, when Abilene ceased to be a cattle market, and 1884 the trail might end at Ellsworth, Junction City, Newton, Wichita, or Caldwell. The Western Trail by way of Fort Griffin and Doan’s Store ended at Dodge City.