It is 1867. The farmer is heading west, morning sun on his back and the fledgling little town of Denton a day behind him now. The wagon creaks and moans over the well-worn, rutted trail. Eager to make Decatur before sunset, he snaps the reins urging the mules to pick up their pace.
Suddenly, he is aware of a foreign sound along this familiar route. Thunder? He scans the horizon for signs of a storm up ahead. Not a cloud in the sky. What then?
His answer is just over the next little hill. “Whoa!” Incredulous, he pulls his team to a halt, tilts his hat back and stares across the plain at the thunder of Longhorn cattle strung out north and south as far as he could see cutting a berth nearly as wide across the plain. Cowboys worked the cattle to keep them together and moving. A “Yah!” rolled toward him from the dusty cloud hovering about the scene as one of the cowboys wrangled a wayward steer back into the northbound fray.
The farmer watches a while, resting his team as the cattle plod on across his path. He has no idea he is witnessing the birth of something that will change Texas and live forever in American history and lore. He is seeing the first cattle drive north from San Antonio to Abilene, Kansas, some 750 miles that would become the famous Chisholm Trail.
In the mid-1800s, Texas was glutted with cattle, Longhorns specifically. “Then dawned a time in Texas,” remarked one prominent cattleman, “that a man’s poverty was estimated by the number of cattle he possessed.” This anecdote from Texas Historical Commission’s (THC) “The Chisholm Trail” is followed by the astounding statistic that, “by 1860, there were more than six times as many cattle as people in Texas.” This was the Texas saga until after the Civil War when the American demand for meat gave birth to the Texas cattle industry.
The Chisholm and Western cattle trails ran parallel from south Texas, some drives originating as far south as the King Ranch. Cattle driving north up the Western Trail were bound for Dodge City, Kansas and eventually Ogallala, Nebraska.
Herds driving up the Chisholm Trail traveled a route that looks very much like I-35 does on a map of Texas today, ending at the cattle shipping terminals in Abilene and Ellsworth Kansas. The trail passed through Austin, Waco and Forth Worth. After resting and taking on supplies in Fort Worth, the drive moved northward near what is today I-35 West. It passed through the western edge of Denton County and eastern edge of Wise County, herds sometimes a half-mile wide like a river of Longhorns rushing up the county line. A historical marker on Highway 380 on the Wise County side of the line pays tribute to the significance of the trail on local history and development.
The cattle trails were the means for moving cattle from Texas to the rest of the country for 20 years, until the railroads reached Texas in the late 1880s. During those years, cowboys drove millions of Longhorns north making the collective cattle drives what the THC calls “the greatest animal migration ever.”
Over the past four years, the National Park Service (NPS) has been conducting a feasibility study and environmental assessment of both the Chisholm and Western Trails for possible designation as National Historic Trails. Lloyd Webb is co-chairman of the Denton County Historical Commission Chisholm Trail Project. He and co-chair Alan Schiegg have invested these years in researching, documenting and collaborating with the NPS and regional historians to ensure Denton County’s accurate inclusion in the national trail designation proposal to Congress.
"A major aspect of Texas history has evolved and always will evolve around its western culture, and the cattle drives from Texas to Kansas on the Chisholm Trail epitomize this culture,” Webb explained. “The Denton County Historical Commission's project for researching and documenting that the Chisholm Trail passed through part of Denton County will enhance our position in Texas western history and further our tourism appeal."
We need your help. Public expression of support urging Congress to approve and fund the designation is the final step of the process, and March 6, 2015 is the deadline. Click here to submit your comment and to read the NPS study. Then tune in here next week where we’ll explore what the National Trail designation means and its positive, long-term potential for Denton.