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Chisholm Cattle Trail: Once Upon a Time, Texas Had Way Too Many Cows

If you wander along HWY 21 near Dime Box, Texas, and are looking for it, you just might find this vague historical marker for the Chisholm Cattle Trail. Turns out, this brief marker is a gateway into the fascinating history of cattle ranching in Texas. So, let's saddle up and figure out what the sign is hinting at.

Here's our artsy shot of the historical marker.

Here is a close up of the marker so you can actually read the text.

Cattle, in Texas, really begins with Spanish Missions, rancheros, and vaqueros. Vaqueros comes from the Spanish word vaca for cow and these were the original cowboys. As English-speaking settlers headed West many adopted the vaquero lifestyle--the clothing, the cattle-herding methods, etc.--and cowboying became a diverse job field back in the day. (Someone really needs to inform Hollywood and Country Music about the whole diversity thing). During the Golden Age of cattle driving, the late 19th century, the cowboy community was made up of Mexicans (which makes sense considering they were the OG), Native Americans, free Blacks, and former slaves. Black cowboys made up about 25% of the workers in the cattle ranch industry. After Reconstruction, formerly enslaved peoples were denied land ownership so they had to turn to other jobs. In fact, during the first half of the 19th century, white cattle ranchers referred to their white hands as "cow hands" and their black hands as "cow boys", (because of the racism), and eventually, "cowboy" came to mean anyone involved in the cattle industry (Patton & Shedlock 2011). So, like rock-n-roll music, what had its roots in ethnic, minority cultures ended up being whitewashed for mainstream audiences. You're good cowboys, Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, but I vote that the next cowboy movie should be about Nat Love, a.k.a. "Deadwood Dick", and star Michael B. Jordan.

(picture courtesy of the TSHA)
Herding Cattle While Out on the Trail

But, to get us back to the main point, I need to back up just a bit. In the late 18th-early 19th century, the Spanish missions began to decline, and cattle ranching shifted to private raisers with the Spanish government giving out large land grants to encourage the industry. Fast forward to the Civil War, when Texas was supplying the whole of the Confederacy with beef. Or at least Texas was until 1863 when those dastardly Yankees closed the Mississippi River to traffic. As a result, Texan ranchers could not get their cattle out of Texas, and the number of cattle in the Lone Star State exploded. Thousands of unbranded cattle roamed the state as the herd sizes grew out of control, and since barbed wire wouldn't be invented for another decade, there wasn't really much to stop them.

It wasn't until after the Civil War that Texans once again had access to the markets that would relieve them of their enormous cattle burden. In the 1860s, you could buy a steer in Texas for around $10 and sell the same steer elsewhere for $40 (roughly $160 and $700 by today's standards, respectively). Unfortunately, the Civil War had put a stop to the construction of railroads in Texas, and so even though national beef markets were now open to Texas, Texans had no way to get their beef out of the state. So, ranchers started sending their herds north with cowboys driving them to the rail-heads in Kansas. Around the same time, the sources say that the "Indian menace" (yikes) was put down so traveling the Texas countryside became safer. I would like to offer an alternative perspective: the Native Americans finally had all of their land taken away from them and any that remained were either killed, died of disease, or moved elsewhere. This subject needs it's own post because many historic markers talk about the conflict between the Texas white settlers and the Native Americans in the area and indeed many were killed on each side. But the Native Americans certainly did not come out of the 19th century a winner in any respect. Regardless, the point is that during the late 19th century, with the amount cows Texas had, the high demand for beef, and the increase in safe travel, the cattle industry and cattle driving boomed and this became a Golden Age for the Texas cowboy. Within 20 years (1870s-1890s), more than 5 million cattle in Texas had been driven to outside markets.

The regular routes that the cowboys used to transport the cattle north became established trails. Which finally brings us to the Chisholm Trail, established by two Native American men named Black Beaver and Jessie Chisholm. Though, Jessie did have a white, Scottish father which may be why the trail is now called the Chisholm Trail and not the Black Beaver-Chisholm trail. I will admit though that I may be biased because I like Black Beaver more - he was an interesting fella. I mean...look at this resume! At the outbreak of the Civil War, he helped guide more than 800 Union soldiers to safety from Texas to Kansas, which was not a small feat because other Native American guides had declined to help the Union for fear of reprisal by the Confederates. Turns out they weren't wrong - in retaliation for helping the Union, the Confederate Army destroyed his ranch and placed a bounty on his head so he had to stay in Kansas for most of the war, but not before he freed multiple slaves from various slaveholding tribes (including the Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Creek). He was also the first inductee in the American Indian Hall of Fame, which is located on part of his former ranch. I could go on, but obviously, if I ever find a petition to rename the Chisholm Trail the Se-ket-tu-may-qua trail (his Native American name), I am signing it!

Now, back to Chisholm Trail. The main trail northward was the Shawnee Trail, which went through Missouri, but local farmers began blocking the herds and turning them back because the Texas cattle carried ticks and had "Texas fever", a fancy name for Lyme disease. So, this alternative route, eventually named the Chisholm Trail and at first, was only used by "Indian raiders" and hunting parties, became the cattle driving route running from the Red River, near Montague County, Texas, up to Kansas (following modern-day HWY 81).

(map courtesy of the TSHA)
Cattle Trails in Texas

Now, here's the controversial part of this trail's history in Texas: historians disagree on whether or not the trial actually extended into Texas. Some argue that it extended down to San Antonio and this sign obvious indicates that it ran through Burleson County. But others, including the president of the Old Trail Drivers Association, state that it "cannot be traced in Texas for the reason that it never existed in this state". (1931). However, for years prior to the construction of the railroad in Burleson county, roughly a decade after the end of the Civil War, cattle ranchers needed to get their herds up to Kansas to the railroad stockyards in Kansas City somehow - it's possible that ranchers in the area joined up with the Chisholm Trail further north, and simply called the whole thing the Chisholm Trail.

Naming semantics aside, this brief period was incredibly important for Texas in many ways - it coincided with a huge boom in the cattle industry, which brought with it economic expansion and population growth. It also had a broader impact on the cultural identity of Texas, as this period significantly contributed to our modern idea of what it means to be a cowboy, and even what it means to be a Texan; huge herds of cattle roaming across a vast frontier in the American West, watched over by rugged men on horseback, lassos hung on their hips and guns slung across their saddles.

 (picture courtesy of the TSHA)
The iconic cowboy, watching over his herd in Deanville, an unincorporated county in Burleson, Texas.

This idea is so deeply rooted in our perception of Texas history that it's hard to believe this period of history was so short. Before the Civil War, the meat industry was mostly localized, with no need for large cattle drives. It was only with the huge increase in demand caused by the nationwide economic and population growth in cities following the Civil War, coinciding with the large surplus of cattle in Texas and the lack of efficient railway networks, that the age of the cattle drive, and therefore the age of the cowboy, really begun. But almost as soon as it had begun, it started to wane, with the construction of railroad spurs throughout Texas during the late 1860s and 1870s. The final nail in the coffin of the Chisholm Trail (and cattle driving throughout Texas) really came in 1881, when the first practical refrigerated train cars were introduced, Butchered beef weighed a mere 40% of live cattle; moreover, livestock would lose weight over the course of a drive, and would, therefore, be lower quality when the live animals finally reached their destination. The refrigerated train cars made it possible, and more cost-effective, to butcher meat in local slaughterhouses before shipping the refrigerated beef to national markets.

This was the end of the Chisholm Trail, and the end of cattle driving in this part of Texas, but the impact that this brief period had on Texas history, represented by the marker for this little, almost forgotten trail, is unmistakable. And you can see how all this history would not fit on one Texas historical marker.

For more information, here are some useful resources:

--Texas State Historical Association - Cattle Trailing:

--Let's Go, Let's Show, Let's Rodeo: African Americans & the History of Rodeo (Patton & Shedlock 2011):

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